Constitutionally guaranteed despotism

Americans are proud of their Constitution protecting liberties, but it leaves Americans much less free than other nations.  They are the least free of the Anglosphere (Trudeauean Canada excepted). This blog recently praised John Stuart Mill’s insights, but on America he was naïve in his optimism: they have tied themselves into a habit of despotism. The Constitution is a conspirator in this.

Mill wrote with rather too much hope than sense that:

let them be left with out a government, every body of Americans is able to improvise one, and to carry on that or any other public business with a sufficient amount of intelligence, order, and decision…. No bureaucracy can hope to make such a people as this do or undergo anything that they do not like.

In practice, this means that there are, in the United States, endless layers of government, each with its own bureaucracy, each making new rules to pile on top of rules. While the British legislature is one Parliament that has to cover the manifold needs of the whole realm, from which it is burdened, barely ever able to act swiftly, America has endless little parliaments, each one a village Napoleon, demanding obedience to the alleged will of the people.

Even in the Stepford-Wives streets, much of America has Home Owners’ Associations, with private rules unburdened by the Constitution, commanding eve the very length of grass in a front yard and the position to the inch at which a car may be parked.

If there is no relief from the layers or lawmakers trying to flex their powers, it can be no wonder that American are burdened by more laws that any other English-speaking nation.

It goes deeper though. The Constitution lays down limits beyond which government may not go.  The limits are broad: they do not prescribe every action. A shard of government may be tempted t determine that if the Constitution does not forbid, then there can be no objection to any outrage. That is wrong. On this side of the ocean, Parliament is free to trample on any liberty, but is restrained more effectively by protest from the back-benches than by any laws.

(There is also the other consideration:  one liberty not permitted to our people is a liberty to carry guns, as a result of which Britons can walk freely in the streets without fear.)

The Americans have many advantages unavailable to our islands – they have almost unlimited land, which is therefore cheap , and with it the ability for enterprise to flourish. A gigafactory can be plonked into the desert – here we have to scour the land to find anywhere big enough and desperate enough. In this, Americans will always be freer.

Land though, while a blessing, is also under a curse.

A frequent outrage we read about in America is the light way they have with private property.  Those who were drafting a Declaration of Independence first includes as the trio of basic rights ‘life, liberty and property’, but withdrew the latter at the last minute, as it might prevent necessary forced acquisition for roads – and now every petty layer of government freely indulges in ’eminent domain’ to seize whatever they want.  In Britain, compulsory purchase is a burdensome, slow process and so rarely used – thank goodness for that. It may slow down every major infrastructure project, but better that than to lose our homes and fields and businesses to the whim of a passing council official. Our liberty of property is understood: we consider these right to be so self-evident there is no point writing them down. If we did write them down, they would be weakened rendered as mere paper, with an edge, not a principle written upon the very understanding.

I would love to see America becoming actually the land of the free they sing of. It will take though a major change of outlook and unwonted restraint by may layers of eager politicians, or by voters.  There is no sign of it now. That is a pity.

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Author: AlexanderTheHog

A humble scribbler who out of my lean and low ability will lend something to Master Hobbes