Slipping the constitutional leash
By George F. Will
Published: Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
In May 1918, with America embroiled in World War I, Iowa Gov. William Lloyd Harding dealt a blow against Germany. His Babel Proclamation (really) decreed: “Conversation in public places, on trains and over the telephone should be in the English language.” The proscription included church services, funerals and pretty much everything else.
Iowa's immigrant communities that spoke Danish, Dutch, Norwegian and French objected to this censorship of languages of America's wartime allies. Harding, however, said speaking any foreign language was an “opportunity [for] the enemy to scatter propaganda.” Conversations on street corners and over telephone party lines resulted in arrests. Harding was ridiculed but Germany lost the war, so there.
The war validated Randolph Bourne's axiom that “war is the health of the state.” But it killed Bourne, who died in December 1918 from the influenza epidemic the war unleashed. Today, as another war is enlarging government's intrusiveness and energizing debate about intrusiveness, it is timely to remember that actual war is not the only cause of this. Ersatz “wars” — domestic wars on various real or imagined vices — also wound the defense of limited government. So argue David B. Kopel and Trevor Burrus in their essay “Sex, Drugs, Alcohol, Gambling and Guns: The Synergistic Constitutional Effects.”
Kopel and Burrus, both associated with Washington's libertarian Cato Institute, cite the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act, which taxed dealings involving opium or coca leaves, as an early example of morals legislation passed using Congress' enumerated taxing power as a pretext. In 1919, the Supreme Court held that the law “may not be declared unconstitutional because its effect may be to accomplish another purpose as well as the raising of revenue.”
Its “effect”? Suppressing the drug business obviously was its purpose. Nevertheless, the court held that even if “motives” other than raising revenue really explained Congress' exercise of its enumerated power, the law still could not be invalidated “because of the supposed motives which induced it.”
“Supposed”? The court's refusal to reach a reasonable conclusion about the pretext Congress used in this case for trespassing on territory reserved to the states enabled the federal government to begin slipping out of its constitutional leash.
In 1922, Chief Justice William Howard Taft warned that Congress could seize control of “the great number of subjects” reserved to the states by the 10th Amendment by imposing a “so-called tax” on any behavior it disapproved: “To give such magic to the word ‘tax' would be to break down all constitutional limitation of the powers of Congress and completely wipe out the sovereignty of the states.”
A 1934 law imposed a $200 tax on the making and transfer of certain guns. The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was another supposed tax law actually designed not to raise revenue but to legislate morality by changing behavior. The 1951 Revenue Act taxed “persons engaged in the business of accepting wagers” and required them “to register with the Collector of Internal Revenue.”
In 1910, the Commerce Clause was the rationale for the Mann Act banning the transportation of females for the purpose of “prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Including, it turned out, noncommercial, consensual sex involving no unhappy victim.
Today, Congress exercises police powers never granted by the Constitution. Conservatives who favor federal “wars” on drugs, gambling and other behaviors should understand the damage they have done to the constitutional underpinnings of limited government.
George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Starkey: Steelers know when to say goodbye
- Analysis: Kesler remains on Penguins’ radar as Shero looks bring back ‘Big 3’ formula
- Pirates’ big risk with pitch-heavy draft focus might soon pay off
- With so many needs, Steelers can ill afford to miss in draft
- Ex-Colts executive Polian: Approach free agency with caution
- Obama losing close adviser to end 9 years of service
- Penguins GM Shero’s deadline deals: Addition by subtraction
- IUP students have raucous early St. Patrick’s Day celebration
- Greensburg bishop’s time at helm draws to a close
- Steelers defense doesn’t make the grade in 2013 review
- Exclusive to the Trib: The crisis in Ukraine — America can be deferrential no more