Friday, January 13, 2006

Madison on Government and Force

On June 16, 1788 James Madison spoke in the Virginia Ratifying Convention on the topic of control of the military. In his speech I find the following:
". . .Was there ever a constitution, in which, if authority was vested, it must not have been executed by force, if resisted? . . .That the laws of every country ought to be executed cannot be denied. That force must be used if necessary, cannot be denied. Can any government be established, that will answer any purpose whatever, unless force be provided for executing its laws? . . ."
". . .There never was a government without force."
Surprisingly, this is an observation that often seems lost in discussions of government today. Government is, by it's very nature, coercive. One of the points I think Madison's comments here emphasize is that when we think of the role of government in our lives we should be thinking about the ways in which it is legitimate for government to be using force and coercion in our everyday lives.

When you think about public policy issues, I think it might be a good idea to think specifically about the way government will be using force in our lives. Here is one illustration. In the famous Supreme Court opinion Wickard v. Filburn, the Court was considering a Congressional statute regarding agricultural quotas. The specific situation at issue involves a farmer who was growing wheat on his own land. He did not grow the wheat for commercial purposes. Rather, he grew the wheat for use on his farm and for use by his household in making bread. He was in court because our national government said that growing his wheat violated his alloted quota. The Court said our national government could constitutionally use force in this man's life in this way because Congress had the power to regulate interstate commerce. In other words, even though this man did not sell the wheat he grew on his own land, the Court found it was constitutionally acceptable for our national government to force him to stop growing wheat on his land. And, there's more. Since he used the wheat to make bread for his own family, our national government was using force to compel this man to have to purchase bread from others. Does this seem like an acceptable use of force and coercion in our lives? My own answer is NO.

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