Let’s have a moment of silence in memory of the US Constitution. Its place in our hearts fades away, generation by generation, leaving nothing but an empty space. As the controlling instructions for our government, it has become a “living document” whose primary role is to die, so that our ruling elites have more freedom to arrange our affairs to suit their needs. This post is a continuation of a series speculating about the future of our Constitution; at the end are links to the previous chapters (most esp this one).
In addition to our weak allegiance to our political regime — and the liberties it provides — there are two forces killing the Constitution:
- The government’s increasing power, which the Constitution was designed to shackle.
- Demographic change
The history of the Constitution, the long fading away
The United States has evolved away from a Constitutional regime since its founding. The original conception of the government, as set forth in the Constitution, was limited. Much of the Constitutional machinery was intended to restrain the government; the Bill of Rights was intended to provide additional safeguards to limit the government’s power. This experiment has clearly failed, as a brief look at our clearly shows.
- President Jefferson — the original advocate for limited government, found it too constraining in 1803 when making the Louisiana Purchase.
- Chief Justice Marshall found its delegation of power to the Courts to be inadequate, rewriting it in 1803 with Marbury vs. Madison.
- It was reshaped like Play-Doh during the New Deal.
- All wartime Presidents have found it inconvenient, and used the necessity of war to extend their powers
Now we enter a new period of stress, during which I expect our government to assume new forms and powers — as it has done in similar periods in our past. To do so the Constitution must again be trampled on and ignored.
Demographics undercutting the Constitution
Demographic change has undermined the Constitution order in several ways.
- Population growth
- Concentrating population
The nature of a representative democracy — the degree and manner in which elected officials represent citizens, depends to a large extent on the number of people voting per official (see Wikipedia for size of the House).
- In 1789 the United States had approx 5 million people and 120 representatives: approx 41 thousand people per member (only a fraction of them could vote, of course).
- The population was 92 million in 1911 when the House was increased to its current number of 435 members; each represented approx 211 thousand people (again, only a fraction of them could vote).
- We still have 535 in the House, but now representing 300 million people, approx 690 thousand people per member.
As the number of people “represented” by each official increases, they naturally grow more remote from us. The rulers grow in status and power — and hence inevitably in wealth (legally or otherwise). The other side of the equation: each citizen’s vote loses strength. The individual’s ability to affect the machinery diminishes. Disinterest in the system, even alienation, easily follows. Eventually the regime’s legitimacy erodes.
Far worse is the critical weakness in the Senate’s design. As a result of the Great Compromise during the Constitutional Convention, every State has two votes. Wyoming, with 523 thousand people. California, with 36 million. The ten largest States have more people than the remaining 40. The fifth largest, Illinois, has more people than the 11 smallest States. (See Wikipedia for population by State)
Worse, this disparity is growing as population slides from the rural center to the coasts. These rotten boroughs (to borrow a term from 19th century UK) increasingly shape US legislative action. During good times there is plenty of swag to divide among everybody’s constituencies, and policy choices are among nice alternatives. During difficult times such an injustice, a violation of our basic principles, might become intolerable.
Yet the economic cost to the low population States could be severe. Today they feast off their disproportionate share of the Federal government’s largess. Living off their own income will be a substantial and painful change. How will they weigh their pocketbooks vs. America’s core principles? Under Article V of the current Constitution this cannot be changed without the consent of each state losing its “equal Suffrage in the Senate.”
The Articles of Confederation was the Mark I version of our political Regime. The Constitution is the Mark II. There will be a Mark III. It is not too soon to begin thinking about the Mark III. Our Constitution is just an idea, inherited from the Founders. We created it, and its death will give us the experience to do better with the next version.
These stresses on our political regime can only grow. We can proactively reform the structure, using the slow but sure process of amending the Constitution so that it better meets our needs. This process requires wisdom to craft good amendments and the patience to build the necessary consensus. The result might be radically different than our current political system.
Or we can wait until the problem becomes a crisis, like an overweight couch potato who bursts his buttons in public. There are so many ways that could work out poorly. Dissent or even paralysis at a critical moment. Panicky, rushed, poorly conceived changes. A few minutes thought can spin some nightmare scenarios. Perhaps worst nightmare would be an new Convention, called under Article V:
The Congress, whenever 2/3 of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of 2/3’s of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments,
which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of 3/4 of the several States, or by Conventions in 3/4’s thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress;
Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year 1808 shall in any Manner affect the 1st and 4th Clauses in the 9th Section of the 1st Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
An important thing to remember when fixing the Constitution
From If We Can Keep It, by Chet Richards (review here):
We need to be careful, though, that in changing it, we move closer to ideals stated in the Preamble, which, because it may have been a while since many readers have thought about it, is worth repeating:
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
How will this play out? The end of the Constitution will be like a singularity in astrophysics. We cannot see beyond it, because we do not see or understand the choices that will determine our fate — let alone how we will choose. It also resembles a singularity in that what lies on the other side is unimportant until one survives the passage through it.
Political regimes come, and they leave. The Constitution has brought incredible freedom and prosperity to America, but that does not make it eternal. As Queen Gertrude says to Hamlet (Act I, scene 2):
Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know’st ’tis common;
all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
** The movie “The Matrix” prominently featured a version of this: “All that lives must die.”
For more information
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Some other posts about the Constitution and our government:
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
- The Constitution: wonderful, if we can keep it, 15 February 2008
- Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
- See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
- Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
- Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008