Today, a group of conservatives has released a document called the "Mount Vernon Manifesto," which similarly asserts that the federal government is robbing people of individual liberty. The document, however, fails to specify any particular right that the government has infringed.
The document also contends that the federal government has exceeded the scope of its constitutionally delegated powers. The document, however, does not provide even one example of an unconstitutional exercise of federal authority.
Vague Allegations of Rights Infringement
Rather than providing specific examples of rights infringement, the Mount Vernon Manifesto argues in very vague and unsubstantiated terms that the government has improperly constrained individual liberty. This flaw makes the document read like a paranoid conspiracy theory, rather than a credible statement about the status of constitutional rights.
The document borrows from the Declaration of Independence as a blueprint for its analysis of liberty. In so doing, the document purportedly "asserts self-evident truths based on the laws of nature and nature’s God. It defends life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It traces authority to the consent of the governed. It recognizes man’s self-interest but also his capacity for virtue."
Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the conservative manifesto, however, supplies a concrete listing of specific liberty interests. Similarly, the Mount Vernon statement does not demonstrate how the government has denied such rights.
The Mount Vernon Manifesto Is Not Even Inherently "Conservative"
Although the Mount Vernon Manifesto repeatedly claims to advance conservative values, the document is not even inherently conservative. The substance of "self-evident" liberty interests will depend upon the perspective of the beholder.
Liberals believe that "liberty" and the "pursuit of happiness" extend to sexual freedom, autonomy over reproductive choices, and even to imposing affirmative obligations on the government to make liberty meaningfully accessible to all citizens. Social conservatives, however, do not believe in these rights. In other words, the same (ambiguous) text in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence can support a host of different values -- liberal or conservative.
This observation applies with equal force to the portion of the document that advocates limited government. Since the ratification of the Constitution, all commentators have agreed that the document limits the power of the federal government. The precise boundaries of those limits, however, have been subject to vigorous debate throughout American history.
Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson did not see eye to eye on this subject. Both intellectual camps that they represented made reasonable appeals to history, tradition, and to the text of the Constitution to support their arguments.
The Mount Vernon Manifesto, however, treats history in completely uncomplicated terms. It assumes -- incorrectly, that the Framers viewed the boundaries of federal power and individual rights in unified terms, but that modern politicians have corrupted the system of government. This is a deep and fatal inaccuracy.
The Mount Vernon Manifesto is clearly a political document. It is not designed to approach U.S. history and the Constitution in the nuanced terms that an honest portrayal requires. The failure of the documents' authors to specify concrete governmental invasions of liberty or excessive and unconstitutional use of governmental power renders the document meaningless as a serious statement on the status of government and history. Apparently, the authors are in pursuit of other agendas.
At least one commentator agrees with my conclusion that the document is "meaningless" as a serious document regarding government policies and liberty. Daniel Larison, writing for the American Conservative Magazine, observes that:
The statement itself is so anodyne, unobjectionable and filled with stock phrases that no one to the right of Olympia Snowe could have that much to say against it. The statement was written specifically to be as inclusive, vague and undemanding as possible. It was done this way so that every movement faction could accept it without complaint. It reads like remedial instruction on civics from the Claremont Institute, and the actual politics of most of the signatories have about as much to do with “the Founding” as does Claremont’s distorted understanding of the same. If I thought it worth the time, I might pick apart some confused ideas about “the conservatism of the Declaration,” but as far as conventional movement conservative rhetoric goes this is unremarkable stuff.UPDATE II
There is no danger here of an unreasonable “purity test.” The standard being set by this statement is so low that anyone in the conservative movement could claim to agree with everything in the document and still merrily go about his way violating both the letter and the spirit of the principles to which he supposedly just subscribed. The statement is so generic and so divorced from any contemporary policy debate that everyone from Marc Thiessen to Ron Paul could endorse it without the endorsement having any effect on their current policy views. Any consensus this broad and unrelated to actual policy is pretty meaningless (emphasis added).
Jesse Walker of Reason.com argues that:
[T]he manifesto's rhetoric. . .is so all-inclusive and platitudinous as to be practically meaningless. Even the plank on foreign policy is carefully phrased so that both hawks and doves can embrace it: The text supports "advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world" while adding that we should "prudently" consider "what we can and should do to that end," a resolution that depending on your concept of prudence could entail anything from cutting a few dictators' share of the foreign aid budget to invading China (emphasis added).