On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress declared that the political ties between the thirteen colonies and England were sundered. We look at July 4th as the birthday of our nation, but it took years of fighting to force Britain to recognize our separation and independence from them. Our Constitution was ratified in 1789, and our nation has been running under the Constitution for the two centuries since.
The Constitution is what gives the federal government power, and it was a radical change from the way governments had been previously set up. Before the writing of the Constitution, power was seen to flow from the ruler(s) to the people only as the rulers saw fit. But the Constitution recognizes that all power and authority resides with the people, and that we the people grant power and authority to the government to act in our name. Americans are citizens and the source of power in the U.S. Britons are subjects, and the crown and government rules them. That is a major difference.
We are sovereign and should not be subject to the government, other than in those narrow areas where we the people granted the government power. An American citizen cannot make a treaty with another nation; that is a power we granted the government, and you can read what authority to make laws we granted the Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. That section outlines those few areas where Congress may legislate. But it is in the nature of people and bureaucracies to take more power for themselves over time.
The members of Congress were told that they have power “To regulate Commerce … among the several States,” but this means that commerce within a state is not in their purview. But that limitation doesn’t matter to Congress — all they have to do is expand the definition of interstate commerce. If I use electricity in my business (and who doesn’t?), Congress feels it may legislate my small shop because the electricity could have come from a plant in another state.
Recently we saw that the Supreme Court declared that home-grown and home-consumed marijuana somehow counts as “interstate commerce” because the patients are not buying their weed from out-of-state growers. Using this same logic, I am affecting every other state’s economy by not buying items from them.
There is a joke among us geeks: “2 + 2 = 5, for very large values of 2.” And if you are free to define what 2 is, you can make this equation true. The Supreme Court has already done so with their definition of what constitutes “interstate commerce.” As a common plebe who isn’t as wise and educated in the nuances of the law, I understand interstate commerce to be the buying and selling of stuff (that’s the commerce part) that is done across state lines (that’s the interstate part). But my definition just isn’t sufficient for the nine Justices in black. A person can be taking part in interstate commerce if he is buying or selling something within a state, but which would affect someone else in another state. The camel’s nose of interstate commerce has allowed the entire camel, his family, the Congress, staffers, and parasitic hangers-on to enter the tent. It’s a bit crowded now, so the Supreme Court has tossed out some freedoms to make room. I hope you don’t mind, but it’s what happens when people change the definition of words.
And speaking of the Supreme Court, they hit the news again recently with a new ruling. The Fifth Amendment ends with “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
This taking of private property for public use is called “eminent domain,” and it has been used in our nation’s history to get the land needed for highways and railroads. It has been used to take both public and private land from the state of Utah to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The need to take the land from the former land owners must be justified by the nebulous “public good.” Ordinarily this means making a public road that the majority of people will use. But in the case of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the public good was paying back the environmental nuts who supported President Clinton, and permanently putting off limits the only known American deposits of low-sulfur coal. But I digress.
“Public use” means something. And it most certainly does not mean taking the property from one private person to give to another private person with the expectation that the government doing the taking will get more tax revenue after the transfer. But five Justices, specifically John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Anthony Kennedy, saw the redistribution of private property from one private person to another as a public good. The Ornithophobe does a grand job of summing up the decision this way:
Imagine it. Your home brings in say, $800.00 a year in taxes. That same property, commercially zoned, could be worth three times that in tax revenue, to say nothing of the economic impact of additional job revenue. THERE IS NOW NOTHING TO PREVENT THEM FROM SEIZING YOUR HOME, AND GIVING IT TO A BUSINESS/DEVELOPER/CORPORATION. That’s what this decision means. You no longer own your own home. You have it conditionally on the sufferance of your local government, and if they so choose, they can take it. For any reason, or no reason at all.
I have come to the realization that this one Supreme Court decision has destroyed private property ownership in the United States. Thanks to these five Justices, you no longer own the land you are living on — you are merely a steward holding the land until the government sees fit to take it from you. Sure, they are supposed to give you “just compensation” for the snatched land, but that’s not been true for many decades. It is common for a city to condemn the building, regardless of its condition or worth, before exercising eminent domain. This makes the building essentially worthless, so any evaluation of the property value is on the land only. My wife wondered if this Supreme Court ruling would have an effect on housing costs in this nation. After all, why buy a home when some local government could jump in and take it for some nebulous public good at any time?
The Constitution means something, and it isn’t as confusing as four men and a woman may think it is. Had this ruling come down in 1775, it would have been included in the list of objections against the British government as outlined in the Declaration of Independence. And it is possible that a hot-headed band like the Boston Tea Party could have visited their displeasure on anyone who would be willing to condone the taking of one man’s property to give to another.
But this happened in 2005, where we have grown ever more tolerant of government excesses. And while today is Independence Day, I fear that in too many ways we are far from free from tyrannical government.