Pleading the Tenth

Two centuries ago, in the War for Independence, the colonists made it clear to the British that we intended to be a self-governing nation. But self-government is a privilege that must be constantly protected. And the gravest threat to self-government today, ironically, is not from any foreign power, but from our own national government. Take a recent example. Several months ago, Congress passed the Brady bill, a gun-control law. But in some low-crime areas, sheriffs have decided they're not going to let Congress dictate local policy. They say the Brady bill requires expensive, time-consuming background checks that are unnecessary in their own state. We want to craft our own gun laws, suited to local conditions, these sheriffs say. A policy that works in crime-ridden inner cities may not work in the mountains of Montana or the deserts of Arizona. The Brady bill has even been challenged in court, where a federal judge struck down a portion of the law as unconstitutional. He based his ruling on the Tenth Amendment. Now, I'll wager that few Americans know anything about the Tenth Amendment. What it declares is that any powers not specifically delegated to the central government by the Constitution are reserved to the states or to the people. The Tenth Amendment protects the power of the states to govern themselves. For the framers of the Constitution, this amendment expressed a core principle of the American republic: the separation of power. An example you may remember from high-school civics classes is the division of government into executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with checks and balances. The framers believed that the separation of power is essential because of sin: Since everyone has a tendency to evil, so the reasoning went, we must erect limits on how much power can be amassed by any one person or group. But almost no one remembers that our federal system—with its independent state governments—was likewise built on this biblical teaching. The states were to act as checks and balances on the national government. As Alexander Hamilton wrote, "This balance between the nation and state government . . . forms a double security to the people" against the centralization of power. Today we have nearly lost that "double security." The states have practically become administrative units for programs funded by the national government. Even state-funded programs—schools, prisons, colleges—are increasingly regulated by the national government. That's why I applaud those feisty sheriffs who are using the courts to fight a modern battle for self-government. Governors in Utah, Ohio, California, Arizona, and Colorado are likewise manning the barricades for more local autonomy. So why not dig out a copy of the Constitution from an encyclopedia and reacquaint yourself with the Tenth Amendment. Self-government does not just mean independence from foreign powers. It also means the independence of individuals, cities, and states to govern themselves—without Congress trying to solve every problem by imposing a single, one-size-fits-all policy from the federal bureaucracy.


Chuck Colson


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