Monday, May 26, 2014

Constitution never meant to be sacred


By George Templeton
Gazette Columnist

The power of mythology comes from people who honestly believe it and act on it, even though their perceptions are far removed from reality.  Myths are not lies when they speak to the search for truth and meaning.  They fail when they are used to idealize and romanticize instead of guiding.  To regard them as literally true is like eating the restaurant’s menu because the food is listed there.  Myths are best understood within the context of their origins.  The following is in this spirit. 

Founding Fathers
The Founding Fathers are often cited as exemplary of the common man.  The message is “yes we can”.  It is patriotic, moral, and doable.  But if the ideal is only wishing and not realistic, we probably will never fully achieve it.

Who were the Founding Fathers?  Were they the men who risked their lives when they signed the Declaration of Independence?  Was Thomas Paine, the hero of today’s common-sense anti-intellectuals, the most representative of original thought?  Would you give more credit to George Washington, the Father of our Country, who sided with Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, favoring a strong federal government and a national bank?  Do you include the men who attended the Constitutional Convention and the States that ratified the Constitution?

The Founding Fathers were mostly conservative, revolutionary elites who did what they saw as necessary to create a sufficiently strong government in a time of great uncertainty.  The fifty-five men who attended the Constitutional Convention were large-scale planters, farmers, and merchants who owned property.  Forty-two of the fifty-five had served in Congress, seven had been chief executive of  their state, eight had helped to draft their state constitution, twenty-one had fought in the Revolutionary War, half had graduated from college, eighteen had spent a year or more working and studying abroad, sixteen were born aristocrats, and most of the rest came from wealthy families.  They were elites that were not typical of the population. 

Will our future be determined by single-minded men of a particular narrow ideology?

Elitism holds that organizations are run by minorities who have similar backgrounds, educations, and values.  We thought that democracy was majority rule, one-man, one-vote, but the popular vote winner has not always been elected president because of the Electoral College mechanism.

The Founding Fathers never intended to create a democracy nor did they envision the political parties we have today.  Liberty meant individual freedom instead of democracy, but State’s rights had proven weaker than required.  The Founders sought to create a government that would be part monarchy (the President), part aristocracy (the Senate and Supreme Court) and part democratic (the House of Representatives).    They recognized that the world would change.  That is why they created the Constitutional amendment process.  They wrote in broad-brush strokes, perhaps because that was the only way they could get agreement.  The Constitution’s generalities are powerful.  It has not become obsolete because it has been interpreted.

Pluralist ideology holds that for many decades democracy has functioned as a competition, a bargaining, and a compromise among organized concentrated power groups.  It is argued that these groups tend to balance each other and protect the individual from abuse.  It is the reason for unions, political parties, and ideological factions.  The lone individual has little power.  Big money buys influence.  But influence is a machine where cause and effect cannot be separated.  Reality and thoughts continuously influence each other.

Money that politically speaks is a mechanism that is not in the Constitution.  The Supreme Court recently confirmed that corporations are “people” that can shout and that wealthy individuals can donate as much as they want to influence public thinking.  If you are very wealthy your opinion can count a lot.  This opposes the model of the educated, informed public who in the long run will make the decisions that are fair, ethical, and best for the health of democracy.  It is not a new argument.  Does wealth and power counter the instability that comes from the mindless whims of the masses? 

The irony of our democracy is that it has continued to work, until recently, through hundreds of years of geographical expansion, demographic diversification, philosophy, scientific, and technical evolution, and wars.  Our government is to serve people, not for people to serve the government, but individual liberty can get in the way of the compromises that are necessary to prevent stalemate.

Now, we have a politics that wishes that the world that is never was and that would return us to a longed for, mythical past.  Vicious people strive to make mountains out of molehills.  Ideology promotes a disdain for reason.  No amount of evidence will convince deep belief and illiteracy.

Government Abuses
The untruth accuses our government as criminal, but what is wrong is when envy becomes patriotic.

Adam Smith in his 1776 classic, The Wealth of Nations, claimed that a hands-off policy by the government would ensure unlimited economic growth.  It has never existed and does not exist now.  Laissez-faire government policy is a myth fostered by people who want support for their self-interest or who want to argue for State’s rights.

Government is a catalyst that serves powerful interests.  Wealth and politics helps to focus talent and harmonize resources that work for the public benefit, but envy grows.  Entitlements go to business as well as the public.  History shows that government, that has always seen its role to increase the wealth of the country, comes down on the side of business when choices are to be made.

Standards and regulations promote uniform efficient business practices, reduce misunderstanding, and prevent conflict.  Examples include the Anti-Trust Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and standards for doctors, lawyers, clean air, and uncontaminated water.  Federal regulations protect all the people of our nation.  They are not, as extremists claim, a government conspiracy to control persons and their property.  Regulations are shepherds of responsible freedom. 

Historical Facts 
We know history by what we have experienced during our lifetime.  We suffer from anachronistic thinking by distorting the past and understanding events and ideas out of their chronological order and context.  We project contemporary values onto the past and look at the end result of the evolution of events instead of their origins.

Consider the Civil War.  It was not the good guys versus the bad.  It is a myth that the Founding Fathers had the solution to slavery planned from the start.  This “feel good” triumphalism washes guilt and responsibility away, suggests the problem is solved, and makes it easier to undo accomplishments.

Slavery highlighted State’s rights, regarded as the real reason for the Civil War, but it was more complicated than differences between the North’s industrial economy and the agrarian South.  Neither the Republicans or Lincoln had proposed abolishing slavery where it already existed, but there was disagreement on what would happen in the Western Frontier.  Federal action on taxation, tariffs, railroads, monetary policies, and land policies contributed.  The Southerners right to own property included slaves but it interfered with the North’s right to compete in a free market of equals.  Like today’s culture war between conservatives and liberals, the North and the South had different values that had co-existed long before the Civil War broke out.  Both came to believe in conspiracies to destroy the other’s way of life.  There was none, but people acted as though they existed.  There were unresolvable differences rooted in morality and State’s rights versus human rights that ultimately required a war to resolve.

The idea that history repeats itself implies that nothing has changed, that perceived patterns reveal causation, and it ignores unintended consequences.  A retreat to the past is argued to be the solution, forgetting that a single unsuspected outcome alters the evolution of history.  History is not about clear answers. 

Mitch McConnell likes to say that taxes are un-American, but history does not agree. 

The British felt that the colonists were the primary benefactors of the expensive Seven Years War that defeated the French so they should help pay for it.  To reduce the costs of warfare with Indians in the West, Parliament declared a Proclamation line to prevent the colonists from invading Indian Territory and enforced it with troops.  The Proclamation Line interfered with the Westward expansion needed to make the colonies economically viable.  The Parliament’s taxes invalidated the powers of the colonial assemblies to tax, leading to the cry of “no taxation without representation”. 

The Constitution
Did the Founding Fathers plan to create a constitution that would promote or restrict religion and not be neutral?  Did they create a moral credo defining the duties of man towards God, that would last forever and would be relevant at all times, or did they, perhaps inadvertently, promote a situational morality about man’s duties toward man?  Will America follow the same religious path that lead to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of fundamentalist terrorism?  Is the Constitution subordinate to the States because it was created by them or is it a union of the States that has power over all of them?

The Constitution’s Tenth Amendment limited centralizing power, claiming that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  The wording of the amendment was debated and changed from “… the people thereof” to acknowledge that there were undefined powers belonging to the people of the whole country.

The Founding Fathers lived in a much simpler time.  It was before electricity, cars, airplanes, radios, and significant science.  They never dreamed that they would be portrayed as “godlike” or that the Constitution would be regarded as a sacred, unchangeable document.

The Founding Fathers left no instructions to help us understand how to interpret their work, perhaps because it sprang forth from no single intent.  Contemporary views will always be flawed rationalizations that try to explain history based on outcomes and incomplete documentation.  Can the reasonable person’s judgment strike a prudent mean between absolutism and the relativism of the evolution of language and situations? 

The sociologist Karl Mannheim claimed that all knowledge is ideological except for the exact sciences and math.  Because knowledge is never politically, socially, and morally neutral, and always rooted in interpretations that proponents want to become universal, we can never agree.  Modes of thought are so different that mutual understanding is difficult.  It is beyond myths that are used as politician’s weapons in a battle where winning requires destroying the other side.  If we are not careful, we might get what we are asking for.  It is as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The material for this opinion is based on Professor Mark Stoler’s Great Course, The Skeptic’s Guide to American History.

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