July 4, 2014

Dear MSSA Friends,

As we celebrate Independence Day and think about the Declaration of Independence, I believe that the four most consequential words in the Declaration may be “consent of the governed, …”

The full quote from the Declaration is:  “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

This concept, that government only exists with the “consent of the governed,” may be the most revolutionary philosophical concept in recorded human history.  The philosophical concept underpinning all other existing governments at the time of America’s founding was some form of divine right of kings.  Kings ruled, and people were little more than property of the king.

Indeed, up until the Declaration of Independence, the standard form of governance in the World (with a few minor exceptions in history) was tyranny – some form of an elite person, group or class holding all power.

The concept of “consent of the governed” was so important that it is the very first statement in the Montana Constitution, which says at Article II, Section 1, “All political power is vested in and derived from the people. All government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.”

Under this concept where all political power is inherent in the individual, when we engender and empower our government(s), we do that in a written contract that we call a “constitution.”  Actually, this document is more like a power of attorney than a contract.

By that contract, we delegate a limited amount of our individual political power to government to do for us in common things we cannot do well individually, such as provide for the common defense of the nation.  However, we are also wise enough to include in that contract strict limitations on government power, limitations on the existing power we have as individuals that we do NOT delegate to government.

In the U.S. Constitution we declare those limitations on delegation of power to government in the Bill of Rights.  In the Montana Constitution we declare those limitations in the Declaration of Rights.

These do not “give” us or “create” any rights whatsoever, but do declare, in writing, that we very specifically do NOT delegate power to government to operate in the areas of existing rights covered.  That is, government does NOT have the “consent of the governed” to operate in these areas.  Here government may not tread.  Here we delegate no authority to government to act.

Likening our constitutions to a power of attorney is a good analogy, I think.  Suppose before going on a vacation you authorize a car lot to sell a car you don’t want.  You sign a limited power of attorney giving the car lot authority to sell your car, but only that car.  Suppose upon return from vacation you learn that not only has the car lot sold your car, but it also sold your house, your other car, and all of your belongings.  The sales of all but your one car would be illegal because they would exceed the authority delegated to the car lot in your power of attorney.

Like the car lot that sold your house, and notwithstanding the limitations of “consent of the governed” written into our constitutions, our governments constantly seek to exceed the authority to which we have consented.  That is the nature of government.  Our Founders understood this nature, which is why they intended to bind government with the chains of the Constitution, and to diffuse power with separation of powers among three branches at the federal level, and between states and the national government.

The concept of “consent of the governed” is what makes our system unique, is what made our Nation great, and is important to remember as we celebrate this Independence Day.

Best wishes,

Gary Marbut, President
Montana Shooting Sports Association
Author, Gun Laws of Montana

By mssa