Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Letters from an Ohio Farmer

The Distributive Constitution

June 5, 2012

To My Fellow Citizens:

From my first letter, I have spoken of the need for attention to the Constitution if we are to continue to enjoy the blessings of limited government. Now the call for constitutionalism has been sounded on the left, in hopes that Americans will come to enjoy the blessings of government without limits.  Well, this is why we’re having the national conversation we are having.

In a leading journal of leftist opinion, a widely published law professor at a major university recently criticized those who see the Constitution as a document that limits the power of government.  He argues instead for what he calls a “Distributive Constitution.” In this view, the Constitution gives all three branches of the national government the right and duty to ensure that all Americans have a decent livelihood, and that no gross economic inequalities mar American democracy.

To ensure these things would indeed require a government of unlimited powers. It would need to be able to control virtually all aspects of the economy—for example, to ensure employment for all.  It would also need to define “gross economic inequality” and take from everyone who had too much according to this definition, in order to give to those deemed to have too little.  This distribution of wealth is the core of the distributive constitution.

The Constitution, of course, gives none of the branches of the national government any such powers.  What is the argument that they should have these powers?

It is a version of the century-old progressive argument, and it goes like this:  Gross economic inequality leads to political inequality.  A democratic form of government is not possible if citizens do not have “economic independence and material security.”   Americans had this when they were a nation of farmers, each living on and drawing his substance from his own land.  Each farmer was his own boss and in that way was independent and free.  Industrialization and urbanization destroyed this way of life and rendered working Americans “wage slaves, ciphers and servants, ill-equipped for democratic citizenship.”

To rectify this situation, according to the progressive argument, the national government had to step in.  It did so principally by legalizing and supporting unions and by slowly establishing assistance programs such as social security and unemployment benefits.   The Second Bill of Rights, proposed by FDR in 1944, was an important expression of progress, including as it did the rights to a job, a house, and medical care, among others.

In sum, the Constitution of limited powers must become the distributive constitution of unlimited power because the ultimate purpose of the Constitution is to ensure democracy.  If “economic independence and material security” are necessary for democracy, and the distribution of wealth is necessary to ensure economic independence and material security, then the Constitution must become the distributive constitution to ensure such conditions. As paradoxical as it sounds, a national government of unlimited power is necessary for democracy.

This argument—which represents an influential segment of opinion in the country—is not merely paradoxical; it is wrong. Consider first how it understands the situation of Americans.  If we rely on the private sector, we are wage slaves.  The proposed alternative is dependence on the national government.  It will guarantee us education, jobs, a house, medical care, and pensions.   It will take care of us from cradle to grave, as the saying goes.  Why, we must ask, is dependence on government better than dependence on private wealth?  Do we know of a government with the powers proposed for the distributive constitution that has not abused those powers?  Does not the grant of Federal money always come with restrictions and requirements about what recipients can and cannot do?  In this light, the distributive constitution appears incompatible with both democracy and freedom.

Not only will this progressive solution produce the problem progressives hope to avoid (the destruction of democracy), it is also based on a misunderstanding of the foundation of democracy. It is not true that industrial workers, dependent on the labor market, were deprived of their rights.  On the contrary, protected by the secret ballot, they voted in large numbers and elected officials who voted for their views.  Our leftist law professor cites any number of federal laws favorable to the interests of industrial workers. How did these laws come to be if the workers, by that very status, were deprived of their rights and America was run by an oligarchy hostile to the interests of most Americans?

Democracy does not require, then, that workers and all Americans be dependent on the government rather than the free market.  On the contrary, in the market there is a wide variety of bosses and the freedom to change jobs or start one’s own business.  If we were all dependent on the government, there would be only one boss and no freedom to escape his control.

Nor is it true that owning a family farm guaranteed material security.  Many homesteaders failed and lost their farms.  Drought and pests destroyed crops.  Farm life was hard and always precarious.  But the insecurity of this life did not destroy the rights farmers enjoyed as free citizens.  Material security is not necessary for democracy. Fortunately so, since material security is impossible for any power on earth to guarantee.

We must conclude, then, that material security and independence from the market are not necessary for democracy.  It follows also that the distribution of wealth and the distributive constitution are not necessary for democracy, either.  Indeed, on the contrary, in turning our government from one of limited powers into one of unlimited power, the distributive constitution poses a great danger to democracy.

Ohio Farmer