September 17, 2010
On this happy Constitution Day, the 223rd anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia, I though it would be appropriate to reproduce the words of the Preamble, which make it clear what it was all about:
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.
In my U.S. Government class lectures this week, I have emphasized that the Constitution was not a divinely-inspired work of perfection, but was rather the result of pragmatic compromises among various factions. We should all be thankful that the "Miracle of Philadelphia" came to happy fruition, but we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that our Founding Fathers were benevolent geniuses. They were just very wise, practical men who knew their history and had a clear-eyed view of human nature. For further details, see the complete U.S. Constitution text. And yes, this will be on the final exam!
Another issue raised by the Constitution is the meaning of the phrase We the People. Which people, exactly? Acceptance of the Constitution was by no means universal, and it took some heavy-handed persuasion to get the necessary nine states to ratify it. North Carolina initially voted against it, but then later accepted it, while Rhode Island became the last state to do so on May 29, 1790. In his book Restoring the Lost Constitution (2004)*, Georgetown professor Randy Barnett inquires into the question of Constitutional legitimacy, and consequences of less-than-unanimous acceptance. Are dissenters morally bound to respect the Constitution as "supreme law of the land"? Barnett says that they are, but only as long as the Constitution protects the preexisting rights of the people. As long as individuals have a solid guarantee against arbitrary government intrusion or seizure of property, they are considered bound by its terms. So what happens if the government oversteps its rightful bounds and starts to oppress the God-given rights of its citizens? In that case, I'd say all bets are off...
* Hat tip to my former colleague at Sweet Briar College, Dr. Stephen Bragaw, for suggesting that book to me. It is a more advanced, scholarly treatment of the topic addressed in the excellent book Who Killed the Constitution?, written by Thomas Woods and (Facebook friend) Kevin Gutzman.
It is fashionable, especially among progressives, to derogate the importance of the Constitution or to bend its meaning according to contemporary tastes. Among our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson would be the one most inclined to agree with this point of view. When I was in Washington last June, I stopped at the Jefferson Memorial and took note of this quotation engraved in stone on the interior of the wall:
I am ... not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. ... But ... laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
While at the Jefferson Memorial, I bought a book, Selected Writings of Jefferson, edited by Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. It includes the above quote, on page 89, from Jefferson's letter to to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, or 1810, according to some sources such as monticello.org. Ellipses (...) added where the original text was deleted.
As noted at the Tenth Amendment Center, President Obama [cited Jefferson in his commencement address at the University of Michigan last May to promote activist government,] an example of "Hijacking Thomas Jefferson" for purposes in direct conflict with his own deepest-held values. Jefferson would roll over in his grave if he knew that his flexible, enlightened, progressive philosophy were being used today to advance an agenda of ever-increasing government power.
The rise of the Tea Party movement calls to light a fascinating paradox: The folks who insist on upholding the Constitution as it was originally meant to be ironically embody the destabilizing force against which the Constitution was designed to protect! Last summer, for example, right-wing rabble-rouser Richard Viguerie, released the Mount Vernon Statement: "Constitutional Conservatism: A Statement for the 21st Century." If you listen to Sean Hannity or Sarah Palin or just about any right-wing populist these days, you'll probably hear the same description: "constitutional conservative." That's what they call Christine O'Donnell. Good grief... The invocation of the Constitution by agitating demagogues raises big doubts in my mind.
Speaking of Viguerie, he had an op-ed piece in the Washington Post last April that offered advice with which I strongly agree [up to a point, but then he got the situation backwards]:
Most important, tea partiers must remain distinct from both political parties. The GOP would like nothing better than to co-opt the movement and control the independent conservatives who are its members. But we must keep in mind that perhaps the single biggest mistake of the conservative movement was becoming an appendage of the Republican Party.
Given the recent "grassroots rebellion" against RINOs, in Delaware, Kentucky, and Utah, that is a pretty ironic statement. Those of us with first-hand experience know all too well the hollow pretense of those conniving rebels as though they were fighting like David versus Goliath against the "Republican Establishment." Those "grassroots" are the crooked insiders!
In today's Washington Post, cartoonist Tom Toles captured that irony very aptly, showing the Tea Partiers tossing two GOP elephants overboard from the cargo sailing ship: "Who knew we were the tea?" In sum, the "conservative movement" is becoming an even more exclusive, closed-minded faction every year that passes, drifting farther and farther away from the authentic conservative principles which it espouses. "Conservatism," as it is known in America today, is no longer a philosophy, it is a pathological social phenomenon. Much more on that later.
In a sign of the times, the Wilder Publications Company received heavy criticism for putting a warning label on the U.S. Constitution. "This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today." Good grief! See foxnews.com; hat tip to Shaun Kenney.
Back when Barry Goldwater became the first member of the conservative movement to be nominated for president, the movement had just two legs -- free markets and a strong national defense. After religious conservatives became the third leg, conservatives won three landslide presidential elections in the 1980s. But even that was not enough to stop the expansion of government.
The tea party has added a fourth leg -- an emphasis on limiting government through fidelity to the Constitution and our nation's founding principles, without being operationally aligned with either party.
My friend and colleague Matthew Poteat recently had an op-ed column in the News Leader, "The Good Old Days Never Were." His basic point seemed to be that people who profess to support the Constitution are really engaging in a fanciful nostalgia, imagining a utopia of freedom in the years following the Revolutionary War. My comment:
I don't know of *anyone* who claims that we are less free today than in the 18th century, or that our freedoms have steadily eroded since the Revolution. Please name names! The libertarian argument is, rather, that freedoms have been under attack since FDR's New Deal, and it would be very hard to deny that. Indeed, many people who support a bigger government candidly rationalize this loss of freedom as necessary for our security, or as the inevitable consequence of modernization. ("Brave New World")
You seem to misconstrue the objectives of those who call for a restoration of constitutional liberties. It is not a reactionary campaign to go back to a nostalgic Eden that never was, but is instead a forward-looking movement that is faithful to the *ideals* of the Founding Fathers: to create a "more perfect union." The expansion of minority rights, which you rightly emphasize, goes hand in hand with individual liberty. Take that away, and one of these days, the Feds will come after YOU.
Matthew responded to the effect that Ron Paul once said that the U.S. has suffered a loss of liberty during each war fought over the past 200 years. (Beginning with the War of 1812, evidently.) It's a highly arguable contention, but not altogether without merit. Matthew also cited a libertarian group, the Future of Freedom Foundation, which states quite clearly that the United States began to lose its freedom "in the 20th century." That is almost exactly what I would argue, and does not imply anything about America being more free in the late 18th century than it is today. There are probably a few people who suffer from a deluded nostalgia about the era of our Founding Fathers, but I'm still waiting to hear evidence that would back Matthew's basic claim.
A few months ago, Facebook friend Bruce Bartlett called into question the Heritage Foundation's annual Index of Economic Freedom: "Has America Really Become Economically Unfree?" See forbes.com. It's a highly provocative notion, given the controversial effort of the Obama administration to "transform" the United States of America. Stay tuned...
I used the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom in my dissertation, helping to assess economic policy trends in various countries. There is a certain connection between economic freedom and political freedom, but it's often subtle and indirect. For example, Peru gained in terms of economic freedom during the Fujimori regime of the 1990s, but became less free politically. Nowadays Peru is much freer both economically and politically, following in the footsteps of Chile, which was a military dictatorship for nearly twenty years, but is now a shining example for the rest of Latin America. The big question for us now is, what about China? Will its shift toward free-market capitalism also result in more freedom and democracy? Or will such a transition be delayed for a few decades while its vast working class gradually catches up to the living standards of the industrialized world? By then, sadly, the United States may well have lost its freedom...
I know among the academic elite today that most professors downplay the alleged loss of freedom in our country, and my view is a distinct minority opinion in such circles. Perhaps a quote from Joni Mitchell would be appropriate:
You don't know what you've got till it's gone...
Among the many Web site maintenance chores I've been doing lately is to recreate blog archives for the period prior to November 2004, when I began blogging in a regular, systematic fashion. So far, I've completed that task for the politics and baseball blog posts, which constitution a large majority of all my blog posts. See the Politics Archives page, which now includes a button for 2004. Ultimately, I will do likewise for the other blog categories, going back to May 2002. Each of those blog posts ends with this text: "NOTE: This is a "post facto" blog post, taken from the pre-November 2004 archives." The date stamp will be the same as today.
One final Web site enhancement to mention: I moved all of the biographical information from the Home page to the brand new About page, making a few additions and a few deletions along the way. The new montage includes a photo of me playing guitar at church in March 2009, and that's Matthew Poteat standing in back, playing the harps (harmonica). There is a full paragraph about my adventures in local politics, which achieved some big successes, as well as some bitter disappointments. C'est la vie. I plan to explain those controversial events in greater detail some time in the near future. Note that the core political beliefs to which I subscribe remain unchanged. I will redo the Home page in the next few weeks or so, making it simpler and hopefully more "entertaining."