Typically I don’t read Slate.com, for a variety of reason, but a friend of mine brought a recent article of theirs to my attention. The article of course being where judge Richard A. Posner states he doesn’t see any value to spend “decades, years, months, weeks, day, hours, minutes, or seconds studying the Constitution.” His point comes as a sidenote at the end of the brief article, but he goes on to elaborate his reasoning, claiming “Eighteenth-century guys, however smart, could not foresee the culture, technology, etc., of the 21stcentury. Which means that the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the post–Civil War amendments (including the 14th), do not speak to today.”
This comes as shocking to many Americans, especially those that the constitution dear to their heart. The federalist spirit is still alive and well, the belief that for a properly functioning government we need a strict reading of the constitution. That’s where we get the modern term “constitutional conservative” people like to identify as. To clearly show the severity that some people take it to, it’s hard to forget former House Majority Leader Tom Delay’s statement that “God wrote the constitution.” These sentiments have been echoed constantly throughout our nation’s history, but conservatives have come to expect strong constitutional convictions ever since the Reagan era, to a near religious level. In fact in a speech in 1987 Reagan said about the constitution “It is a human covenant, yes, and beyond that, a covenant with the Supreme Being to whom our founding fathers did constantly appeal for assistance.”
Somehow the constitution of the United States has been elevated to the status of a religious document in the minds of many Americans. Obviously Richard Posner’s statement directly conflicts with this.
If Tom Delay really believes that God wrote the constitution, then by his rationale the constitution must be a perfect document (assuming he believes God is perfect). Which is absurd to believe, because the very fact that we have amendments is enough to admit that the constitution is not nearly perfect. And these were some very glaring mistakes too, causing changes in everything from the abolition of slavery, to changing congress meeting dates from December to January.
But the real question still stands at of how much validity the constitution has in these modern times. Theoretically the ability to add amendments should keep the constitution relevant in response to new events, however, it can be notoriously difficult to get a new amendment passed. And even so, there is the obvious problem that perhaps something passed may turn out to be wrong. The constitution was not crafted by God, which leaves room for an extreme error in human reasoning which could result in any number of inappropriate legislature.
Ultimately the constitution is political philosophy put into practice, and therefore the original document represents the consensus of political philosophy at the time. Or, at the least what could be agreed upon at the time. With this reasoning I would like to see more leeway to changes based upon the contemporary philosophical opinions. This sounds obscure, but I promise it has very real effects.
Perhaps the best example of this idea is the FDR’s proposal for a “Second Bill of Rights” to secure economic rights. Roosevelt proposed this idea in 1944 after his State of the Union address, likely as a response to the earlier depression that his administration was famous for confronting. A full video of the rights can be found here, but the Second Bill of Rights would include in his own words:
- The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
- The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
- The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
- The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
- The right of every family to a decent home;
- The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
- The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
- The right to a good education.
There would have to be some definite tweaks to this list, and a few updates to fit with modern times, but otherwise these seem like basic human rights which the constitution does not provide.
My point here is that FDR’s Second Bill of Rights was the culmination of events that happened throughout the Great Depression and this was his conclusion to prevent another such disaster. This is the type of liberty a congress should have to insure the freedom of all Americans and to effectively respond to new issues. However, with this sort of liberty there is always the chance of the power being abused. So to counteract this I’d propose that for every amendment and new legislation that congress outline their exact logic behind the changes, in a step-by-step geometrical fashion. This way we can have a government truly based on reason while encouraging the questioning of our own philosophical groundwork.