The following post originally appeared on the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s website. It is based on a conversation the Institute had with Judge Andrew Napolitano about the Constitution and the American political system.
Mises Institute: Why is understanding constitutional law and its history important? The text of the document is pretty short, so can’t we just read it for ourselves and know what it says?
Judge Andrew P. Napolitano: The Constitution proclaims itself to be the Supreme Law of the Land. It was written to create, define, and restrain the federal government. If history is prologue, it is important for all concerned about the overreach of the government today to understand how we got to where we are today; and the history of that is essentially a study of the history of the debates over the implementation of the powers set forth in the Constitution.
As for reading the Constitution in order to understand it, that is no doubt what its authors intended. However, as is well known, the big government impulses of those in government have rendered most of the plain language in the Constitution meaningless. Thus, it is nearly impossible to comprehend the meaning of the Constitution without understanding about 200 Supreme Court cases interpreting it.
MI: When it comes to Supreme Court cases, what do you think were some of the most damaging to the cause of liberty?
APN: Without sounding cynical, my answer is: Almost all of them. Here is a short list of the most constitutionally offensive cases: Marbury v. Madison, which establishes the federal government as the final judge of its own power; McCullough v. Maryland, which establishes the primacy of the federal government over the states and establishes the concept of implied federal power; Dred Scott v. Sanford, which establishes the principle that a class of human beings can be defined as non-persons because of an immutable characteristic of birth; Wickard v. Filburn, which permits the Congress to regulate personal, private, and even trivial behavior; Korematsu v. United States, which permits the attribution of guilt and the infliction of punishment based on an immutable characteristic of birth; Roe v. Wade, which permits murder based on the age of the victim; and National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, which permits the Congress to tax any event or non-event it wishes.
MI: Are there any easy fixes? Could we just tweak the text of the Constitution in certain places to greatly improve things? If so, what would you change? If not, why not?
APN: Because the Constitution is only as effective as an instrument to guarantee liberty as is the fidelity of those in whose hands it has been reposed for safekeeping to its underlying principles, the short answer is: Have a majority of Supreme Court justices committed to the plain language and original intent of the document, and the preservation of the natural law? However, if I were free to do so, I’d change “We the People …” to “We the States …” I’d define the regulation of interstate commerce as “keeping the movement of goods between merchants across interstate borders regular,” I’d add “explicitly” to the Tenth Amendment, and I’d repeal the 16th and the 17th amendments.
MI: In recent months, the issue of nullification has become important, and it has been actually happening. Colorado, for example, has nullified federal laws about marijuana. Moreover, there have been efforts surrounding provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act, and historically, numerous states essentially nullified the federal law behind the national ID card. Are these efforts on firm constitutional ground?
APN: They are on firm historical ground, and firm constitutional ground as the Constitution was understood by those who wrote it.
MI: We’ve been talking about the 1787 Constitution of course, but there was one that came before it, written in 1776, and known as the Articles of Confederation. Many libertarians point to the newer constitution, say it was not an improvement, and that it replaced the more de-centralist Articles. In light of this, should we still be defenders of the current constitution, and if so, why?
APN: I have spent my entire professional career defending the Constitution; and that can be likened to playing catch with jell-o or shoveling against the tide. The Articles of Confederation permitted the states to become tyrants, and the Constitution — as interpreted over the centuries — has permitted the federal government to become tyrannical. The resolution of this dilemma will require the entry into all three branches of the government of persons committed to natural law principles. That means they’d believe in the primacy of the individual over the state and the intrinsic inability of government to do anything beyond enforcing the natural law.