Because You’re Not Madison (and I’m not Jefferson)

In an Atlantic article that scares the daylights out of me, Alex Seitz-Waltz writes that it’s time for a new Constitution.

America, we’ve got some bad news: Our Constitution isn’t going to make it. It’s had 224 years of commendable, often glorious service, but there’s a time for everything, and the government shutdown and permanent-crisis governance signal that it’s time to think about moving on. “No society can make a perpetual constitution,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789, the year ours took effect. “The earth belongs always to the living generation and not to the dead .… Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years.” By that calculation, we’re more than two centuries behind schedule for a long, hard look at our most sacred of cows. And what it reveals isn’t pretty.

Well, that clears it up then.  Oh wait. That’s meaningless rhetoric with an appeal to a room filled with people in elaborate tin-foil hats, lede notwithstanding. Any actual point here?

Almost nobody uses the U.S. Constitution as a model—not even Americans. When 24 military officers and civilians were given a single week to craft a constitution for occupied Japan in 1946, they turned to England. The Westminster-style parliament they installed in Tokyo, like its British forebear, has two houses. But unlike Congress, one is clearly more powerful than the other and can override the less powerful one during an impasse.

Ah, a reason.  For one reason and/or another (notice that effective use of “and/or,” because some of us have more than one issue with the Constitution these days), many people think the Constitution is no longer sufficient to address our “modern” needs.  After all, doesn’t it wear out over time? Doesn’t it have a shelf-life?  An expiration date?

It doesn’t do what I want it to do, dammit!

But there are concepts buried within its structure that are pretty darned important.  Things like checks and balances, preventing the tyranny of the majority. that sort of stuff.  Most people don’t know it’s in there, but it is. Most people can’t understand why it matters, until they’re on the receiving end of some government induced grief, when they suddenly get religion and scream as loud as they can about how nobody cares about their rights.

This is America, dammit!

Is the Constitution perfect? I suppose not, but I’m not entirely sure that the Constitution is the problem.  Then what is?  Us. You. Me. All of us.  The Constitution provides the framework, but it relies on people to make it happen.  We’re smart and stupid, honest and dishonest, selfish and altruistic, good and evil. We are the stewards of concepts, and we treat them poorly.  We use them for our own ends and blame the concepts, as if it made us behave that way.

Maybe there is a more perfect union to be had, but I don’t trust you to come up with it.  And frankly, even if you did, I don’t trust you to execute it.  People have been surveyed, and their political ignorance is astounding. Do away with the Fourth Amendment because it lets criminals go free?  As a proposition, it would be a winner in any election.

All of the nice folks who think revolution is coming because we’ve over-militarized ourselves into a freedom-loathing oligarchy will be in for a huge shock when they find out that the vast majority of Americans adore safety and figure their rights are doing fine enough. You see, they may feel bad about the occasional injustice, but not bad enough to disrupt their wonderful day at the bowling alley.  Your outrage isn’t theirs. No, it’s not, no matter how certain you are.

So what’s the answer? That’s the child’s question, as if there is always an answer, or at least an easy answer.  Sometimes the answer is that no Constitution can undo the harm humans can do when in power.  If our political arms of government were guided by doing what’s best for the nation, we would still have massive disagreement over what that means, but we would at least be struggling toward an actual goal.

Instead, we feign concern for the country to put politics and party ahead of our national welfare. No, not one party or another, not one political philosophy or another, but all of them.  Sorry, but you can no more blame this on Obama than you can on Bush. Or Rand Paul, if that’s your cup of tea.

What would end the gridlock? Making me benevolent dictator, because I would do what I think is best for all of us.  What?  You think that’s a terrible idea, and that I shouldn’t be let anywhere near power?  Then who? You? Are you nuts? I wouldn’t trust you to carry my bags.

See the problem?  We perceive ourselves as being well-intended and possessed of sufficient intelligence and good will to make the decisions necessary to move our country forward.  If that happened, we would be cool with the Constitution, as it’s really an amazingly good tool to accomplish these things if used by good people in good ways for the public good. But we don’t trust others who disagree with us because they are wrong, stupid and evil.

Is it the Constitution’s fault that people suck?  Is it the Constitution’s fault that the people on the ballot are a bunch of lying, self-serving, scheming politicians?  If we have a new, improved Constitution, would we have a better crop of human beings running the show?

We don’t need a new Constitution. We need to grow up and use the one we have a whole lot better. If we can’t, then no Constitution is going to make things better.

And if we can, then this Constitution will do just fine.


16 comments on “Because You’re Not Madison (and I’m not Jefferson)

  1. Ken Bellone

    I must admit that I hadn’t looked at it quite that way, but cannot find a thing to argue about. We are the problem, not the document.

    People who argue in favor of re-writing it, or making changes to it, generally scare me. Not much scares me.

    1. SHG Post author

      I would like a country where we didn’t need to make up such rules because we would be able to trust that no law would be enacted that wasn’t fully conceived, vetted, and utterly necessary to the best interest of our nation within the limitations of our Constitution..

  2. Wheeze The People™

    When it’s time for a new Constitution, there will be a new Constitution — See Article V of the U. S. Constitution. Until then, STFU and GTFO . . .

  3. Bruce Coulson

    “There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.” John Adams

    “If all men were angels, no government would be necessary; if they were all devils, no government would be possible. It is the fact that men are both angels and devils that makes government both possible and necessary.” various attributions; generally James Madison.

    Strange that for such outdated and obsolete thinkers, their points are still quite relevant.

    1. SHG Post author

      I think that’s right, though I would hesitate to use it as an example since I don’t see conservatives any more inclined than progressives to look beyond partisanship.

        1. SHG Post author

          And you know how people inclined toward extreme partisanship tend to miss the point and focus on their special ox.

  4. Ed

    Here you go (good luck).
    The Constitution of the Universe

    The purpose of human life is to live happily.
    The function of government is to guarantee those conditions that allow individuals to fulfill their purpose. Those conditions can be guaranteed through a constitution that forbids the use of initiatory force, fraud, or coercion by any person or group against any individual:
    * * *
    Article 1
    No person, group of persons, or government may initiate force, threat of force, or fraud against any individual’s self or property.
    Article 2
    Force may be morally and legally used only in self-defense against those who violate Article 1.
    Article 3
    No exceptions shall exist for Articles 1 and 2.

    1. Jim Majkowski

      Why try to re-invent the wheel? If you wish simplicity that relies on men to be good, why try to improve on the Sermon on the Mount?

      1. SHG Post author

        He didn’t invent it. This is a whackjob meme of how we can fix society by dumbing it down to the point of absurdity. It appeals to the tin-foil hat crowd, but since it’s a pointless effort to explain why it’s batshit crazy, there is no reason to bother.

  5. John Neff

    If the constitution is replaced what will happen to the 200 + years of case law and precedent? How long would it take to recover from the resulting damage? If I had to choose between being bombed and replacing the constituion it would be an easy choice.

  6. doug nusbaum

    This article deals with symptoms. I like to think that I address causes

    In 1984, the interrogator says to winston smith:
    “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

    [Ed. Note: Balance of comment deleted as inappropriate self-promotion. This is not the way or place to get people to read your essays.]

  7. kp

    Just watch New Zealand as they completely screw up their attempt to write a modern constiution and you will see what the USA would end up with. Expect page afer page of politically-correct Socialist crap defining hundreds of so-called “rights” to be paid for by the taxpayer, and most importantly, enshrining ‘democracy’ as the only form of Govt.

    Personally, anyone who wants to get into power shouldn’t be allowed to get anywhere near it, and political selection should be by ballot. You get a one-time summons to do your duty and join a few hundred other randomly picked people for 4 years of runnng the country. That would be a REAL representative Govt, for better or for worse.

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