The Corner

The Enabling Act Temptation

Jonah’s excellent piece today humorously eviscerates the nonsensical, albeit popular, idea that, because Obamacare is the “law of the land,” it is “anarchism” to try to change it. Since Barack Obama’s infamous “It’s. The. Law” tweet, which launched a thousand witless ships, conservatives have rightly mocked those who defend the program on these grounds. They should continue to do so. But they should also recognize that there genuinely is a strain of progressive thought that considers certain government welfare programs to be untouchable, and opposition to them to be illegitimate. These are the people who would happily remove the negative rights from the Constitution and replace them with a positive guarantee of healthcare and other services. They must be resisted at all costs.

I suspect that few in Britain realize, for example, that, during the 1930s, both Sir Stafford Cripps and future socialist Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, argued quite openly for an “Planning and Enabling Act” that would not only be impossible to repeal, but that would protect all “necessary” socialist legislation from even being discussed in the British parliament. As George Orwell notes in The Road to Wigan Pier:

Outspoken left-wing figures such as George Lansbury, Stafford Cripps and Clement Attlee emerged as Labour’s political leaders. They were responsible until 1934 for the production of some of the most radical policies that the Labour Party had ever known. This was no accident and reflected the sharp swing to the left in the rank and file. The party programme For Socialism and Peace adopted in 1934 proclaimed “that what the nation now requires is not merely social reform, but Socialism”, and pledged a future Labour government to “establish public ownership and control of the primary industries and services as a foundation step” with workers having “an effective share in direction and control.” Cripps and Attlee both raised the question of emergency powers, an enabling act, to allow a future Labour government to push through this revolutionary legislation against the sabotage of parliamentary procedures and the House of Lords. Stafford Cripps even went as far as to threaten measures against the monarchy, but quickly retreated.

A few years later, America’s own FDR tried to do exactly the same thing with his failed “Second Bill of Rights,” a charter of positive entitlements that utterly subverts the logic of the Constitution. 

This isn’t to say that this president and his allies are literally advocating for a wider Enabling Act (although Obamacare is, as I’ve argued, essentially an enabling act designed to allow the executive to run the healthcare market), just that the attitude of “it’s the law, let’s move on” is redolent of a worldview that tends to dismiss actually protected negative rights and structural limits on government while simultaneously regarding temporary legislative choices as immortal and immune from change. Laugh at the ignorant by all means, but make sure also to dismiss the serious. There are more of them than you might suspect — and they never, ever quit.

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