What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
photo credit: Simio Sapiens
A feeling shared by the more idealistic of libertarians is that implicit contracts should be done away with, meaning that a person should only be bound by law to which he has affixed his signature, and therefore, his explicit, stated consent. Any other type of agreement or legal framework, under this theory, would be oppressive and uninvited. Thomas Jefferson—himself a fan of this political paradigm—once opined that revolution should be conducted on a per-generation basis, ostensibly in order to ensure that the government remained responsive to the will of “We, the People”.
A tamer Jefferson had already allowed for such a possibility in the Declaration of Independence, where he and his co-signers affirmed that individuals had the right to alter or abolish their government if its actions were to be found destructive to liberty. This group of people had considered their government to be tyrannical and unsuited for their desire for self-governance, and thus steps were taken to foster and fight for that liberty they desired.
The result, of course, was independence through bloodshed and a codified set of laws called the Constitution. Open to amendment—and thus a pliable and “living” document—this legal document bound its contractual partners according to its terms from the time of its ratification onward. It was forged in heated debate and a bit of compromise, and insulated slightly to prevent the passions of the people from too easily altering its decrees.
But what of this libertarian utopia of explicit contracts? In such a world, the Constitution would have only bound the individuals able to vote at the time and thus, through the representative process, give their consent to its mandates. It would have had a sunset clause affixed, whereby its provisions would expire completely at the end of X number of years (X being an arbitrary number subject to debate, since generations are not defined spans of time, and because new people are born each day).
The main argument here is that one generation of individuals has no right to subject their children to the laws to which they themselves agree to be bound. Now, if we were talking about something like debt, I would wholeheartedly agree. It is immoral and unconscionable for us to pass on trillions of dollars of debt to our children, currently amounting to $186,717 for every man, woman, and child. Our posterity, if left bound by our manufactured financial bondage, has no recourse for the chains and fetters we have already created for them.
But a legal system is different, insofar as the rising generation is able to “alter or abolish” any provision of government with which they disagree. If Americans in 2030 decide that they would prefer to live without a Department of Homeland Security, for example, under our current form of government they have every right and recourse to see that it is dismantled (and hey, I wouldn’t argue with that…).
The simple reality of the situation is that a sunset clause on every law would be absolutely untenable. Chaos would result from continually changing laws; uncertainty and lack of confidence would abound from ignorance regarding what laws are actively on the books; people would take advantage of the system; and lame duck legislators would wreak havoc. In short, the laboratory experiment of liberty in America would be limited to a petri dish culture of continual trial and error, to be cheaply cast aside when it’s time for the next iteration.
Sunset laws are wholly unnecessary, and are only promoted to compensate for voter apathy and an indifferent citizenry. All laws are subject to change at any time, but only if there is sufficient support among people to make it happen. Thus, the only imposition on the rising generation is a self-imposed one born of an unwillingness to participate in the political process to the extent necessary to effect change.
To be sure, the blame here is—and the focus of irate libertarians should be—the people themselves. There is, perhaps, more to fear from continually changing legislation than there is from time-tested doctrines of political wisdom. Granted, there are some (many?) laws that have enjoyed support for decades which are wholly antithetical to liberty and good government. But the body of legislators which do not now oppose those laws (and thus change them) is unlikely to substitute in their place a better alternative were they to have had a sunset clause attached. One need only look some of the concerns of a modern constitutional convention to understand why sunset clauses attached to every law would likely be a poor decision.
Additionally, the revocation of all previous and higher laws leaves a wide open door through which aspiring dictators would easily and quickly be able to assume power with little to no resistance. This increased possibility alone is far more of an intergenerational imposition than is a set of laws well debated, tested, and documented. Jefferson argued for continual revolution, apparently not remembering that the government (ideally) serves the people. If at any time the government becomes an unruly beast, its master, the people, may rise up and demand compliance. That it has not happened thus far either means that the people enjoy what they currently have, or that they are too indifferent to care.
The revolution Jefferson advocated need not be against the government, for we are the government. The real revolt, then, must be an inward one—against our apathy, our historical ignorance, our misplaced priorities, and our hypocrisy. Only in these substandard circumstances would we worry about imposing our oppressive laws on the rising generation. The Founders’ children no doubt welcomed the blessing of liberty the Constitution afforded them, and progressed immensely under its protections. Likewise, if we are really that concerned with intergenerational impositions of implied contractual legal obligations, then we should alter or abolish what we have now and pass on to our own children a set of laws that they would readily welcome and appreciate.