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By Fleming Smith
On Thursday, October 8, Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, gave a lecture in Convocation Hall entitled “Constitutional Structures and Civic Virtues.” George is currently the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and has received various honors, including the U.S. Presidential Citizens Medal. During his talk, George discussed America’s relationship with the Constitution, and how that founding document affects everyday liberties. George began with the idea that “it’s our boast that we rule ourselves.” Typically, “rulers” are conceived of being kings and queens, or perhaps dictators, but not presidents or legislators. Still, he argued, “what [legislators] say goes…and that’s a pretty good definition of a ruler.” However, this power isn’t arbitrary, as these rulers must still “rule according to rules” via the Constitution. In America, presidents and congressmen are often referred to as servants, performing a public duty to “serve” the United States. In the opinion of George, such a notion isn’t wrong; he wants to defend the idea that rulers can still be servants: “people who serve us by ruling…they serve us well by ruling well,” said George.
However, this means that the American can also be served badly and ruled badly, through incompetence, corruption, and in worst cases, tyranny. To mitigate the negative consequences of too much power, George advocates for limited government. “The common good itself requires that there be rules,” he stated. “Even good people need to have their behavior coordinated. Political authority is required.” George mentioned the principle of subsidiarity, that decisions should often be handled by the least centralized competent authority. In this way, the interests of individuals and small communities can safeguard against being absorbed by the larger state. More than anything, George recommended the diffusion of power, so that no public servant could ever have the chance to become too much of a ruler.
George also mentioned the importance of understanding the Constitution. “We are the people, [and] if we don’t understand [the Constitution], it won’t operate the way it should operate,” George said. A large part of that, he argued, is that the American people “practice certain virtues” that can be “transmitted through the generations.” He paraphrased Ronald Reagan, saying, “The loss of liberty is always one generation away.”
The Constitution both limits and empowers elected officials to govern, as well as providing a framework for how citizens can protect their individual freedoms. In today’s political system, however, many seem to be losing their understanding of what the Constitution really means. This is dangerous in “rulers,” but such misunderstandings found in the regular American public can also have unfortunate consequences. George issued a warning, encouraging every listener to educate themselves: “Even the best constitutional structures…aren’t worth the paper they are printed on if people do not understand them, value them, and have the will to resist the blandishments of those offering something tempting in return for giving them up or letting violations of them occur with impunity.”