Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

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A Constitutional Conversation with an Ohio Farmer

Peter Schramm has diligently brought to the attention of RONLT the series of political treatises known as "Letters from an Ohio Farmer." These missives have now been consolidated in book form under the title, "A Constitutional Conversation: Letters from an Ohio Farmer," which is available for download on Kindle.

The farmer describes the book as follows:

We are not the oldest country in the world, but our written Constitution has endured longer than that of any other people. That fact is worth not only celebrating, but pondering.

This is especially important for members of Congress. As these letters have had occasion to observe, Congress is at the very heart of our experiment in constitutional self-government. In the Constitution, Congress comes first: it is Article I. Congress holds the law-making power without which the president has much less to do and the federal courts nothing at all.

In fact, of all the branches, Congress has the primary authority to interpret the Constitution. Like the president or the Supreme Court, Congress receives its power from the Constitution. Just as the president has no authority to act against the Constitution, you in Congress have no authority to pass legislation that violates it. So - as the 112th Congress has distinguished itself by recognizing - every time you consider a bill, the first question you must ask yourself is not: "Do my constituents like it?" or even "Is it a good idea?" but "Is this Constitutional?" That's not a matter of partisan politics; it's a matter of legitimate authority.

That constitutional deliberation must continue in Congress if we are going to restore the American experiment in self-government. For it is in Congress where the American people most fully govern themselves: where the common rights and responsibilities of the American people are submitted to law, and where the variety of the legitimate interests of the American people are most fully represented. When people's representatives engage in constitutional deliberation, the American people engage in it too.

The book's preface, penned on Constitution Day 2011, is worth quoting in full:

The American people have started a historic conversation - about the foundations, purposes, and scope of our government. In a spontaneous movement they rose to challenge long-established orthodoxies, and a sustained exertion of their sovereign power is changing the direction in which the country is heading. The movement began with no headquarters, no recognized leader, and no agreed upon platform. Thousands of independent groups of private citizens gathered in thousands of public squares across the land. Through all the diverse ideas expressed in these gatherings, one theme shone clearly: the federal government has, over the last several decades, stepped further and further outside the bounds of the Constitution.

How did our government get to this point? What would constitutional government look like? What paths are available to the people and their representatives for returning to constitutional self-government? These and related questions were taken up in a series of weekly letters sent to the 112th Congress over the past year, and collected here, as a humble contribution to this American conversation - a constitutional conversation in the broadest sense. The letters continue and can be read weekly at:

The Ohio Farmer is not one person, but a group of citizens seeking to preserve constitutional self-government in America. The Farmer's letters are written in the tradition of the Federalists and Antifederalists in the American founding who wrote newspaper articles debating the new form of government proposed in the Constitution of 1787. They wrote using pen names such as Publius, or Federal Farmer, or American Citizen, to allow their arguments to speak for themselves and be judged on their own merits. The letters from the Ohio Farmer are offered in the same spirit.

The Ohio Farmer is a project of the Ashbrook Center. The various authors who compose each letter from the Ohio Farmer are partisans in one sense: they are partisans of the constitutional self-government they regard as America's greatest gift to the world. The Ohio Farmer is not primarily concerned with immediate policy questions, though he necessarily discusses them; he hopes to refine and enlarge the public's view of the larger political principles implicit in our policy debates. He is a friend to all who love this country and wish it well; he is searching for that common ground that can unite all reasonable parties who wish to maintain America's glorious tradition of constitutional self-government.

The Letters are necessary reading for political philosophers and citizen patriots alike. They possess the element of timelessness which sets apart historic works of political writing - simultaneously capturing the contemporary zeitgeist while evoking fundamental principles of political philosophy.

Categories > Refine & Enlarge

Shameless Self-Promotion

Moonlight and Magnolias

Since I'm in a posting mood today, I should mention that I am making my directorial debut with the opening of Moonlight and Magnolias tonight at the Mansfield Playhouse.  Here's the description:

Based on a true story, MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS is set in 1939 Hollywood. Legendary producer David O. Selznick has a problem. He's three weeks into shooting his latest historical epic, GONE WITH THE WIND, but the script just isn't working. His solution? Fire the director, pull Victor Fleming off THE WIZARD OF OZ, and lock himself, Fleming, and script doctor Ben Hecht in his office for five days until they have a screenplay. With only peanuts and bananas to sustain them, they work through and act out Margaret Mitchell's bestseller in an effort to make movie history.

The show premieres tonight on the Playhouse's Second Stage.  Popcorn will be served, and beer (Yuengling) will be available for sale.  The show also runs tomorrow night, as well as next Friday and Saturday (November 18 and 19).  Curtain time is 8:00.  Tickets cost $10 each; to reserve seats, call the Playhouse Box Office at 419-522-2883 between 1:00 and 6:00 pm.


"To decry the decline of America is to know nothing about beer."

So begins Alexander Nazaryan's review of The Oxford Companion to Beer, a work that just been added to my Amazon wish list--as well as, I am sure, to that of thousands of other beer geeks.  It is easy to forget that only a generation ago respectable, educated people would never admit to drinking beer--or, at least, to drinking American beer.  Today, perhaps for the first time in history, the world's best beer is being brewed here in the United States.  This is a point that needs to be made more often in a country where pessimism seems so pervasive.  It should also be remembered that the current beer renaissance would have been absolutely impossible had it not been for the deregulation which began under Jimmy Carter (who in 1978 signed the legislation making home brewing legal for the first time since Prohibition) and which continued at the state level (with the legalization by several states of brew pubs) in the 1980s.

I add simply in passing that this weekend I'll be kegging my whiskey-barrel stout, which will be ready in time for the holidays.
Categories > Leisure


Veterans Day

I meant to remind us yesterday that it was the 236th birthday of the Marine Corps, but never got to it. Sorry. My USMC Cpl John doesn't need reminding, of course. He even rides his motorcycle like a Marine should, with pride.

Today is Veterans Day.  This Christian Science Monitor points out that some 41 million Americans have served in the US military since 1775; 23 million of them are still alive, of whom 17 million served during a conflict. Thank you.

Someone reminded me of this, from G.K. Chesterton, on courage: "Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. 'He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,' is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying." Semper fi.
Categories > Military

Foreign Affairs

Is Turkey Ready?

The successor to the great Ottoman Empire has long sought to regain its role as a regional power in both southeastern Europe and the Middle East. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has worked strategically to improve Turkey's relations with the powers of Europe, the Arab nations, the United States, and Israel. It wants to be powerful once more. However, trying to play such a balancing act may prove to be fatal to its "zero problems with neighbors" policy-- in the past few years, all of Erdogan's maneuvering has been challenged. Hopes of Turkish acceptance into the European Union have been all-but-vanquished. Kurdish separatists are causing problems on the Turkey-Iraq border, which has prompted Turkish invasions into Northern Iraq, complicating relations with both that country and the United States. Relations between Israel and Turkey are now at one of their lowest points in years. As Iran continues to pursue the atom bomb, Turkey has accepted part of NATO's missile shield, roughening relations there. And the nations of Syria and Turkey are practically involved in a war against each other as the former regime massacres thousands of its citizens in reaction to the Arab Spring.

With Europe paralyzed by its own crises, the United States weary of wars in the Middle East, and Israel settings its guns on Iran, the issue of Syria rests in Turkey's court. If they are to be a resurgent power, handling Bashar al-Assad is going to be their first major test, with the Iranian nuclear program following close behind it. Now is the time for Turkey to either prove it can shine or accept that it is not quite ready to claim being a great power just yet.
Categories > Foreign Affairs

The Founding

Obama's Bureaucracy Taxes Christmas UPDATE

The Department of Agriculture is instituting a $.15 tax on Christmas trees--which are actually called that and not some PC holiday shrub or greenery. 

In the Federal Register of November 8, 2011, Acting Administrator of Agricultural Marketing David R. Shipman announced that the Secretary of Agriculture will appoint a Christmas Tree Promotion Board....And the program of "information" is to include efforts to "enhance the image of Christmas trees and the Christmas tree industry in the United States" (7 CFR 1214.10).

To pay for the new Federal Christmas tree image improvement and marketing program, the Department of Agriculture imposed a 15-cent fee on all sales of fresh Christmas trees by sellers of more than 500 trees per year (7 CFR 1214.52).  

May a government board promote Christmas?  Are we on our way to a state religion?  Or does the taxing of Christmas trees foretell the taxing of churches?  For a look at the founders' view of such matters (here noting the civil piety of Thanksgiving), see this additional commentary by Jefferson and this one by Washington.

UPDATE:  Rush reports that the board's fee (not a tax) has been withdrawn.  The fee is gathered from sellers so the board can come up with ways to help sellers market their product.

Categories > The Founding

Foreign Affairs

Bye Bye to the Big Bunga

Italian Prime Minister Silvio "Bunga Bunga" Berlusconi announced today that he will be resigning his post after his parliament votes on austerity measures that the European Union is trying to force upon the country. This follows the resignation last week of Greek Prime Minister Papandreou, who stepped down after threatening a referendum that has since been cancelled. The Eurozone Crisis has claimed its biggest victim in toppling Berlusconi, who has a penchant for clinging to power despite corruption and scandal being synonymous with his name. For seventeen years he has dominated politics in Italy, surviving scandals that would doom any other leader in the Western world---sex with underage prostitutes, orgies at his mansions, constant corruption trials, public feuding with his wife in the newspapers, close ties with Gaddafi, even the loss of popular support. Though Italians hate the man, they have often been at a loss for words when asked, "If not Berlusconi, then who?" The fact that he ruled from the conservative party was even more of a bulwark--the Italians are so terrified of giving the Italian Left a chance to govern that they would rather put up with Berlusconi's antics than pass the baton.

In the end, though, the poison spreading through Europe's troubled economies are what did him in. Turmoil in the markets, an absolutely astronomical amount of debt in Italy, and pressure by the other leaders of the European Union have finally ended Berlusconi's time in power. For weeks now, Berlusconi had been seen as one of the largest obstacles towards saving the Euro due to his lackluster support for economic reforms, losing control of his coalition, and a seemingly uncaring, combative attitude in dealing with both rival Italian politicians and fellow European heads of state. He was seen as so much of an obstacle that markets actually have started to pick up a bit on the news of his imminent departure. (Update: Reverse that; Italian bond yields are flying up to unsustainable levels. Not looking good).

The question of who will replace Berlusconi is a much more difficult one to gauge. President Giorgio Napolitano may step in, but the 86-year-old former communist may not be up for taking control of the government during such a crisis; Napolitano will probably play the role of kingmaker. Gianni Letta, Berlusconi's deputy and the one most likely to take charge of the center-right coalition currently governing Italy, is another option--but his closeness to the Bunga may be harmful. The young Angelino Alfano has often been seen as an heir to Berlusconi, but, again, the 41-year-old may be toxic right now due to his relations with his boss. However, Alfano has the backing of Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League and a man integral to any center-right coalition that will form in parliament. Other possibilities are technocratic economist Mario Monti or centrist politician Pier Casini, the latter of which is calling for a broad unity government. I personally think that Alfano may be able to pull together enough support if he can talk in Letta to back him. The rest of the year is certainly going to be interesting in Italy, and whoever takes charge will have a profound impact on whether or not the European Union can weather the Eurozone Crisis.
Categories > Foreign Affairs


Let's Make a Deal?

As the super committe negotiating how to move closer to a balanced budget moves along, it might be time to get creative in suggesting solutions.  To that end, I have a thought.  If the Democrats are dug in, demanding tax hikes, the GOP could accept some tax hikes (provided they are of the sort least likely to hurt the economy--not all taxes are alike after all). In return, the Democrats would agree to the repeal of a host of regulations, and fire many of the people who currently are employed by the government to create and enforce regulations. That last step would, of course, produce additional savings.

Categories > Politics


Memorials and Warriors

I spent much of the weekend walking around Washington with some visiting family who had never been before. It was a beautiful fall weekend, the trees along the National Mall standing in perfect shades of autumn--such as in the picture below, taken around the Korean War Memorial. There happened to be a large amount of war veterans, too, on the Mall this weekend as part of some organized tour of the memorials. Mostly veterans from WWII and Korea, and it was a sobering sight to see these old warriors staring at that black wall, standing beside those soldierly statues, and gazing around at the water and pillars commemorating the last world war. Volunteers, made up of veterans from more recent wars in addition to civilian volunteers (including, it seemed, most of the Miami-Dade fire rescue team) were pushing them around in wheelchairs, or at least trying to. On more than a handful occasions I saw the old men themselves pushing their empty wheelchairs and walking alongside their assigned volunteer, refusing to be pushed as they walked around the structures we have established to honor their service and the dead. Good for them. Even in their own autumn years they do not expect any special treatment for the tremendous service they gave us. May their memorials forever stand to remind us of what fortitude men are capable of.

Categories > Military

Political Philosophy

Socialism, Anarchism, and Aristocracy

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 1815:

Pick up, the first 100 men you meet, and make a Republick. Every Man will have an equal Vote. But when deliberations and discussions are opened it will be found that 25, by their Talents, Virtues being equal, will be able to carry 50 Votes. Every one of these 25, is an Aristocrat, in my Sense of the Word.

And, Adams noted elsewhere, in the absence of formal institutions to hedge and check the few against the many, the few will steamroll over the many.  Adams, of course, defined a "talent" as something that gives a man an edge, whether it be looks, a famous name, intelligence, connections, ruthlessness, or something else. The doings in Zuccotti Park confirm Adams' insight:

In the minutes of the teach-in on Saturday the 22nd, the leaders recognize that usurping power from the NYC-GA might make people uncomfortable. The Structure WG's eventual proposal was to keep the General Assembly alive and functioning while the Spokes Council "gets on its feet." . . .

When my turn came to speak, I brought up the plans of "the leaders of the allegedly leaderless movement" to commandeer the half-million dollars sent to the General Assembly for their new, exclusive, undemocratic, representational organization. Before I could finish, the facilitators and other members of the OWS inner circle started shouting over me. Amidst the confusion, the human mic stopped projecting what I, or anybody was saying. Because silence was what they were after, the leaders won.

Eventually one of the facilitators regained control of the crowd and explained that I was speaking "opinions, not facts," which is why I would not be allowed to continue. He also asserted untruthfully that I had gone over my allotted minute. Notably, the facilitators and members of the OWS inner circle regularly ignore time restrictions.


1 Year and Counting for the "Underdog"

If Obama is to win re-election one year from today, he'll need to prove a "historic" candidate in less esoteric and more statistically significant ways than propelled him to victory for his first term. He'll have to defy the historic trends for presidential elections as they presently stand. As the Washington Times notes:

At 43 percent approval in a Gallup poll conducted Oct. 28-30, Mr. Obama recently referred to himself as an "underdog" -- with good reason. Of all the presidents since World War II whose job-approval scores were lower than 50 percent one year before Election Day, only one went on to win a second term.

That was President Nixon, whose job approval stood at 49 percent in November 1971. He rebounded to defeat Democrat George McGovern in a landslide in 1972.

Obama's approval rating is much lower than Nixon's and, hopefully, the GOP candidate will prove more formidable than McGovern.

Unemployment is another statistical guide.

No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has won a second term when the unemployment rate was higher than 7.2 percent. Reagan won in 1984 with a jobless rate at 7.2 percent.

Obama, of course, is no Reagan and present unemployment hovers at 9%.

So, Obama has his work cut out for him. But he does have a few advantages going for him.

He is still a formidable fundraiser, having amassed more than $150 million for his campaign and the Democratic National Committee this year.

Also, his re-election operation is more robust than any of the GOP camps, which are waging a long and costly primary battle. Mr. Obama's campaign is able to build on a 50-state network from 2008, an email list of more than 9 million potential supporters and an experienced staff with unequaled savvy in digital marketing and social networking.

In early polling of head-to-head matchups with potential GOP candidates, Mr. Obama comes out on top in nearly every instance. One poll in the battleground state of Florida this week showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tied with Mr. Obama.

And the Times contemplates the possibility of a third party candidate siphoning votes from the Republican nominee - but I don't foresee such a option in the tea leaves.

As I've noted previously, Obama is not being blamed by the American people for the state of the country. The buck, it seems, has not stopped with the president. It must be a priority for the GOP candidate to lay blame were it belongs and tie the economy as an albatross around the president's neck. Where the media has deflected blame from Obama, the GOP must nail it to his campaign bus. A Republican cannot win if Obama is not recognized as the culprit responsible for America's woes and deserving of its righteous anger.

Categories > Elections


Man Revisits Yale

The WSJ replaced its weekend interview with an article by Neal Freeman (a 38-year board member at National Review) which imagines a series of interviews between the late William F. Buckley and the conservative movement. It celebrates the 60th anniversary of "God and Man at Yale."

The personal anecdotes of Buckley's life and reflections on the conservative movement's "scrawny" ranks at Yale in those early days (not that those ranks have been greatly increased in academic settings since Buckley's days) make the article an amusing read. And Freeman's assessment of Buckley's would-be judgement on the GOP field, as well as conservative scholars and writers, is noteworthy.

Freeman blinks at the last moment and refuses to throw Buckley's weight behind a single candidate. But we are reminded of the ever-relevant Buckley Rule: Conservatives should support for election the rightward-most viable candidate. 2012 is no exception to the rule.

Categories > History