The Constitution has a two-fold purpose: to set up a government for the nation, and to limit that government to its proper role. Too weak, and it fails to prevent chaotic tyranny; too powerful, and it causes statist tyranny.
The Constitution lays out, in around 500 words, what the federal government is allowed to do. We refer to these as the enumerated powers. Enumerate means to mention one by one. If it’s not enumerated, it’s not a power granted to the federal government. The first ten Amendments, the Bill of Rights, further spell out limits, saying essentially, “And don’t you dare construe anything herein to allow you to mess with these rights.” The Ninth and Tenth Amendments make that even clearer:
Amendment IX: The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment X: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the Sates respectively, or to the people.
So, the Constitution was very clear about its intent to allow only certain, limited powers to a federal government.
What are the enumerated powers? You don’t have to read the whole Constitution to ferret them out. Most of the Constitution is about procedures for each of the three branches of government: Article I: legislative; Article II: executive; Article III: judicial. The enumerated powers are all listed together, in Article I, Section 8, plus a thing or two added as later amendments.
|Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution|
So, here they are. I’ve numbered them, sometimes separating a clause into two powers, when that made sense to me; and sometimes paraphrasing or clarifying (I hope), since some of the words are either legalistic or are used differently today in common speech. So Article I grants the federal government, through the legislative branch, the power to:
1. Lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises—uniformly throughout the US, for purposes of paying debts and for the general welfare (for the good of the country as a whole).
2. Borrow money on the credit of the US.
3. Regulate commerce (make it possible and regular) with foreign nations, among the states, and with the Native America tribes.
4. Establish uniform rule of naturalization (allowing people to become citizens).
5. Establish uniform laws on bankruptcies.
6. Coin money, regulate the value of US coined/printed money, and regulate the value of foreign money.
7. Fix the standard of weights and measures.
8. Provide for the punishment of counterfeiters.
9. Establish post offices and post roads (mail system).
10. Secure copyright and patent rights, to promote the progress of science, arts, writings, and discoveries.
11. Constitute tribunals (courts) inferior to the Supreme Court.
12. Define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations.
13. Declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal (license to act on the seas that would otherwise be considered piracy), and make rules concerning captures on land and water.
14. Raise and support armies—but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years.
15. Provide and maintain a navy.
16. Make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces (military bases).
17. Provide for calling forth the militia (National Guard) to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions.
18. Provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia (National Guard), and for governing any part that is in service to the US—reserving to the respective states the power to appoint officers and the authority to train the militia according to discipline prescribed by Congress.
19. Exercise governing authority over the District (Washington, DC, an area not exceeding 10 square miles) as the seat of the government of the United States.
20. Exercise governing authority over places purchased (by consent of the legislature of the state in which located) for erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, and other needful buildings.
21. Make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the US or in any department or officer thereof.
22. Outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude (except as a punishment for crime), and enforcement of this prohibition.
23. Sixteenth Amendment: Lay and collect taxes on income.
24. Fifteenth, Twenty-fourth, ad Twenty-sixth Amendments: Enforce equal voting rights laws across all the states.
That’s the sum total. There aren’t any more powers granted to the federal government. There are some notable things missing:
· Power to govern education.
· Power to offer charitable services (welfare).
· Power to force purchase of a service or product (such as health insurance).
· Power to require payment into a retirement supplement (Social Security).
· Power to interfere with commerce that doesn’t cross state lines.
· Power to redefine marriage in a way that is contrary to long-standing law and tradition, and to enforce acceptance of the new definition, even when it violates personal religious beliefs.
· Power to subsidize any industry (alternative energy).
· Power to target industries in accordance with a social agenda (gun manufacturing, automobile manufacturing, nuclear energy, oil and gas, fast food or sugary drinks).
· Power to use taxpayer funds to support abortion.
· Power to subsidize or control student loans.
· Power to take over any industry (as when the Obama administration temporarily took over GM and banks).
· Power to favor or disfavor individuals or groups for hiring, educational opportunities, or other purposes based on their race or religion.
There are certainly more things the government is doing, or trying to do, that are well beyond the enumerated powers. Some people characterize this desire for limiting government as hating all government, and then claiming we’re hypocritical for wanting a military or border control to protect our sovereignty. That’s a mischaracterization. The pro-Constitutional view favors government—but a limited government. Government must be limited to its proper role: protecting life, liberty, and property. Or, more specifically, as the Preamble to the Constitution says about what a more perfect union is established to do:
Establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.
The founders assumed those government responsibilities enumerated in the Constitution could be managed on about $20 a year (in current-day dollars). Imagine how easy it would be to pay off the national debt, in a thriving economy (which happens when government gets out of the way), if government only did what it was allowed to do.
We also know that, whenever government attempts something beyond the proper role of government (protection of life, liberty, and property), it causes unintended consequences—usually exactly opposite to the stated goals of the interference.
Conditions would get better, and the cost would be far more reasonable, if we would just follow the laws of the land by limiting government to the enumerated powers.
How do we get back to those limited, enumerated power only? Good question. We vote in only people who understand and love the Constitution, and show a commitment to strictly limiting government powers.