The A Word

Dr. Boudreaux,

You quoting Robert Higgs today makes you seem like an anarchist.

So begins an e-mail that I’ve just opened from Tim Richards, who was inspired to write by this post.  (BTW, I dislike being called “Dr.”  The reason is that in modern American English the word “doctor” is overwhelmingly a synonym for “physician” – and I’m no physician.  To my ears – and this is just a personal, long-held crotchet of mine now fueling my expression – for someone with a mere PhD to call himself or herself “doctor” is way too pretentious.  Anyway….)

Government is necessary. Sometimes its ruthless. However because no society can exist without government it itself can’t be blamed for the evils that some of its manifestations commit. I welcome your reaction.    –Tim

Other matters occupy me now, so I’ve too little time to offer a response as complete as I’d like.  So I’ll be very brief.

While I agree that no society can survive without law, I do not believe that society necessarily requires a state (or the rule of “archons”).  I elaborate a bit more fully here, where – in line with my quotation earlier today from Bob Higgs – I opine that “No institution with the state’s track record deserves a presumption of legitimacy.”  (Were I to write this essay today, I would change this line to read “No institution with the state’s track record deserves an irrebutable presumption of legitimacy.”)

Bonus Quotation of the Day…

… is from page 663 of Little, Brown’s Fifth “Bigelow” edition (1891) of Justice Joseph Story‘s storied 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States:

The constitution was, from its very origin, contemplated to be the frame of a national government, of special and enumerated powers, and not of general and unlimited powers.  This is apparent, as will be presently seen, from the history of the proceedings of the convention, which framed it; and it has formed the admitted basis of all legislative and judicial reasoning upon it, ever since it was put into operation, by all, who have been its open friends and advocates, as well as by all, who have been its enemies and opponents.  If the clause, “to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States,” is construed to be an independent and substantive grant of power, it not only renders wholly unimportant and unnecessary the subsequent enumeration of specific powers; but it plainly extends far beyond them, and creates a general authority in congress to pass all laws, which they may deem for the common defence or general welfare.  Under such circumstances, the constitution would practically create an unlimited national government.  The enumerated powers would tend to embarrassment and confusion; since they would only give rise to doubts, as to the true extent of the general power, or of the enumerated powers.

In my copy of the Bigelow edition, the above quotation is Sec. 909, but in this on-line version from the University of Chicago it’s Section 906.  I don’t know what the story is on this discrepancy.

Quotation of the Day…

… is from Thomas Jefferson’s 1791 reflections on the U.S. Constitution’s delegation of powers to the national government.  Jefferson’s quotation appears in the following passage from page 165 of Noble Cunningham’s outstanding 1987 biography of Jefferson, In Pursuit of Reason (emphasis original to Jefferson; footnote added):

He [Jefferson] then considered the general phrase of the Constitution that identified the purpose of the taxing power as “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”*  Congress, he said, was to levy taxes only for these purposes, not for any purpose they pleased.  ”In like manner they are not to do anything they please to provide for the general welfare, but only to lay taxes for that purpose.”  To interpret this provision in any other way would reduce the Constitution to “a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the U.S. and as they would be the sole judges of good or evil, it would also be a power to do whatever evil they pleased.”

* This is Section 1, Article 8‘s general-welfare clause.  It, along with Art. 1, Sec. 8′s “necessary and proper” clause, is misinterpreted routinely by “Progressives” (and others seeking Constitutional justification for unconstitutional expansions of national-government power) as a broad grant of permission from the Constitution’s framers to the Congress for the latter to do pretty much whatever that assembly’s members assure the public and the courts they feel is necessary and proper to promote Americans’ general welfare.