Friday, January 7, 2011

Why The U.S. Constitution Really Matters: It's A Living Structure, Not An Outdated Straitjacket

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This article was published in PajamasMedia and the full text--with updates and improvements--is published here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

There has been a great deal of discussion in the United States about the Constitution--despite the fact that it was promulgated over two centuries ago--and whether it is relevant to contemporary America. Indeed, the U.S. Congress took the step--which amazingly turned out to be controversial and supposedly partisan--of actually reading that brief document at the start of its session.

As someone who has taught college courses on U.S. history, including the early period, I thought it would be interesting to give some longer-term perspective on this issue.

The founders of the United States were not merely technicians setting up an administrative framework and a set of rules. They had pondered long and hard over the lessons of long-term history as to why republics had always seemed to fail and how governments had tended over time to become tyrannical.

From this study, debate, and analysis their most important conclusion was that human beings could not be trusted with power. Those who had power--at least many or most of them--would misuse it to make themselves wealthy;to order around other people; to hold onto office forever; to increase their authority endlessly; and generally to benefit themselves, their friends, and their supporters.

What was the solution? Their unanimous conclusion was that two safeguards were needed:

1. To divide power among as many institutions as would be possible without paralyzing government. On the Federal level this meant there was a division among the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches. Each of them had a large measure of independence and could check the others if they went too far.

Equally, power was divided among the Federal government and independent state and local authorities.

2. To limit government, leaving the maximum amount of freedom in the hands of individuals.

These two strategies were tremendous innovations. While in need of some adjustment over time, this was basically to define the precise boundaries in each case, not to transform fundamentally the structure as a whole. The history of the past two centuries--and especially the twentieth century--showed just how right they were in this plan.

For example, Communism came up with the idea of being even "more" democratic, placing power in the hands of the "proletariat." But as the founders of America could have told them, in the end this just meant giving absolute power to those who claimed to be the representatives of the masses, and in particular a man named Joseph Stalin.

The French Revolution was another disaster, leading to mass murder, a dictatorship, and more than a quarter-century of massive violence. Let's remember that in continental Europe generally today, the French Revolution is regarded as a great and wonderful event that ushered in democracy. That says something about the difference in basic political philosophy between Europe and America.

Even in the twenty-first century, the lessons about human behavior understood by those at the Constitutional Convention still apply. I will use the pragmatic formulation of "human behavior" (in other words what we actually see in the real world), but if you want you can say human nature, implying that there is some built-in pattern along those lines.

That's why the Constitution is still highly relevant and should be observed. Not just because it is the founding document that provides the framework for governing the United States but because it actually does make sense and works better than any alternative approach.

But this also leads to one more equally important conclusion. The key word for the success of a political system, and especially of this system, is: balance. That means neither what we call today "liberalism" or "conservatism" is innately correct. It depends on the circumstances.

For example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century--due to the transformation of America by industrialization, urbanization, and other factors--big corporations became too powerful. The level of corruption rose to unprecedented heights. Big business bought and sold governments. The balance needed to be restored by strengthening government, by increasing regulation, and other measures.

Yet today, while the ideologies of the left and cultural elite maintain this long-outdated picture of the fat capitalist and greedy corporation running wild, the situation is totally different. Today, it is the federal government that has become too powerful, regulation too tight, taxes too high and driven the structure out of balance. In our era, it is the federal government that must be reined in and the margin of individual liberty widened.

In this system, no specific or partisan doctrine is always right. The needs of the time correspond to the circumstances of the time. And that, too, is a sign of the Constitution's living, dynamic nature. It provides a brilliantly workable structure, not a straitjacket. And the plan laid out two hundred years ago, if properly cared for and kept in balance, is the foundation of the most successful society in world history.

Those who mock the Constitution have it backwards. The idea that the Constitution is "alive" doesn't mean that it should be infinitely changed but that it should be protected and obeyed.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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