Mount Vernon Statement: the contradiction at the heart of this conservative fusion
Do conservatives really think that two of history’s most radical documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – were conservative?
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Thomas Jefferson would scoff at the characterization of the Declaration as “conservative.” American conservatives have always had a difficult ideological road to travel. They have to be conservative about the historically radical ideas of democracy, liberty, and individual rights. The result here is an odd reading of the Founders, federalism, and the Constitution.Skip to next paragraph
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The signatories call for a small federal government for the sake of small government, but the Founders were more concerned with small federal government for the sake of small central government, leaving the states broad authority to govern and grow as they wish. Dispersion of authority, arguably more than the size of the authority, was the point of the constitutional limits and the 10th Amendment, with its reservation to the states or the people any powers not expressly delegated to the federal government by Constitution.
As America grew more complex and interconnected, however, federal regulation made increasingly more sense as a means of securing national coordination and public goods, as exemplified in The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. But if the federal government and federal taxes shrunk down dramatically as Mt. Vernon supporters envision, most state and local governments – with the exception of Texas and a few of its conservative friends – would likely metastasize to fill in the regulatory and welfare gap, and we are left at square one. And the constitution, especially on their strict reading, would have little to say about this.
More important, the signatories imply that the limits of the Constitution present historical and political, rather than legal questions. The judiciary, however, is empowered to interpret the constitution. And from Chief Justice John Marshall on down, the Supreme Court has broadly interpreted the Commerce Clause, which allows the federal government to “regulate Commerce … among the several States.”
The federal government can rule on almost any issue that mildly affects interstate commerce, including, as we learned in Gonzales v. Raich, the home cultivation of marijuana for personal use. Healthcare, representing 1/6 of the economy, would be an even easier case of constitutional regulation. If we are to respect “the rule of law” above all, as the signatories admonish, well-established Supreme Court precedent is a good place to start.
Just because big government is constitutional, however, does not mean government must be big. What constitutes good political theory is a separate issue. On this point, the Mount Vernoners miss more directly, at least in terms of consistency. There’s a reason conservatives feel the urgent need to reassert fusionist principles: earlier efforts to braid the various threads of conservatism have repeatedly unraveled.