‘It’s just hortatory.” That’s what judges are wont to tell litigators who try to get courts to order some course of action based on the preamble of a law. The preamble is the big wind, the hot air: lawgivers covering themselves in glory, detailing the high-minded, selfless motivation that prompts them to act. Then comes the rain. That’s the consequential part, the nuts and bolts of what is to be done. It is that, and not the preamble, that matters. And it’s usually significantly more timid — as in big wind, no rain.
That is the Republicans’ freshly unveiled Pledge to America: big wind, no rain. It is little wonder that, in patting themselves on the back, the authors keep talking about the preamble: how uplifting it is, what a paean to individual liberty, what a contrasting vision it marks from the nanny-state status quo. The preamble is the part Republicans did not write. It’s the part they lifted from America’s Founders — primarily, from the Declaration of Independence.
Nothing wrong with that. To the contrary, it’s an admirable bar to set, provided you intend to live up to it. The pledge doesn’t come close. In fact, in laying out the “self-governing society,” the GOP could not even get out of the preamble without shrinking from the Declaration’s bold blueprint.
A FORM, NOT AN AGENDA
After recounting the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that, the Declaration says, “Governments are instituted among men” in order to secure, the pledge chirps: “Whenever the agenda of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to institute a new governing agenda and set a different course.” Contrary to the pledge writers’ claim, however, that is not the way this “first principle” was proclaimed in the Declaration. The founders actually said, “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
For the Founders, government did not have an “agenda.” It was not an independent entity, a player in the game that has its own interests and, therefore, the right to compete with the other players — the people — in a battle over whose interests should rule the day. Government was just a “form,” a neutral framework through which free people pursued their “safety and happiness,” with a guarantee only that the pursuit would not be unfairly impeded, not a guarantee against failure.
Government got an “agenda” thanks to the establishment of the welfare state. And there are no neutral agendas. Unavoidably, an agenda means elevating some interests at the expense of others. Moreover, given that government has no personal assets, favoring some citizens at the expense of others necessarily implies the redistribution of wealth. Inevitably, having an “agenda of government” involves the state choosing winners and losers. It calls for government officials to decide what each of us should have based on their subjective sense of fairness. The animating feature of a government agenda is not individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but the assumption that all assets are essentially corporate, and that we are obliged to share them as government decrees, a windfall for those favored by the ruling class.
There are two competing visions on the political right: government as a form versus government with an agenda. In the pledge, this plays out as the preamble versus the nuts and bolts — the authors’ five-point plan. It is individual liberty versus the welfare state. And for all the Republicans’ talk, talk, talk about the preamble, the inescapable message of the pledge is that the debate is over — and the welfare state has won.