Sunday, 24 November 2002

Strong but limited government

Adam Cohen, by way of The Volokh Conspiracy and Radley Balko, has a bone to pick with Ken Starr:

Mr. Starr was particularly exercised about liberals' being result-oriented, abandoning their principles to reach the outcomes they favor. But he would have made a more compelling case if he had not proceeded to abandon his — and the Federalist Society's — own oft-repeated commitment to judicial restraint to praise the Supreme Court for striking down the Gun-Free School Zones Act and the Violence Against Women Act in a burst of conservative activism.

I think Cohen is confusing "judicial restraint" with something very different: an interest in taking the constitution at its word. Both of these decisions dealt with the ever-increasing scope of Congress' powers the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 3) that basically gave the federal government a blank check to do anything it wanted, so long as some (often tangential) connection with "interstate commerce" could be made.

The original purpose of this line of reasoning was to justify laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1963 that extended non-discrimination requirements into public accomodations to stamp-out segregation. However laudible the goal, the court's reasoning in upholding these statutes opened the door for virtually any federal law to be justifiable.

In retrospect, the courts could have more narrowly tailored the rulings under the 14th Amendment's "privileges or immunities" and equal protection clauses, along with existing common law, to avoid this outcome; however, the Warren Court often seemed more worried about the policies it could set from the bench than the precedents its decisions would set elsewhere in the law. The end result: the Gun-Free School Zones Act and the Violence Against Women Act, neither of which did anything but federalize crimes that are already illegal in every state of the union.

Libertarians (big-L and small-L) are often accused of wanting a "weaker" federal government. Certainly we support a reduced role for the federal government, and in particular a Congress that stays within its enumerated powers. A limited federal government would allow more freedom for citizens and, at the same time, be able to concentrate on problems that the states cannot solve on their own. The rush to federalize every conceivable crime, from smoking pot to murder, accomplishes neither of those goals.