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September 17, 2010

Constitution Day

Today is Constitution Day.

Therefore, it well behooveth the assembled villainry to spend the day engaged in solemn contemplation of the origins and meaning of this most social of compacts:

...if there were no Constitution, there would be no United States and, for that matter, no federal government.

The several states at the time of the drafting of the Constitution were each as separate and sovereign as France, Poland, or Germany today. Recognizing that by virtue of their small size and common borders, there were efficiencies to be realized in such areas as Postal Service, post roads, common defense, border control, international relations, and commerce between and among the states, they entered into a partnership -- a business arrangement, if you will -- to provide those services necessary to the common protection and promotion of the betterment (the general welfare) of the states as a group and individually. The partnership agreement is better known by its title: The United States Constitution.

...the states not only delegated only certain powers to the federal government, but they also specifically -- in amendments nine and ten, which were adopted at the time of the ratification -- reserved to the states any and all powers not given to the federal government.

So what is the federal government? Simply a partnership of the several states to perform functions which would be too costly for the aggregate of individual states to provide for themselves. The logistical problems of providing, for example, for the national defense, utilizing the fifty states as a joint command, would render such an undertaking practically impossible. The result would be no defense of the common fifty states.

Naturlich, no study of our governing documents would be complete without a corresponding examination of both the nature of the polity for which it was devised and the goods being traded:

The gap between political realities and their public face is so great that the term “paradox” tends to crop up from sentence to sentence. Our rulers are theoretically “our” representatives, but they are busy turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up. The business of governments, one might think, is to supply the framework of law within which we may pursue happiness on our own account. Instead, we are constantly being summoned to reform ourselves. Debt, intemperance, and incompetence in rearing our children are no doubt regrettable, but they are vices, and left alone, they will soon lead to the pain that corrects. Life is a better teacher of virtue than politicians, and most sensible governments in the past left moral faults to the churches. But democratic citizenship in the twenty-first century means receiving a stream of improving “messages” from politicians. Some may forgive these intrusions because they are so well intentioned. Who would defend prejudice, debt, or excessive drinking? The point, however, is that our rulers have no business telling us how to live. They are tiresome enough in their exercise of authority—they are intolerable when they mount the pulpit. Nor should we be in any doubt that nationalizing the moral life is the first step towards totalitarianism.

We might perhaps be more tolerant of rulers turning preachers if they were moral giants. But what citizen looks at the government today thinking how wise and virtuous it is? Public respect for politicians has long been declining, even as the population at large has been seduced into demanding political solutions to social problems. To demand help from officials we rather despise argues for a notable lack of logic in the demos. The statesmen of eras past have been replaced by a set of barely competent social workers eager to take over the risks of our everyday life. The electorates of earlier times would have responded to politicians seeking to bribe us with such promises with derision. Today, the demos votes for them.

Our rulers, then, increasingly deliberate on our behalf, and decide for us what is the right thing to do. The philosopher Socrates argued that the most important activity of a human being was reflecting on how one ought to live. Most people are not philosophers, but they cannot avoid encountering moral issues. The evident problem with democracy today is that the state is pre-empting—or “crowding out,” as the economists say—our moral judgments. Nor does the state limit itself to mere principle. It instructs us on highly specific activities, ranging from health provision to sexual practices. Yet decisions about how we live are what we mean by “freedom,” and freedom is incompatible with a moralizing state. That is why I am provoked to ask the question: can the moral life survive democracy?

It is a question that has been asked before:

... "freedom and bread enough for all are," in the opinion of the Grand Inquisitor, "inconceivable together." As long, therefore, as men are free not to choose what is best for society, a stable, perfect social order with bread enough for all is impossible.

Over the last few years we've talked quite a bit about what is wrong with today's system and what we might do to remedy its defects. We examined the pillars of government one by one. We have entertained various proposals to amend the Constitution. I found another interesting one during my travails travels this morning:

Resolution for Congress to Convene a Convention to Propose Amendments Constituting a Bill of Federalism

And then there's this, sent me by spd the other day. It is both simpler and (perhaps) more difficult to execute but it has real possibilities:

In its next session beginning in January, the legislature of Virginia will consider proposing a constitutional "Repeal Amendment." The Repeal Amendment would give two-thirds of the states the power to repeal any federal law or regulation. Its text is simple:

"Any provision of law or regulation of the United States may be repealed by the several states, and such repeal shall be effective when the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states approve resolutions for this purpose that particularly describe the same provision or provisions of law or regulation to be repealed."

In thinking it over, though, the same thought kept occurring to me: we are looking for a way to fix the system but what if the problem isn't the system at all, but human nature?

Such plans seem quite reasonable, but I'm not sure they don't require an electorate capable of far more self discipline than we have demonstrated in 200+ years of self governance. What if, to paraphrase the Bard, the fault lies not in our system but in ourselves?

If that is true, then won't the very same human failings that led us to this pass frustrate any attempt to turn back the clock?

I am beginning to think that the only effective check on human nature is the galactic equivalent of a 2x4 upside the head: the proverbial clue bat of negative consequences. In any system that leaves us free to contract away responsibility for our own decisions, history shows that we will do that every time. The answer seems obvious: take away the ability to force our fellow citizens to protect us from the results of our own decisions.

I wonder whether even conservatives (who love to speak of freedom as though it were an unalloyed good) would accept such a system, though? Unless, of course, someone were to hit them upside the heads with the world's biggest clue bat first.

And then I suspect the lesson would not long outlast the memory of how much it hurt last time.

Posted by Cassandra at September 17, 2010 01:56 PM

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Lady, you sure think hard for a Friday afternoon.

Posted by: spd rdr at September 17, 2010 06:17 PM

How can I say, "You think too much"...
Let me count the ways

What is it Ron White always says? Oh yeah - "next time you have a thought, let it go."

Some day maybe I'll finally take that on board and the world will have a helluva lot less hot air.

Posted by: Cssndr at September 17, 2010 07:17 PM

I wouldn't think of contradicting spd, who doubtless has your joy at heart; but I do enjoy these posts, which I say only to offer my own opinion.

Posted by: Grm at September 17, 2010 07:48 PM

More and more, I see parallels between us and ancient Rome. The Romans also believed that Rome could never fall, no matter how much they abused the system or the people, right up to the time the Goths and Vandals sacked and pillaged the Eternal City.

The great Roman Republic became an empire. Although it led to a time of seeming greatness and power, it led to internal and moral decay which ultimately destroyed Rome from within. The Roman Republic faced threats to its existence from Hannibal and Carthage far greater than the barbarian incursions of later centuries, but its internal strength was gone by then.

In America, the Constitution and its inherent "social compact" lasted barely more than a generation before sowing the ultimate seeds of its own demise in the Civil War. In Rome too, the various civil wars of the Marius, Sulla, etc. period sowed the seeds of the Republic's demise into empire, although no one recognized it at the time.

We prefer to forget that slavery was explicitly allowed in the Constitution. If the Northern states had insisted on abolition in the 1780s, there would have never been a United States. The Southern states would have formed their own separate entity most likely. Instead, a deal was made which was acceptable to both North and South, and the sovereign states voluntarily entered into a Union.

Little more than a generation later, the Northern states reneged on this compact and attempted to forcibly impose abolition upon the South. The South rightly complained that abolition was not part of the deal they had entered into (the Constitution). When the North continued attempts to coerce the South to conduct their affairs as the North deemed proper, the South seceded. Secession logically follows from the North's breach of the "social compact".

The North refused to allow a "live and let live" attitude, and used the ultimate coercion, military force, to coerce Southern obedience to Northern demands. The Civil War, therefore, stands for the proposition that we are no longer bound by the rule of law or a written Constitution, but by who can impose their will upon another at gunpoint.

Yes, yes, the moral wrong of slavery is trumpeted as the complete absolution for such coercive acts, but that simply ignores the truth of what really happened. Slavery was undoubtedly evil, but was a dying institution, even in the South, by the time of the Civil War. Most Southerners did not own slaves, but resented the Northerners telling them what they could or could not do on principle. Another generation would have most likely seen the peacable extinction of slavery.

Instead, the Civil War stood for the destruction of state's rights and power, and the elevation of an all-powerful Federal govt. After all, military power makes right, and if SCOTUS calls your powers unconstitutional, just throw them in jail like Lincoln did. When you are doing God's Holy Work, small things like laws cannot be allowed to get into the way.

It has taken more than a century for the seeds of the Civil War to bear its poisonous fruit. Nevertheless, the 9th and 10th amendments are essentially dead, killed on battlefields like Gettysburg. It has taken decades for the Federal govt to become the bloated foul beast it is now, but who was left to stop its inexorable rise and expansion? The founders intended the States to counterbalance the Feds, as was written in the Constitution, but the States' power was stripped from them during the crusade to end the moral wrong of slavery.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that we should beware the unintended consequences of even noble-seeming actions. The Civil War is, in my mind, a great tragedy. Although a noble purpose was achieved, the seeds of great evil were also planted. I don't know how we will ever be able to restore balance to the Constitution, which I believe is the only way to effectively control the federal govt.

Posted by: a former european at September 17, 2010 11:15 PM

afe, I can't disagree.

I was very surprised when, as an adult, I became interested in the Civil War, to find myself coming to the conclusion that we were wrong to prevent the South from seceding. I say this as someone who could not loathe the idea of slavery more.

We did the wrong thing for the right reasons, but it was still the wrong thing. Anyway, great comment - thanks.


If you enjoyed it then I consider the time more than well spent. I lost this post 3 times yesterday - twice to Firefox and once to my own stupidity. So the final version wasn't what I intended, but it is what it is :p

Posted by: Cassandra at September 18, 2010 10:18 AM

I wouldn't think of contradicting spd, who doubtless has your joy at heart;

Wise fella, that Grm. :-)

Posted by: spd rdr at September 18, 2010 12:21 PM

After all, military power makes right

Same was true in the Revolutionary War.

The civil war never did make any "new standards" to follow. If you want independence from your own government, you need to fight for it, period. There is no "moral luck" here.

The fact that people thought otherwise, was why they were delusional and living in lalaland. With concurrently negative consequences in war.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 18, 2010 09:20 PM

Most Southerners did not own slaves, but resented the Northerners telling them what they could or could not do on principle. Another generation would have most likely seen the peacable extinction of slavery.

Which is why the class of slave owners went ahead and got the Southerners who didn't own slaves, killed in something called a war.

They weren't going to allow the peaceful extinction of slavery. For one thing, they didn't believe the economy could change that much and still be prosperous. If they did, they'd just ignore the Northern States and bolster the federal government, which consistently sided with the Southern states on the issues of law and property (slaves), but which was not enforced by the Northern States due to personal ideology.

Secession, no matter how it is looked at, is not something that empowers the federal government of the United States to secure the rights of all states or property owning individuals.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 18, 2010 09:24 PM

We did the wrong thing for the right reasons

Lincoln didn't fight the war for the right reasons. If by right reasons you mean to end slavery.

That wasn't part of the equation for him.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 18, 2010 09:31 PM


For a primary historical document and its proper insights, read this one to see for yourself what people back then thought they were doing.

It's not what the history books said it was. At least, not entirely.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 18, 2010 09:37 PM