Beyond the Constitution

Mr. Wilson, in your latest article on you state that the 1787 constitution cannot be counted on to ensure liberty. Point taken! However, what should we then strive for? A return to the Articles of Confederation or an even more decentralized league of polities that looks more like the Holy Roman Empire than the EU? Personally, I’d say make Washington the equivalent for the lower 48 to what New York is to the UN members. What would you propose?

Every nation, including the USA, is ruled by men, not by laws or constitutions. Liberty is protected by the people, to the extent that they desire liberty. And that is, ultimately, a cultural, rather than a merely political, question. The people of today will interpret the Constitution to mean what they want it to mean. But that is not to say that the Constitution has not itself profoundly influenced our culture. The institutions of authority into which we are born affect our worldviews. A lapsed Catholic would see the world differently than a lapsed Lutheran, who would see it differently than a lapsed Moslem. A child raised with an abusive father would see things differently than a child raised with no father at all.

Likewise, the laws of the land will influence our view of the world. As I wrote yesterday, the Constitution did not invent liberty, and will not protect it if the people want to give it up for something else. But I shouldn't discount the Constitution too much. When the people seek to overturn injustice and the encroachments of the State, they invoke the Constitution and especially its Bill of Rights, not an abstract ideal of liberty. The Constitution has been admired not just by Americans, but also by classical liberals and libertarians throughout the world. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of a libertarian movement without it. Although not a libertarian document, it provides the legal standard by which we oppose the Welfare State, the Police State, and Imperial Warfare State. So while the Constitution did not invent liberty, it has helped shape libertarian beliefs and values – our conception of liberty in and for America. Laws tend to do that, for good and for ill: they help shape our worldviews.

What I don't think we should do, however, is go "back" to a political tradition which respected the Constitution, for reasons stated yesterday. More than that, it is impossible. We go forward in time, not backward. The nature of the Republic and its people have changed. Phases in a life, or in a country, do not revolve. As time marches on, we enter new phases; we do not re-enter old ones. We will not go back to the beliefs and practices 1912, 1884, 1836, or 1776. Nor would we want to. Previous generations may have preserved the Constitution better, but they also preserved a lot of other beliefs and values we find reprehensible. To advocate "going back" to the Constitution is "politically incorrect" in its truest sense: it is unfeasible, counter-productive, and foolish. Many people think we still live under the Constitution and will wonder what we're talking about anyway. Many others do not even care about the Constitution at all, or view it as an obstacle to their ideological agenda.

The alternative is to move beyond the Constitution. This is what my correspondent asks. What would that look like? I don't know, exactly, and no blueprint drawn up today will ever come to fruition exactly as planned anyway. But freedom is our value, our highest political end, and we ought not confuse means such as democracy, separation of powers, and federalism, with that end.

The key is to preserve our best traditions and values as we move forward, to promote those things that once made us feel lucky and proud to be Americans: a commitment to peace and the avoidance of entangling alliances and needless disputes with foreign nations; the preservation of our traditional civil liberties (speech, religion, self-defense, due process of law); democratic, decentralized, local government; free, unregulated trade within a large common market. These are desirable no matter the form of our political arrangements, and our political arrangements will be shaped by these values.

To move "beyond" the Constitution means to frame debates in moral terms, not Constitutional legalese. For values shape culture, and culture shapes politics. Who should control the schools, parents or federal 'crats? Who should prescribe grandma's pain medication, her doctor or the Attorney General? If a hurricane devastates a state, why is its National Guard thousands of miles away "liberating" strangers who despise our occupation? Why are our women fondled by federal security at airports?

If the people, or the states, say, "Enough is enough!" then we will see change. We just don't know what it will look like. It may mean dissolution of the Union and the creation of independent states and/or regional confederations. Or maybe the Union will stick together, with Constitutional balances restored. It doesn't particularly matter to me.

So you could say that I am striving for peace and freedom. If these become our nation's values once again, then the politics will take care of itself.

March 17, 2005

James Leroy Wilson Archives