The following is posted with permission of The Heritage Foundation.
A Constitution for the 21st Century
Economists often point to the “wisdom of crowds”—the idea that a group of people is likely to make better decisions that an individual will. Then again, your mother probably taught you the importance of individualism when she admonished you that “if everyone else jumps off a bridge, would you do it, too?”
In this case, the Constitution favors your mother’s view.
In a recent series on PBS, Peter Sagal set out to determine how the Constitution applies to modern American life. As part of the final installment, Sagal journeyed far beyond our borders to Iceland, where citizens are drafting a new, “crowd-sourced” constitution.
Sagal wonders, “Is our Constitution up to the challenges of the 21st century?” After all, “national constitutions are like cars. After enough wear-and-tear they can break down.” That’s certainly true for most constitutions. Law professor Mila Versteeg has read every national constitution drafted since World War II and found they are rewritten, on average, every 19 years. Some cars do indeed last longer than that.
But the beauty of the American Constitution is that it predates automobiles and many other modern conveniences. Today’s governing documents read like a laundry list of “rights” the government is required to “give” to you. South Africa’s constitution guarantees a “right” to “adequate housing,” “reproductive health care,” and “to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.”
In contrast, our Constitution simply sets out a framework for a free people to confront the political questions of their times. As Heritage’s David Azerrad puts it,
Its words and principles, anchored in the Declaration of Independence, categorically rule out certain laws—e.g., bills of attainder—and create a system of checks and balance between different levels of government. But within the confines of these restrictions and delineations, it leaves the people free to deliberate via their elected representatives on the questions and problems of the day.
Its simplicity was a stroke of genius. As Sagal later admits, it has lasted for so long because it is brief and allows for occasional “repairs” through amendments.
Of course, there are a few parting shots at the Constitution during this episode. Former Representative Barney Frank (D–MA) tells Sagal that the entire system is weighted toward inaction. But commentator P. J. O’Rourke counters that that’s a feature, not a bug: “Tyranny was more worrisome to the Framers than legislative deadlock.” They wanted it to be difficult to enact national laws, because that would leave most power in the states.
It would be impossible to write a limited constitution today. Every interest group under the sun would demand “rights” be included, and it would end up reading like a menu instead of a governing framework. All the more reason to avoid following the crowd of countries that are constantly reworking their constitutions and instead rededicate ourselves to defending the one we’re blessed enough to have.