I recall being introduced to the concept of a domain in a mathematical context. A function, our algebra teacher told us, has a domain of values for its independent or X variable, and a range of dependent or Y values it produces from that domain. In that formulation, a function is a sort of machine: the domain is its “input,” and the range is its “output.” Turn the key, throw the switch, pump the bellows, and the function will crunch each X value and produce the corresponding Y value.
“But what about values for the X variable that aren’t in the domain?” I asked somewhat naively. Teacher smiled. “It doesn’t operate on them,” she said. “But what if you were to feed it one?” I persisted. She shook her head. “On any value outside its domain,” she said, “the function is undefined.”
For a twelve year old boy already entranced by the beauty of mathematics, that came as a disagreeable surprise. Wasn’t math in the business of defining things? How could we casually say of something, “Oh, that’s undefined,” and pass on as if there were nothing more to say about it? It took me awhile to come to terms with it. (Never fear; they were well-defined terms.)
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The above gives five purposes for the federal government of these United States. They sound admirable, one and all. However, there’s something missing from the statement:
…establish Justice for whom?
…insure domestic Tranquility where?
…provide for whose common defence?
…promote whose general Welfare?
…secure the Blessings of Liberty for whom?
In other words, the domain is left unstated, though the intent of the document is to define a federal structure for the United States.
The Constitution that structures and authorizes the federal government didn’t do so to provide those noble goals to the denizens of other lands. Nowhere in its pages does it authorize Washington to go forth establishing justice, etc. for the subjects of other regimes. The domestic tranquility of places beyond America’s borders was of no concern to the Founding Fathers. Should the Golgafrinchans or the Whackistanis decide that they want the blessings of liberty – never mind their posterity – they’d just have to do the work for themselves.
These subtle distinctions are lost on today’s political class.
We generally look at America’s participation in the World Wars as a noble thing. What goes unexamined is on what grounds we intruded into them. What was the Constitutional justification? Woodrow Wilson made a big deal out of the Zimmerman telegram — “The world must be made safe for democracy!” he orated – but in fact it was no more relevant to the U.S. and its interests than the nebular hypothesis. FDR practically had to invite the Japanese military government to strike American soil for his war. “We have reached our rendezvous with destiny,” he announced. Once more, Americans bled and died. American treasure flowed forth in a hemorrhage. Evil regimes were put down…and others far worse arose in their wake.
But the appetites of our political elite had been whetted. After Versailles, America was a world power. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was the world power. We could reshape the globe after the American model…and flex our muscles a lot and make bundles of bucks as we did so. Some of us, anyway.
After that, any excuse to go to war would be good enough. After all, aren’t we the world’s policemen? Isn’t justice ours to maintain? Isn’t the peace of Mankind ours to safeguard? High-minded ideals can’t just be mouthed or set down on parchment by skilled calligraphers; they must be acted on! Especially if we can do so at a profit.
The proper domain of the federal government was defined in the Constitution. It set out a short list of enumerated powers and responsibilities, and no others. The Bill of Rights emphasized its limitations in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. But after decades of chiseling at the margins by high-minded men – perhaps a bit tipsy with power, but surely animated by nothing but the desire to promote “the general Welfare” – the Constitution seemed to have become a mere historical footnote.
Just now, we’re propping up a kleptocrat in a corrupt nation half a world away for the ludicrous notion that we’re “defending democracy.” Once again, American treasure is flowing forth in a torrent. Present trends continuing, American blood will soon be spilled. At that point, the habitues of Washington’s corridors of power will be too deeply enmeshed to give up. They can only “justify” their actions to date by carrying the nation into the horror of a third world war – but this one, we’ll start ourselves.
We’ve been tiptoeing in this direction since Vietnam. After the Afghanistan disaster, our politicians’ pride is at stake. Our love affair with Volodymyr Zelensky and his satrapy is unique only because the adversary is Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation: the owner of the largest nuclear arsenal on Earth. It involves the biggest opponent and the biggest dangers. Men with the biggest egos seen this past century are pushing the biggest pile of chips ever hazarded to the center of the table.
Hey, I know a place. Let’s go. – Russell Baker