Is It Time for a New Constitution?

July 19, 2011

The thoughts of this post were inspired by an Op-Ed article in Today’s Financial Times by Gideon Rachman.  The column makes two scintillating observations.  The first is that ideologies that ascribe all truth to a single text can lead to zealously ill-advised codes of conduct, and the other suggests that the U.S. constitution, which was conceived in the 1780s, may over time have become poorly suited for handling contemporary social and economic problems. 

The similarity had occurred to me often between religious fundamentalists finding their answers in the Judeo-Christian bible or Koran and strict constructionists of the U.S. constitution, for whom truth is found in discovering the original intent of that document’s signers.  I had usually concluded, moreover, that the problem with U.S. politics lay in a divide of cultures.  The notion of an ethnic stew, blending different backgrounds into one people has given way to a cultural federation, where many different tribes stay autonomous within the republic.  People in the blue states and red states seldom agree on anything, and a couple of generations have passed since the last military threat that involved everyone in a common purpose and in which defeat would have meant a profound change. 

Rachman’s article suggests a different area in which to explore.  It’s actually counter-intuitive to think that a form of government built for an agrarian society with a colonial history would be the best political architecture 225 years later.  Those who think so, moreover, disregard a central axiom of successful business, which urges entrepreneurs and workers alike to embrace, not resist, change.  Like it or not, change is inevitable.  America was a nation built by pioneers rooted in market capitalism, and the winners, generation after generation after generation, have been people taking a proactive rather than reactive approach to change.  Anticipate the future, and be the first to create new markets and means of production and distribution.  However successful in the past, businesses that cling to old ways fall behind the competition eventually, and many get plowed under. 

Few differentiating characteristics of a capitalist democracy are more basic than their form of government.  If it’s so crucial to be open to change regarding everything else, it makes little sense in this one area to hold the exact opposite view that any deviation from original intent should be forbidden.  To be sure, the framers of the constitution anticipated that changes in the document might be desirable and established a tough gauntlet of hurdles in an amendment process, which by design would limit the number of them approved.  In all, there have been just 27 amendments.  Ten of these initiated by the very first Congress clarify fundamental rights for individuals and states.  Another two imposed and repealed prohibition and so cancel each other.  In the 217 years since 1794, just 15 enduring amendments have been enacted, an average of about one every 15 years.  Internet browsers were in their infancy that span of years ago.  Al Qaeda was not a household word, and the United States was experiencing large federal surpluses. 

Greece is going to default because the government is technically insolvent.  America is not insolvent but might default because of a political system that lacks the flexibility to settle important issues.  The George Washington of modern U.S. conservatism, Ronald Reagan, believed that government wasn’t a solution but rather the problem.  In 2011, one has to wonder if a 225-year-old constitution is the problem and not a means to the solution.  Amendments are like a new part for a machine that is showing its age all over.  More profound repair should perhaps be considered.

Copyright Larry Greenberg 2011.  All rights reserved.  No secondary distribution without express permission.


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