Paul Ryan and the Constitution

Paul Ryan’s joining the ticket is being treated by many conservatives as the start of a serious conversation about our nation’s fiscal trajectory. But this is not the only reason for enthusiasm over a Vice President Ryan. If it were, I think the Rachel Maddow wing of the commentariat would be having more success at persuading conservatives to think twice about a candidate who voted for TARP and Medicare Part D. I can’t quantify this, but I think at least some of the conservative excitement for Ryan, including their tolerance for such votes, stems from his attractive alternative to President Obama’s (un)constitutional vision for our nation. Whereas some Republicans treat the Constitution as a constituent box to check when politics demands it, Ryan seems sincere, articulate, and pragmatic in his approach to promoting constitutionalism.   

In the aftermath of the Obamacare decision, one of the most significant constitutional inflection point in decades, Ryan blasted the chief justice’s opinion, explaining that the Chief “had to contort logic and reason” to decide the case as he did. 

He has also been a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s assault on religious liberty. Like millions of Americans of all backgrounds and faiths, he believes the HHS mandate fight is “about religious freedom, First Amendment rights, and how this progressive philosophy of fungible rights of a living breathing constitution really clashes and collides with these core rights that we built our society and country around.”

Ryan can also publicly and succinctly articulate the link between our Constitution, the rule of law, and economic prosperity. Many outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, have picked up on this. His speech last year, “On the Rule of Law,” elaborates on this important theme:

Usually, our defense of the Constitution is presented as a defense of America’s founding principles and values, and rightfully so. But our constitutional system is not just a collection of principles; it embodies an approach to government with profound practical implications for both our freedom and our prosperity. When that system is threatened, both freedom and prosperity suffer.

Constitutional concepts such as the separation of powers (the basis for the constitutional challenge to Dodd-Frank) and due process are important precursors to the rule of law:

But, as Madison reminded us, men are no angels, and government is “administered by men over men.” Grounded in a proper understanding of human nature, our Founders tackled this challenge head-on with a brilliant Constitution and a healthy separation of powers, binding all men to the same set of laws and preventing any one man or group of men from gaining enough power to declare themselves above the law.

The Constitution secures other rights long understood to be essential to the rule of law, such as the right to due process, meaning that the laws of the land must be transparent, consistent, and equally applied to all men, so that no man may be arbitrarily deprived of life, liberty, or property.

When laws govern men (the “rule of law”) there is a stable economic and legal climate, and a “critical precondition for a free and dynamic economy”:

Without the rule of law to safeguard the ownership of property and the enforcement of contracts, it makes little sense for an investor to put his capital at risk helping an entrepreneur to pursue a dream, advance an idea, and ultimately grow a business that creates good-paying jobs for American. 

The current administration’s policies, from Dodd-Frank to Obamacare, reduce the rule of law’s influence — they rely instead upon the centralization of decision rights in the hands of bureaucrats. The rule of law is gradually transformed into rule by arbitrary dispensation. Ryan understands that this trend is rooted in the Progressive skepticism of constitutional structure,and that “it is better to let government-appointed experts make these kinds of decisions free from the checks and balances that define our messy democratic process.” He continues:

But in weakening the rule of law in the United States, their intentions are totally irrelevant. The damage they have done is real. And the relevant question we have to ask ourselves is whether, as Reagan put it, “we believe in our capacity for self-government, or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

Like Ryan, I believe that “freedom is lost by degrees, and the deepest erosions usually take place during times of economic hardship, when those who favor expanding the sphere of government abuse a crisis to persuade free citizens that they should trade in a little of their liberty for empty promises of greater economic security.” This presidential election could have profound implications for those issues. Sure, discrete laws like Dodd-Frank and Obamacare are in play, but the Constitution itself could be as well. As my colleague Carrie Severino explained, “If President Obama is reelected, he could have the opportunity to appoint as many as three justices, maybe more, making him the first president since Eisenhower to appoint a majority of the justices on the Court.” Governor Romney deserves every bit of praise he received for picking a vice-presidential nominee who recognizes the importance of this election cycle to the concept of limited, constitutional government.

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