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The Real State of the Union

Today, the 211-year-old Bill of Rights is a shadow of its former self, much like the concept of limited government in general. Both in domestic and foreign affairs, the federal government is exercising powers that would undoubtedly have shocked the Framers of our Constitution.

by Scott McPherson

In late January, President Bush spoke to the nation from the House of Representatives in his annual state of the Union address. By the tens of millions Americans tuned in to hear the president outline his legislative agenda for the coming year and congratulate himself on his past year’s accomplishments—both of which are increasingly defined by greater and greater expansions of government power.

Sadly, just a few weeks before, on December 15, the 211th anniversary of the Bill of Rights passed virtually unnoticed. Perhaps that is fitting. After all, when one considers the extent to which the federal government has unshackled itself from its constitutional restraints—and will continue to do so under this and future administrations—it becomes painfully obvious how few people actually understand what this country was meant to be about.

There is no question that the men who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 sought to establish a government of very limited scope. The Founders’ ideal was to ensure the greatest amount of personal freedom for Americans by sharply curtailing the ability of the federal government to encroach on their affairs.

Despite the Constitution’s limiting nature, however, there were a number of people who remained uneasy. They knew the tendency of government to grow at the expense of liberty, so it was proposed that the Constitution be amended to include a Bill of Rights. This list of protected freedoms, it was hoped, would stand as a further barrier to government abuse of citizens’ basic rights. It was adopted 211 years ago on December 15, 1791.

Today, the Bill of Rights is a shadow of its former self, much like the concept of limited government in general. Both in domestic and foreign affairs, the federal government is exercising powers that would undoubtedly have shocked the Framers of our Constitution.

Consider, for example, the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, which will tower over the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee that people shall be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” This federal behemoth will have so much power to spy, wiretap, and keep tabs on private citizens that critics have already dubbed it a “supersnoop’s dream.”

Likewise in the government’s “war on terrorism,” law-abiding citizens in states such as Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont are being stopped in random road blocks set up by federal agents. “It’s all about homeland security,” says the INS. But for people who used to travel freely in their own country, it’s more akin to a scene out of Orwell’s 1984.

Another freedom under siege is “the right to keep and bear arms.” For several decades the federal government has been violating the Second Amendment by passing myriad restrictions on gun ownership. Worst of all, federal gun control gave birth to the infamous BATF, an agency so heavy-handed that one congressman actually called its agents “jack-booted fascists.” Coupled with the fed’s background-check database, which could lead to national gun-owner registration, the effect is chilling on Second Amendment freedoms.

As part of the war on drugs, the federal government has passed asset-forfeiture laws that allow federal agents to seize property without notice and without hearing under principles of due process of law and that require the victims of such actions to prove their innocence before regaining their property. Fewer than 20 percent of those whose property is seized under forfeiture laws are ever charged with a crime, which means that the federal government is making off with lots of money that rightfully belongs to other people.

The list of government abuses and unconstitutional activities could go on and on. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson charged that King George had “erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.” I wonder what he’d say if he saw what the U.S. federal government does to the American people today.

So the approach of the president’s national address on the state of the union provided a perfect opportunity to take a hard look at the state of freedom in this country and the extent to which it has been undermined by government officials. The Founding Fathers knew well the dangers of centralized power and were wise to bequeath us a limited government and a Bill of Rights to protect us from the excesses of tyrannical government. As we celebrate the Bill of Rights, it’s important that we keep in mind what freedom and limited government truly mean.

Scott McPherson is a policy advisor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va.

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This story was published on February 10, 2003.
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