Law & Principles , Good Government

Michael Carnuccio | June 18, 2015

Free Market Friday: Power to the people

Michael Carnuccio

Eight centuries ago, a group of English barons forced King John to accede to the Magna Carta.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the anniversary is the subject of many events, speeches and newspaper columns. Earlier this year, the Oklahoma state Capitol hosted “Magna Carta: Enduring Legacy,” a traveling exhibit sponsored by the American Bar Association and Library of Congress.
Americans, especially lawyers, have a reputation for revering the Magna Carta even more than the English. Supreme Court justices regularly mention the document in their opinions (cited multiple times in opinions in a case decided earlier this week).
But what’s so great about the Great Charter? Who cares about an agreement between a bunch of English elites 800 years ago? Even the barons’ victory itself was only fleeting: The king quickly repudiated the agreement, returning to his old ways of high taxes and authoritarianism.
Yet the Magna Carta eventually became a part of English and then British constitutional law. And more important than any, or even all, of its particular clauses is the idea it stands for: the rule of law.
The greatness of the Great Charter was the idea that no government official, not even a king, should be above the law. This would lead not only to limits on royal power, but also to the transfer of some of that power to Parliament.
This idea behind the Magna Carta also set the stage for something even greater: the emergence of a new way of thinking about government. After all, if law can bind a king, there must be some higher source of authority.
The American Founders believed, and wrote in the Declaration of Independence, that power belongs not to government, but to the people. Even that power can and should be limited – we are not free to tyrannize each other, not even by majority vote. Rather the purpose of government is to defend our rights.
The Great Charter stands as a milestone on the path toward those twin ideas – that government derives its power from the people and exists to defend individual rights. From those ideas came the even greater charter: the Constitution of the United States.
It is no wonder Americans revere the Magna Carta more than anyone else. We are its greatest beneficiaries.
Michael C. Carnuccio serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (

Michael Carnuccio

Former OCPA President

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