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Lord Acton's Law, the GOP Version By: David Keene
The Hill | Thursday, November 15, 2007


M. Stanton Evans, one of the fathers of the modern conservative movement, once promulgated what he dubbed “Evans’s Law,” which held, quite simply, that “once our conservative friends get themselves elected or appointed to a position of influence we discover that they’re no longer our friends.”

Stan’s point was that elected officials in particular tend to forget what got them into politics in the first place and abandon promises and principles in favor of whatever they think might be needed to win reelection. Evans’s Law was demon­strated by the conservatives who got themselves elected to Congress in 1994 and, finding themselves in the majority, went on a spending binge.

It also explains the peculiar tendency of politicians in the White House to forget that the Founders didn’t intend the president to be a king and that the Constitution they bequeathed to us was all about limiting executive, legislative and even judicial power through a system of checks and balances in a federal system that was designed to protect all of us from rulers convinced that they know better than anyone what we need and what freedoms we ought to be able to exercise.

Thus, presidents from the beginning have tried to expand their own power at the expense of the other branches, and those branches have fought back and on more than one occasion tried to seize more power than the Founders granted them. I remember a meeting of my fellow conservatives back in the early ’90s discussing welfare reform and the concept of block-granting programs to the states. The argument was, of course, that local and state officials, being closer to the people than those of us toiling within the Beltway, might be in a better position to decide how monies should be spent and on what. One leading conservative expert on welfare reform objected on the grounds that “we can’t trust the governors.”

I was taken aback by this response, but quickly realized that a corollary of Evans’s Law might be that politicians bent upon achieving their substantive agendas will almost always decide that meaningful decisions should be made by them, regardless of constitutional or theoretical niceties.

This fact was brought home to me recently when GOP presidential wannabe Mike Huckabee suggested that as president he would, for the good of the people, support a federal anti-smoking law. You see, as governor, Huckabee supported such laws because, well, he doesn’t like smoking and doesn’t think folks should indulge in so health-threatening an activity. If he could move on up to the presidency, he would continue his abolitionist crusade at the national level without giving much, if any, thought to the question of whether the Constitution or anything else would legitimize a federal ban on smoking.

It was therefore rather refreshing to find the laconic Fred Thompson (R) on Sunday suggesting that in spite of his own views on a number of subjects, he would, as president, resist the temptation to impose those views on the entire nation and all the states just because they are his views.

That has upset some of his supporters, and at least one adviser has abandoned Thompson’s campaign because the candidate doesn’t believe the federal government should be in the business of defining marriage. He believes that in our system the federal government and the courts ought to butt out and let the states, through their elected legislatures, deal with the issue. That’s not President Bush’s view, but a lot of conservatives who believe it is as important to know who ought to do what as to know what ought to be done share his position.

He goes further and suggests that if Roe v. Wade is overturned and abortion policy is returned to the states, he would leave it there in spite of his strong and unquestioned pro-life position. These sorts of answers won’t satisfy those more interested in ends than means, but I find them both intriguing and interesting. They are also the answers one might expect from a conservative who, unlike the former governor of Arkansas, has read and understands the Constitution … or parts of it.

But remember Evans’s Law. When he was last in a position of power, Thompson was perfectly willing to skip over the First Amendment in championing his campaign finance reform agenda, so we don’t know what he might do if he ever makes it to the White House.

But at least he’s talking a good game.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental affairs firm.


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