Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On This Constitution Day, Remember the Declaration of Independence

225 years ago, on September 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention ended and the Constitution of the United States of America was signed. This day is officially known as Constitution Day.

It was also an occasion for one columnist to declare that the US Constitution is "broken." The New Jersey Star-Ledger's Tom Moran writes:

   Kids in America are taught to venerate the Constitution, almost as if it were the word of God.
   And that’s exactly what Thomas Jefferson feared. He believed it was flawed, that experience would teach each generation new lessons and that it should be redone every 19 years.
   But Jefferson lost the argument. And so the Founders signed a Constitution 225 years ago tomorrow that is an impregnable fortress, firmly set against the forces of change that Jefferson welcomed and almost impossible to amend.
   Does that make sense? Haven’t we learned valuable lessons over the past few centuries about how democracies thrive, and how they stagnate? In a day when our federal government is so dysfunctional, shouldn't we at least consider fundamental changes?

University of Texas Professor Sanford Levinson is advocating a series of such fundamental changes to the US Constitution, which Tom Moran discusses in his recent NJ Star-Ledger column. Levinson's proposals include instituting a direct popular vote for president and measures to greatly weaken the checks and balances that limit the power of any one branch of government. In essence, Levinson's purpose, according to Moran, is to expand the power of majority rule and break Washington's political "gridlock," which has made our federal government "dysfunctional."

Moran approvingly cites Thomas Jefferson who, as Moran strongly implies, would welcome these constitutional changes, or any changes suited to any generation.

Before we discuss ways to expand the power of electoral majority rule so as to enable the government to get more done, we need to have a conversation about what the government's proper job it is to do.

The American constitution's basic function is to limit government's power to the protection of individual rights. This is spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, the philosophical blueprint for the constitution. Any discussion about the constitution has to begin with the Declaration--which, incidentally, was written by Thomas Jefferson.

The Founders did not intend to create a democracy, despite Moran's devious attempt to smuggle in that premise. They created a constitutionally limited republic protective of the liberty and rights of the individual. They understood that  government presupposes individual rights. So the constitutional discussion must begin with the questions: What are rights, and what is the proper function of government?

As the Declaration states, every individual possesses "certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Since productive work is the only means of sustaining one's life and achieving happiness, it's obvious that the Founders understood--including in Jefferson's own words--that property rights are among those rights. The Declaration then states "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men." Rights are sanctions to freedom of action, not a claim on the lives and property of others or a government guarantee of material well-being and happiness. Notice that the constitution does not authorize government to redistribute private wealth.

Today, the fundamental principles upon which the constitution rests have been largely abandoned, opening the door to the piecemeal progression toward unlimited totalitarian government. Consequently, our best protection against further encroachments on individual rights--and it's a weak protection--is political gridlock. I can't think of anything more dangerous to America's future than to begin tampering with the basics of the constitution in today's cultural environment. Before we consider unshackling majority rule, we must rediscover our Founding principles, roll back the regulatory welfare state, and provide ironclad guarantees that no one's rights be alienated by majority vote.

The Founders did not intend to replace absolute monarchy with absolute majority rule unrestrained by the principle of individual rights. As Jefferson said, "the majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime, abuses its strength, and by acting on the law of the strongest breaks up the foundations of society." The Founders were not primarily concerned with giving the people the right to vote. They intended to liberate the people from predatory government, whether monarchistic, theocratic, or democratic.

Related Reading:

On a Revisionist's Proposal to Upend the Declaration of Independence

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