Magna Carta, Provisions of Oxford, House of Lords, House of Commons, Houses of Parliament and Constitutional Monarchy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 19th, 2012

Politics 101

King John renounced, and Pope Innocent III annulled, Magna Carta

England had been more French than English following the Norman Conquest.  The ruling class spoke French.  And had stronger connections to France than they did to England.  The Kingdom of England did, after all, extend across the English Channel into France.  The English nobility, on the other hand, were more English than French.  This caused friction between the land owners (the barons) and the king.  Because even though the king had official power the barons paid the taxes.  Which meant the king could do anything he wanted with his power as long as the barons agreed to pay for it.  And provided his armies.  For the king had no standing armies.  Which proved to be a bit of a restraint on being king.

The barons, though, felt the king was abusing them.  The king was spending a lot of money on many losing military campaigns and stepping on the barons’ privileges.   They presented Magna Carta to King John.  Which put in writing limitations on the king’s powers.  And the requirement that the king shall consult Parliament (common counsel of the realm including the clergy higher-ups and the more powerful barons) before raising new taxes.  Something no king would willingly submit to.  Unless it was a way to stall for time.  So King John applied his Great Seal to Magna Carta.  Making it the law of the land.  But with his fingers crossed behind his back.  Figuratively, of course.

Well, King John renounced the Great Charter once the barons had left London.  And Pope Innocent III annulled it.  Because of that divine rights of kings thing.  Kings could do whatever they wanted because God gave them that right.  While the Church made sure he didn’t abuse this power.  Anyway, long story short, the king refused to honor his agreement.  Which resulted in the First Barons’ War.  It lasted a couple of years.  The barons invited Prince Louis, son and heir apparent of the French king, to join them in their fight against King John.  Something any French Royal would be glad to do.  Then King John died and the barons became worried about Prince Louis.  Some fighting and sieges later, Louis got some money and went back to France.  King John’s son Henry was then crowned King Henry III.  He was 9 years old.  Until he came of age his royal keepers ruled in his stead.  And brought back Magna Carta.  With some changes.

The House of Lords and the House of Commons formed the Houses of Parliament

Well, all’s well that ends well, yes?  No.  For when the new king came of age he wanted to restore absolute monarchy.  Like they had (and he admired) in France.  He married a French woman.  And brought a lot of his French relatives into high positions in his realm.  Highly religious, he supported the papal invasion of Sicily.  Which was a disaster.  Well, you can guess where this led to.  More fighting with the barons over Magna Carta.  To remind him there were limits on his powers.  Which the barons hammered home in the Provisions of Oxford.

The Provisions of Oxford is considered England’s first written constitution.  The barons wrote it.  In English.  The new language of the ruling class.  No more of that French nonsense.  And presented it to King Henry III.  Placing power into the hands of a council.  Not the king.  There would be 24 members in this council.  Half chosen by the king.  Half chosen by the barons.  Parliament would oversee the council.  And meet 3 times a year.  Power was now with Parliament.  Not the king.  Which was huge for its day.

The king summoned the nobility and senior clergy to advise him.  When he needed money he summoned knights and burgesses, too.  Representatives of the common people.  These common people met alone in 1341.  And the upper and lower houses of Parliament were born.  The House of Lords (nobility and clergy).  And the House of Commons (knights and burgesses).  Together they were the Houses of Parliament.

The Many, the Few and the One

Governing by the consent of the governed was here.  But the journey wasn’t over yet.  There would be many more bumps in the road ahead.  Including the English Civil War.  With lots of English-French issues to resolve.  And a lot of Catholic-Protestant issues, too.  Not to mention the Welsh, Scottish and Irish issues.  But the general shape of things to come was here.  For England.  Great Britain.  And the United Kingdom.  Absolute monarchy was out.  Constitutional monarchy was in.  Representative government.  Where all had a say.  The commons.  The nobility.  And the king.  The many, the few and the one.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #65: “The only thing the market is inefficient at is funneling money to anti-business politicians.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 10th, 2011

The Natural Order and a good Last Name

There are two types of people in America.  Those who work.  And elitists who want others to work for them.  It’s been this way since the dawn of civilization.  One group asserted their power over the masses.  The masses then worked.  The ruling elite didn’t.  They just gave the work orders.  The masses dutifully followed their orders and grew the food.  The ruling elite took in the bounty and ate until they were full.  And then some.  While famine thinned out the masses.  It was the natural order once upon a time.  And those who held dominion over the land liked it.

Land, then, was key.  The aristocracy owned the land.  Hence we called them the landed aristocracy.  They owned the land, the food and the wealth.  And the people.  In European and Russian feudalism there were serfs.  In the antebellum American South there were slaves.  The landed aristocracy may buy and sell land and move.  But the serfs/slaves stayed on the land.  Forever.  As their parents did.  As their children would.  It was the natural order.

Your name was very important in the landed aristocracy.  For land was hereditary.  As was wealth.  As was political power.  And it stayed this way for a long time.  While everyone who worked farmed.  But over time, something happened.  People got smarter.  They were able to grow food surpluses.  And they took these surpluses to markets.  Which became cities.  Where we saw the rise of artisans.  Skilled people who made tools and crafts that further improved our lives.  Allowed people to leave the farms.  And create a middle class.  Greatest thing that ever happened for the masses.  It allowed a way out from the back-breaking toil of working the land.  Even if you didn’t have a ‘good’ last name.

Representative Government changes the Natural Order

Of course, not everyone was keen about this.  Because it disrupted the natural order of things.  And threatened the old power structures.  Some adjusted.  Some shared the power.  Like in England.  Where there was a representative government.  There was a bicameral house.  The Parliament.  Representing all people.  The rich in the House of Lords.  And the common people in the House of Commons.  And, of course, the king.  Who represented the king.  And the state.  Now, kings like to wage war.  Conquer.  And add to empire.  But it takes soldiers and sailors to fight.  And money to pay for armies and navies.  Which the king didn’t have.  The rich people had the money.  The landed aristocracy.  The Lords.  So the king just couldn’t wage war unless Parliament consented.  Pretty nice thing this check on power.  This representative government.  It made for happy subjects.

It wasn’t like this in France. While the English were checking the king’s power, the French monarchy was absolute.  It  could do whatever it wanted.  And did.  Spent a lot of money.  Ran up great debts.  Fought a lot of wars.  Including the Seven Years’ War that lost much of French North America to Great Britain.  And helped the Americans in their War of Independence.  Helping them to gain their independence from the British monarchy.  Which proved to be a deadly game for the French monarchy.  For the French people grew fond of representative government themselves.  And they thought if the Americans can overthrow king-rule maybe they could, too.  So they gave it a try.  The French Revolution was a bit bloodier than the American Revolution, but it got the job done.  France, too, had a representative government.  Until Napoleon declared himself emperor, of course.  And then he did a lot of kingly things.  Waged war.  Conquered.  Built empire.  And added to the debt.

Great Britain gave up on minority rule.  France tried to hang on to it, lost it then Napoleon got it back.  The reason minority rule failed in these countries is because a minority ruling power needs money.  And it was easier to get money in an agrarian economy.  When all the wealth was concentrated in the few who owned the land.  The rise of a middle class changed all of that.  Artisans and merchants made a lot of money.  Some even without ‘good’ last names.  The people who didn’t have to kiss any royal ass to get or maintain their wealth.  It was a whole new game out there.  Minority rulers needed to find another way to amass money and power.  And they found it.  In the ‘lie’.

Lies from Marxism to Socialism

A ruling power lying wasn’t anything new.  But some of the lies were.  Marxism, for example, was a new brilliant lie.  It made those the ruling elite wanted to oppress ask to be oppressed.  In the name of egalitarianism.  Rise up you miserable oppressed factory workers.  Attack the industrial bourgeoisie (i.e., the middle class).  You have nothing to lose but your chains.  Karl Marx may have believed the claptrap he wrote.  But those who used it could care less about the underlying philosophy.  They just liked the power it gave them.  So those who aspired to rise to power and rule over the majority led worker revolutions.  And after they won, the workers went back to suffering just as they had before.  Only they had less.  Because the communist commissars knew jack squat about the means of production.  But that was okay.  For it just helped to enslave the masses more.  Well, that.  And the brutal police state that discouraged any inappropriate behavior.  Or thought.

It was a good run for the communist powers that be.  While the masses suffered they lived a very comfortable life.  Just like the landed aristocracy of old.  Unfortunately for them, their ruling policies sent their economies into nosedives.  And they suffered recurring famines.  Marxism was a failure.  The ruling elite knew it.  And most of the people knew it, too.  Often, those who could escape from their communist utopias did.  Because they were anything but utopian.  So those aspiring to ascend to the ruling elite needed a new lie.  And they found it in communism-light.  Socialism.  Which appealed to the people they wanted to oppress for the same reasons Marxism did.  It would stick it to the rich in an egalitarian utopia.

But there was little difference between Marxism and socialism.  Both systems tried to manage the economy.  And both did a horrible job.  Why?  Because state planning is not about improving the lives of those they rule over.  It’s about maintaining power.  An economy left alone will always outperform a managed economy.  Everyone knows this.  But if they leave the economy alone, how can the ruling elite amass power and wealth?  It can’t.  Ergo, the lie continues.  Not to improve the lives of the masses.  But to improve the lives of the ruling elite.  The minority power.  Who only ascends to power by a good lie.

Wealth Redistribution Killed the Golden Goose

The free market does have one inefficiency.  It does not enrich those who do not partake in it.  The ruling elite aspire to be in a minority rule for a couple of reasons.  First of all, when you’re stealing from and oppressing the people, the fewer people in the ruling elite the wealthier each member gets.  Which is what they want.  Wealth.  And being in the ruling elite gives them access to wealth.  Because they are so completely untalented that they could never make any wealth in the free market.  So they use the lie to acquire their wealth.  To live the good life.  Like the landed aristocracy of old.

So they become the champion of the working man and woman.  And promise to deliver that egalitarian society via wealth redistribution.  They promise to tax the rich.  And give to those who will vote for them.  It has proven to be a very effective system.  And in its heyday they were reaping in the money.  Even found a way to funnel tax money directly to them via public sector union dues.  But they just got too greedy.  Pulled too many people into the new aristocracy.  And too many people out of the work force who paid the taxes that paid for their comfortable lives of plenty.

The taxes and policies of the ruling elite have grown so anti-business that it’s reduced economic activity.  And tax generation.  So not only have they bloated the public sector with nonworking people and reduced the taxpaying workforce, they killed the golden goose as well.  And no lie may change the mess they created.  They may have no choice but to unfetter the free market.  And get real jobs.

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LESSONS LEARNED #36: “Politicians oppose across the board tax cuts because they are not politically expedient.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 21st, 2010

No King Ever Ruled Without the Consent of Money

There were kings.  And there were wealthy landowners.  Kings may have been sovereign.  But the wealth lies with, as you may guess, the wealthy landowners.  Kings needed money.  Because doing king ‘things’ got expensive.  War, armies, navies, festivals, feasts, castles, palaces, churches, etc., were very expensive.  So kings taxed their subjects to raise the money they needed to be king.  And when it came to money, the vast majority (i.e., the peasants) had little.  It was the peasants’ landlords who had the money.  And it was they who paid the bulk of the taxes.

But it was a two-way street.  Because it was their money, they, the wealthy landowners, had a say in how the king spent that money.  This was a restraint on the king’s power.  There were laws to protect the property rights of these landlords.  Now.  And in the future.  Property owners could pass their property on to their heirs.  As well as their political standing with the king.  Thus the rich and landed aristocracy passed on both their property and their nobility through inheritance.  Thus kings and Nobility lived by the consent of the other.  And they each lived by the consent of money.

The Roman emperors spent so much money near the end of the Roman Empire that they brought their advanced civilization to an end.  The landed aristocracy survived, though.  They just served a different sovereign.  The masses (i.e., the poor peasants) still worked the land.  The landlords still held the wealth.  Kings would come and go but this way of life (feudalism) remained.  Kings ruled as long as the landed aristocracy didn’t object too much.  Which they did in England in 1215.  The landed aristocracy met King John on the field of Runnymede.  Seeing his power was not absolute, the king reluctantly set his seal to the Magna Charter.  Constitutional monarchy would reign in England.  And England would reign supreme in the Old World.  And in the New World.

No Taxation Without Representation

The constitutional monarchy that developed consisted of the Crown and a bicameral Parliament.  The two houses of Parliament represented the needs of the few (the House of Lords) and the many (the House of Commons).  Thus the needs of the one (the sovereign), the few (the rich) and the many (the not rich) were balanced against each other.  It was a pretty good system.  The best in its time.  An English citizen had a better and more comfortable life with greater liberty than citizens of most other countries.

This liberalism unleashed a flurry of economic activity.  It created an empire.  International trade exploded.  England became a leader in farming and agriculture.  This knowhow spread throughout her empire.  As did her representative government.  Which they established in their North American colonies.  Perhaps a bit too firmly.  With the costs of world war came the need for higher taxes.  The British had just defeated the French and took possession of all their possessions in North America.  Her English subjects there were now free from French aggression.  And Parliament wanted these subjects to pick up a large part of that war tab.

Well, this didn’t go over well in the colonies.  For they had no representation in Parliament.  They had their own representative governing bodies in the colonies.  But they were subject to royal governors appointed by Parliament.  Without a vote in Parliament, they had no say in matters of taxation.  This was very un-English.  For the English nobility consented to taxation in exchange for having a say in how the king would spend those taxes.  As the landed aristocracy protested in 1215, the Americans protested this taxation without representation.  Eight war years later and America left the mother country.  Another few years later they ratified the Constitution and created the United States of America.  Which came to be because a governing body violated the sacred covenant between a king and his subjects.  A king may only rule as those who pay the kingdom’s taxes approve.

Universal Suffrage Increases Our Suffering

Because the new American government taxed property owners, property ownership was a requirement to vote.  In other words, those with the most to lose (those paying the taxes) had a say in how the government spent their taxes.  It kept the government honest.   By limiting the vote to those who had ‘skin in the game’ it made it hard for government to build palaces for themselves.  Because there was a direct connection between the source of funding and what that funding was used for.  The government may persuade the tax-paying voter for the need for a national postal system.  But a palatial palace was a much harder sell to the one footing the bill.  Especially when that person would never enjoy its benefit.

Such a system led to responsible government.  It minimized political corruption.  And if there is anything a politician doesn’t like it’s this.  They like corruption.  They thrive on it.  It’s their raison d’être.  And this responsibility thing just didn’t cut it.  They need people to vote who have no skin in the game.  People they can buy.  So they can live the good life.  Like in days of old.  Enter universal suffrage.  Where a politician can promise people other people’s money.

Wait a minute, you mean I can have a say in how other people spend their money?  Sweet.  Gimme gimme gimme.  I me mine.  Tax the rich.  Health care is an entitlement.  I mean, as long as someone else is paying, I’m for sale.  Promise me whatever I want and I will vote for you.  And forget what Benjamin Franklin warned us about: 

When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.

Money Talks; Egalitarianism Walks

It probably started with Martin Van Buren.  Creator of the Democrat Party.  He created the party machine.  Patronage.  Payoffs.  And buying votes.  Dirty, filthy politics began with him.  And the Democrat Party.  Beginning with the campaign for Andrew Jackson, politics have gotten worse ever since.

It’s about the money now more than ever.  With the power to tax, government has a near unlimited source of money.  And with it they can get power.  By promising money to people that don’t have money.  Lots of it.  Thanks to universal suffrage, they can bus as many poor, indigent and government-depended people to the polls as possible.  And the more of them the better.  For they will vote for whoever promises to give them the most free stuff.  And why not?  They have no skin in the game.

And by voting themselves a permanent entitlement, they will make themselves a permanent underclass.  Where they will remain poor, indigent and government-depended.  As government spending continues to grow unchecked, it will push people down the economic ladder until the middle class disappears.  There will be only the rich (the government and the government-connected).  And the poor.  Just like in days of old.  Which is the goal of our tax policy.  You see, across the board tax cuts do not enhance the dependency-power relationship.  But targeted tax cuts do.  That’s why Big Government favors a complicated tax code.  It enhances the dependency-power relationship.  That empowers Big Government.  Throws egalitarianism out the window.  And makes life good for the ruling elite.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #32: “America is great but it can’t make bad ideology good.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 21st, 2010

We’ve Always Done Things This Way

The Old World was set in her ways.  Change didn’t come easy.  When it came it often spanned centuries.  But not always.  As the Roman Empire incorporated new territories into the empire, she modernized those new territories.  Roads.  Fresh water.  Sanitation.  Rule of law.  Markets.  The things that made cites better.  Civilizations better.  But as a civilization grows, so does its government.  And as government grows, taxes inevitably become more onerous.

A sprawling empire required a sprawling bureaucracy to control it.  And a huge standing army to protect it from without.  And to police it from within.  When you expand and conquer new territory, the spoils of conquest can fund your empire.  When your borders are relatively static, though, you have to use alternative sources of funding.  Taxation.  As the tax burden grew, dissatisfaction grew.  Fewer citizens volunteered to serve in Rome’s legions.  So Rome relied more and more on hired armies.  This increased the cost of empire.  And it increased taxation.  The tax burden grew so great that people gave up their small farms and worked for the bigger farms.  Worked for the rich landowners.  Some tried to quit farming all together.  This caused problems in trying to feed Rome’s legions.  And her bureaucracy.  The food supply became so critical that the Romans wrote new laws forbidding people to leave their farms.  Farmers were bound to the land.  They could never leave.  If you were born on the land you would farm the land.  Forever.

During the decline of the Western Roman Empire you saw the rise of the economic system that would dominate the Middle Ages.  Feudalism.  As the Western Empire declined, the power began to shift to the rich landowners.  As did loyalties.  As the empire further disintegrated, the power of Rome could no longer protect you.  Or feed you.  And thus food and protection became the foundation of feudalism.  Land owners, the nobles (i.e., lords), would let you work their lands.  The bulk of the proceeds went to the landlord.  But you also had a portion of the manor to farm for yourself.  In exchange for the use of a lord’s land you provided military service to the lord.  When needed to protect the lord and his lands.  Property rights allowed the lord’s sons to inherit the estate upon his death.  So property ownership became hereditary.  As did the nobility.   And so it would be for centuries.

England Leads the Way

From the nobles arose one.  A dominant one.  A ruler of nobles.  A king.  A king consolidated the many nobles’ estates into a kingdom.  A country.  And the king became sovereign.  The supreme authority.  The nobles pledged their loyalty to the king.  Provided for the king.  And fought for him when necessary.  Thus the few, the many and the one.  The masses (the many) served the lords and worked on their estates.  The lords (the few) were the wealthy land owners who served the king.  The king (the one) ruled the kingdom.

Thus the European monarchy was born.  In France it was absolute.  In England, in 1215, the nobles met King John on the meadow at Runnymede.  And the king reluctantly set his seal to the Magna Carta.  In England, there would be limits to the sovereign’s power.  The king may be king, but the nobles held the wealth.  And with it a lot of power.  Sometimes they saw things differently.  And the little people, the masses, often saw things differently than did the king and lords.  These different interests were reconciled, in time, by king and Parliament, a two-house or bicameral legislature (comprised of the House of Commons and the House of Lords). 

England was the place to be.  Rule of law.  Bill of rights.  Commerce.  Banking.  Capitalism.  Liberty.  Food.  Security.  Your common everyday Englishman had a better quality of life than your common everyday [insert any other European national here].  As transoceanic trade took off, the great European powers collided with each other.  Fought for that lucrative trade.  In the Old World.  And in the New World.  These wars became very expensive.  And some lasted for years.  Like the Seven Years War.  Which the British won.  And took many French possessions throughout the world.  But at a huge cost.  She incurred a great debt.  Especially in securing one of her colonies.  British North America.

Tea Anyone?

So England taxed her British American subjects.  Only problem was, these English subjects had no representation in Parliament.  And this was very un-English.  Taxation without representation.  This caused tension.  Also, Great Britain’s mercantilist policies were also rubbing the colonists the wrong way.  America was growing.  And she wanted free trade.  But that was impossible when the home country maintained a favorable balance of trade at your expense.  And had the Royal Navy to enforce it.  As a colony, everything had to ship to/from England ports on English ships so England could accumulate bullion.  The British protected their industries.  Her colonies fed raw materials to these industries.  And that’s all they did.

Trouble brewed for a while.  When Great Britain legislated what type of tea they could drink (only British East Indian tea), the American colonists had had enough.   There was a tea party in Boston, a revolution and formal independence.  And then a new nation.  With a bicameral legislation.  An executive.  And a judiciary.  It wasn’t quite Parliament, but was very similar in function.  The president was the one.  The Senate was the few.  And the House of Representatives were the many.  But there were key differences.  There was no king.  No hereditary nobility.  And there would be no mercantilism.  Despite Alexander Hamilton’s best efforts.

Let’s Just Agree to Disagree

Getting the colonies to come together to declare their independence was not easy.  It helped that there was already a shooting war going on.  Lexington and Concord.  Bunker Hill.  The coastal towns the British burnt and left in ruins.  They were already fighting a rebellion.  The declaration was almost a moot point.  But it was important.  And, after some arm twisting, they voted for independence and posted their Declaration of Independence.  But that was then.  After the Revolutionary War, there was no such unifying force.  Everyone was back to looking out for number one.  Well, most. 

Locked in a Philadelphia hall during a sweltering summer thick with horseflies, a collection of America’s finest worked to create a new government.  George Washington, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, to name just a few, could hardly agree on anything.  The Constitution they created was not great in their eyes.  But it was probably the best that they could do.  So acknowledged, they sent it to the states for ratification.  The odds were against them.  It would take some persuading.  And persuading they did.  Hamilton and Madison (and John Jay) wrote a series of essays appearing in newspapers to make the case for ratification.  They addressed and answered all arguments against ratification.  (You can read these today in the Federalist Papers.)  And this effort was successful.  The states ratified the constitution.  There was now a nation known as the United States of America.

Our first Secretary of the Treasury was Alexander Hamilton.  A capitalist genius.  And a great admirer of the British Empire.  Being a recent transplant to the American Colonies, he had no deep-seated resentment of the former mother country.  In fact, he wanted to emulate her.  She was the greatest empire in the world.  She was obviously doing something right.  But he pushed too far.  His mercantilist plans were a bit much for some.  Especially the ‘simple’ farmers of the South.  The planter elite.  Led by Thomas Jefferson (covertly) and James Madison (overtly), they fought Hamilton tooth and nail and did everything to destroy him.  (After seeing his plans Madison switched to the opposition.)    And ultimately, did.  When Aaron Burr shot him in a duel on the field of honor at Weehawken, New Jersey, across the Hudson from New York City.  All because Hamilton tried everything within his power to keep him from becoming president of the United States and governor of New York.  Because he was on unprincipled man.  Burr took offense to that.  And, well, the scoundrel challenged him to a duel and killed him.  But I digress.

The American Ideology

The American ideology is simple.  It includes things that have been proven to work.  And excludes things that have been proven not to.  A large, diverse people make up America.  So at the heart of our ideology is that we agree to disagree. 

We don’t have kings or nobility.  We don’t have an entitled class.  No hereditary rights.  Here, it doesn’t matter who your father was.  Or what group you belong to (religious, societal, etc.).  No one person is better than another. 

We have property rights and live under the rule of law.  We honor legal contracts.  We built our nation on laissez faire capitalism.  Free markets.  With a minimum of government interference.  We do what we want and respect that others do what they want.  And we are free to do this as long as we play by the rule of law.

It was a long road getting here.  We took the best history had to offer.  And rejected the worst that history included.  Nations who did likewise went on to greatness, too (like the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, etc.).  Those who didn’t have been repositories of great suffering and human bondage (North Korea, Cuba, The People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, etc.).  Of the latter nations, please note that life is getting much better in China and the former Soviet Union with the introduction of capitalism and free markets.  And it’s not in North Korea and Cuba where these governments stubbornly cling to failed policies to keep their governments in power.  Whatever the cost is to their people.

It’s the Ideology, Stupid

Good ideology makes good nations.  Bad ideology makes bad nations.  A good nation can NOT take bad ideology and make it good.  A good nation that implements bad ideology will only make that good nation bad.  All people have the capacity for greatness.  And that greatness will shine through if the government doesn’t suppress it.   To see this all we have to do is look to history.  It’s all there.  The good.  The bad.  And the ugly.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUITH #17: “The raison d’être of federalism is to keep big government small.” -Old Pithy.

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 8th, 2010

BONJOUR.  A LITTLE French there.  To go with the use of the French expression ‘raison d’être’.  Which means reason for being.  Sounds better in French, n’est-ce pas?

I like Canada.  Both parts.  The French and the English parts.  I’ve met and become friends with people in Toronto, Montreal, Fredericton and Corner Brook.  And elsewhere.  I like to talk to my Francophone friends about that day on the Plains of Abraham.  And I like to speak French to my Anglophone friends.  And they both like to point out to me what they believe to be America’s lack of tolerance and compassion.

The Canadians may be a tolerant and friendly people.  Everyone says that about them.  That they’re nice.  And they are.  But they have to work at it at times.  For there ain’t a whole lot of love between the French and English.  Not now.  Or then.  When French Canada became British.

Like it or not, that animosity has been at the van of Western Civilization.  And it would compete in the New World.  Colonize it.  Fight in it.  And give birth to a new nation.  One that would break from the ways of the past.

“WHO’S THAT, THEN?” one filthy peasant asked another.

“I don’t know.  Must be a king. ”

“Why?”

“He hasn’t got shit all over him.”

(From Monty Python and the Holy Grail – 1975.)

What is a king?  Besides someone who “hasn’t got shit all over him.”  A king is where sovereignty lies.  And sovereignty?  In a word, supremacy.  Supreme authority. 

The Sun King, Louis XIV of France, was an absolute monarch and his word was the absolute law of the land.  And he could do pretty much whatever the hell he wanted.  He built his gorgeous palace at Versailles.  Because he could.  Over in England, the king was sovereign, too, but Parliament checked his power.  So the British king wasn’t an absolute monarchy.  In England, the king could do whatever he wanted as long as Parliament agreed to pay for it.  For Parliament controlled the purse strings.  There would be no Versailles in England.

Now France and England were always at war.  Their fighting even spilled over into the New World.  The 7 Years War (as the Europeans called this world war) went by a different name in North America.  The French and Indian War.  The British won.  France lost Canada and other colonial possessions.  Their loss, though, was America’s gain.  The French and Indian attacks on the American Colonists ended, leaving them with peace and prosperity.  But it was costly.  As wars are wont to be.

Over in England, Parliament had to pay that cost.  But taxes were already pretty high at the time in England.  If they raised them further, it could cause trouble.  So what to do?  Well, there were some who pointed out that the American colonists really came out the clear winner in this latest contest.  They got peace and prosperity without really paying anything to get it.  Shouldn’t they pick up part of the tab?  I mean, fair is fair, right?

And they probably would have gladly contributed as good English subjects.  However, and this is a big however, they felt they weren’t treated as good English subjects.  In fact, they felt more like Parliament’s bitch than English subjects.  And to add insult to injury, they had no vote in Parliament.

Parliament passed a series of acts that the Americans would call the Intolerable Acts.  Both sides missed opportunities for compromise and peace.  Instead, tempers festered.  Parliament would bitch-slap the colonists.  And the colonists would bitch-slap Parliament.  Eventually throwing some British East Indian tea into the water.

Now Britain’s king, King George, had a bit of a problem on his hands.  The Americans were challenging his sovereign rule.  There was a name for this.  Kings call it treason.  And they kill people for it.  King George was the supreme authority.  Anyone challenging his authority was challenging his right to rule.  That’s why acts of treason are typically punishable by death.  You don’t stand up to kings.  You grovel.  And these uppity Americans surely weren’t groveling.

And just how does a king get this authority?  Well, you don’t vote for them.  They either inherit power.  Or they kill for it.  It’s a story as old as time.  Patricide.  Matricide.  Fratricide.  And sometimes the killing was by someone outside the family.  But that’s how sovereign power changed.  A king or queen died.  Naturally.  Or with a little help.  And when a new sovereign ascended the throne, he or she usually killed all other possible contenders.

If King George didn’t put down the American rebellion, it could spread.  To Canada.  To other English colonies.  Or give someone ideas back at home that the king was weak.  And challenge him for his throne.

These are things kings think about.  Power can be precarious.  Even when it’s absolute.  As King Louis XVI would learn in France.  During the French Revolution, the people, challenging the king’s sovereignty, sent him to the guillotine.  Chopped his head off.  His wife’s, too.  Marie Antoinette.

ENGLAND GAVE BIRTH to modern, representative government.  It was a balance of power between the many (the common people in the House of Commons), the few (the aristocratic rich in the House of Lords) and the one (the sovereign king).  Each provided a check on the others.  The king was the supreme power but he needed money to wage war and build things.  Parliament collected taxes and paid for things they approved of.  And the House of Lords was to keep that spending from getting out of control as they understood money and costs (that’s what rich people are good at).  They were to protect the nation from the evils of pure democracy where the people, once they realize they can, will vote themselves the treasury.

Most of the American colonists were transplanted Englishmen.  Or came from English stock.  They were English subjects (at least in name if not in practice).  They understood representative government.  Their colonial governments were in fact very British.  The Rule of Law was the rule of the land.  The governed consented to taxation.  And the government collected the taxes they consented to. 

You can probably see where this is going.

Taxation without representation was very un-English.  The fact that it was okay in the American colonies chafed the American English subjects.  I mean, it really frosted their shorts.  It wasn’t right.  By English law.  Or by precedent.  Anger at Parliament turned into anger at the king.  Questions of sovereignty arose.  Should the king be sovereign?  Or should the people?  In 1776, the American colonists stated their opinion in a very treasonous document.  The Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….

The U.S. Constitution emphasized the sovereignty of the people in the preamble.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, 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, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Kings were out.  The Rule of Law was in.  No aristocracy.  No hereditary offices.  In America, it would be different.  After the Battle of Gettysburg some 75 years later, Abraham Lincoln would reiterate this at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…

…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

THE AMERICAN COLONISTS rebelled and broke away from Great Britain because they were through with being her bitch.  In fact, they weren’t going to be anyone’s bitch.  That’s why there was a lot of opposition to the establishment of a strong, central government.  They didn’t want a national government taking up where Great Britain left off.  And they didn’t want an American president to be just another King George.  The people won their liberty.  And they intended to keep it.  So they could pursue that happiness Thomas Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence.

Federalism was the solution.  The states’ governments would retain most of their powers.  Only those things they could not do well (regulate ‘free-trade’ interstate commerce, negotiate trade agreements with other nations, wage war, etc.) would be done by the new national government.  The people would remain sovereign.  Strong state governments and a ‘weak’ central government would share power.  In effect, the new central government was to be the people’s bitch.  But you’d never know that by looking at things today.

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