Playing by the Rules

playing by the rulesHave you ever tried to play a board game with a bunch of people who don’t really know the rules?

Things usually start out OK, until somebody makes a questionable move. Then the arguments start, and things go downhill from there. Each player begins throwing out opinions and rule interpretations – all based on their best interests, of course. Everybody wants to win the game, so rule interpretations become more pragmatic than rational.

At this point, one of two things will happen: people will just give up and quit, or some brave soul will actually grab the box and read the instructions. Once everybody clearly understands the rules, the game can continue.

With defined rules, everybody enjoys the game, and the contest will end with a clear, undisputed winner.

Without rules, you end up with anger, frustration and chaos.

The same holds true in political systems. An orderly society requires the rule of law. Without it, those who manage to rise to positions of authority will begin exercising arbitrary power for their own benefit, just like players in a game with murky or nonexistent rules. Tyranny follows close behind.

Sixteenth century political philosopher Johannes Althusius recognized the need for clearly defined rules for government to maintain order and justice in a society.

“All power is limited by definite boundaries and laws. No power is absolute, indefinite, arbitrary and lawless. Every power is bound to laws, right and equity.”

The U.S. Constitution provides a framework, the rulebook, if you will, for the federal government; each clause, each principle, carefully crafted for a specific reason. The entire document aims to define, constrain and control federal power.

The ratifiers insisted on this rigid delegation of power. They recognized that without it, they would quickly fall into a tyrannical system like the one they fought a long, bloody war to escape. They understood the necessity of clearly defined rules that box in power-brokers. They knew from experience that vague or nonexistent constraints on authority would ultimately result in abuse of the people. Virginia ratification convention delegate Richard Henry Lee explained how the rule of law protects the citizenry.

“It goes on the principle that all power is in the people, and that rulers have no powers but what are enumerated in that paper. When a question arises with respect to the legality of any power, exercised or assumed by Congress, it is plain on the side of the governed. Is it enumerated in the Constitution? If it be, it is legal and just. It is otherwise arbitrary and unconstitutional.”

Note the source of power: the people. The people delegate certain powers to the government. A clearly defined written Constitution ensures the agents of that government understand their prescribed roles. Without that definition, we know what will happen. They will do as they damn well please. All in your best interest – of course.

Yet some suggest Americans should just throw out that archaic, dusty Constitution and make things up as we go along. Take Georgetown University constitutional law professor Louis Michael Seidman.

As the nation teeters at the edge of fiscal chaos, observers are reaching the conclusion that the American system of government is broken. But almost no one blames the culprit: our insistence on obedience to the Constitution, with all its archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil provisions.

Of course, America began following Seidman’s course of action long ago. The result? Undeclared wars, secret kill lists, $16 trillion in debt, erosion of basic civil liberties and federal meddling in just about every corner of our lives.

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Only a fool would assert that obedience to the Constitution – following the rules – led us down this path.

Refusal to follow the rules brought about the chaos Seidman described, just like trying to play a board game without rules leads to chaos.

In any language, the rules of grammar create a structure, bringing words together in a meaningful way that everybody understands. Without fixed grammatical rules, words get thrown together at random. Instead of sentences and paragraphs conveying meaning, you end up with gibberish.

spanning the copasetic living. understands remains with even our and intergenerational Everything differences diverse many decades of when everybody language, backgrounds

That was a real sentence – lacking any grammatical structure.

A political system lacking a constitutional structure makes about as much sense.

“The American constitutions were to liberty what a grammar is to language: they define its parts of speech, and practically construct them into syntax.” Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man.

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