Of Constitutions and Secretaries

Politics by Adam on 2006-03-11 05:35

It is common for left-leaning political activists to consider a nation’s constitution as a hindrance to progress. On the surface, they appear to make a strong argument: what makes a dusty old document, written centuries ago by people who have little in common with us today, important to a modern democratic nation-state?

That’s a simple question with a complex answer, but let me see if I can boil it down.

Government is, at its heart, a way to organize a large body of people. Government is not a producer or a consumer; its purpose is a support role, providing infrastructure that allows people to produce, consume, and generally lead their lives. Government does not produce art, bear children, or enjoy entertainment. It creates a framework so that we, the people, can do those things.

Think of government as being similar to a secretary. The secretary at your office plays a very important role, providing organization and support services to the people who do the company’s business. He or she is a sort of a glue that holds everything together.

But the actual work done by the company - selling widgets, manufacturing gizmos, whatever - is done by others. A company of 100% secretaries would not produce anything. As important as the secretarial role is, too many of them in proportion to the rest of the company is just plain silly. Ultimately a company would probably never have use for more than about 10% secretaries, and probably far fewer than that in most cases.

In the same way, government is a sort of secretary for its people. Too much government has the same problem as too many secretaries: imbalance. When the ratio of bureaucracy (government) to everything else (people and private industry) gets out of whack, the nation’s productivity, prosperity, and ultimately its happiness suffers.

This seems like a simple enough problem to solve: just don’t hire too many secretaries. Don’t make the government too big in proportion to the population to begin with. Case closed, right?

No, because there’s a catch (”always a catch..”). Government has a natural propensity to grow, whether or not the population itself is growing. This effect is due to an unfortunate aspect of human nature: the desire for power. Whether it be an individual or an organization, once the taste of power has been acquired, it almost always leads to grabs for more. And more. And more.

The rise of civilization is sometimes divided into stages based on the size of the organizations people form: first villages, then cities, and finally states. At each stage you have more people, which requires more bureaucracy, but that’s ok, because that growth of bureaucracy will enhance the prosperity and happiness of its people. But once a society reaches a growth plateau, government should plateau, too. But it doesn’t: it keeps growing, both in terms of actual size (percentage of GDP consumed, number of people employed, number of laws on the books, etc) and in terms of its power. So now, instead of being an instrument of improvement for its people, the government begins to oppress its people. In some or even most cases, those in power had perfectly good intentions. In other cases they did not. Regardless, the end is almost always the same: inefficiency, corruption, and eventual self-destruction. (For some dramatic examples, consider France in the 18th century or the USSR in the 20th.)

Is there any solution to this inevitable-doom scenario? A few 17th century philosophers thought so. They put their minds to the problem of determining a way to constrain the size and power of government. The goal was to hold it in the sweet spot where it is large enough to organize people to maximal prosperity, but small enough to not oppress them. The method of doing this would be a document, called a constitution.

A constitution is in some ways an ultimate law, one that holds the power of government in check. In order for this to work it is important that the document be short, simple, and principled. It has to be easy to read and understand and unambiguous. And its purpose is not to government people, but to govern the government itself. This is done not by setting laws, but by enumerating the powers granted to the governing bodies. If a power is not listed in the document, it is reserved for the people of the nation.

This point is simple, but its importance is of such weight that it bears repeating. Government can only exercise powers found in its constitution. Period.

Is this too restrictive? What about culture, technological, and societal changes which might make some of the principles of the document obsolete? Can the document be changed to address changing times? Absolutely! But it requires a long and careful process, one which does everything possible to guarantee agreement from the nation’s people. If you’re going to change the very principles on which a nation operates, you damn well better get consent from its people.

The legislative body of a government can pass as many laws as they want within the realm of the powers granted to them. For example, the US Constitution grants Congress the power to raise and maintain a military. Congress can pass all sorts of laws about how the military is organized, what it does, what money is allocated for it, where it goes… and so on. They don’t need to get direct permission from the people: this is a power granted to them by the Constitution.

To pick a converse example, the US Constitution does not grant any powers to Congress regarding what food and drink individuals in the nation may choose to consume. Because this is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, it is off-limits for congressional legislation. Individuals hold complete power to choose their own consumption habits, for good or for ill.

Now, if Congress (and the nation agrees) that they should have the power to restrict what we can eat or drink, we do have a way around this limitation. We call it a constitutional amendment. This modifies the original document to grant (or remove) a power. Constitutional amendments take way more effort than an ordinary law, but that’s on purpose. Unlike regular laws which get passed in the thousands every year, many with hardly a whisper of debate, amendments take a lot of work. Therefore they don’t happen unless they are really and truly warranted.

For example, when the US Congress decided that it should have the power to ban the drinking of alcoholic beverages, this was not within its powers. A (short lived) constitutional amendment was passed to grant that power.

Unfortunately, in the last 70 years or so, the US has largely abandoned its constitution. We have thousands of laws on the books that are unconstitutional, and few people - lawmakers, citizens, or even judges - seem to understand the full weight of this problem. A government, especially a large one, most have a set of guiding principles that give it shape over the long term. Otherwise it becomes a shapeless mass of bureaucracy, growing and morphing without direction or plan, and eventually ballooning to a size that smoothers its people. When that happens, revolution and overthrow is the only thing that will can save its people. Constitutions are a way out of this trap.

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