A Constitutional Problem

Many Tea Party supporters carry a miniature copy of the U.S. Constitution in their pocket as they complain about how Washington does business. They want spending reigned in—except for the programs that they like or depend on—and the deficit reduced. Little do they know that the problems they decry are caused by their little book.

Although in which dimensions it may be isolated from the rest of human society is not clear, for our present purposes it reasonable to treat it as a system and to accept that it is complex. A system can be defined in terms of the rules that govern the connections and relationships among its elements, and its purpose. The rules that govern the United States are clear, it purpose is contended.

What is the purpose of the United States? It is to provide for the security and welfare of its citizens. Exactly how to translate that into government structures and policies is debated, in this election quite angrily. Similarly, there is no consensus on the degree to which the nation differs from the fifty states.

One thing, however, is clear: what the United States is and how it operates politically is governed by the rules that established it. If you are really angry about how politics is done or how ‘Washington operates’, you do not have to look far: it is in your pocket. The US Constitution determines the structure of politics and how values such as the purpose of the system are debated.

The Constitution is a creation primarily of the eighteenth century experiences of wealthy colonial landowners. As such it requires that the executive branch is weak and subordinate to the Congress. It is curious, therefore, that so many American voters expect the President to fix the economic ills created by the economic decision of 300 million consumers. How can a President who is dependent upon Congress for policy rules create or prevent economic booms or busts, especially in a globalized economy?

Why does Congress behave as it does? In large part because of the rules set by the Constitution. If 535 Representatives and Senators are venal and spend citizens’ money irresponsibly, it is because of the rules governing their election from the 50 states. If Senators are responsible to whole states and Representative to districts, they will seek the greatest benefit for the people who elect them. If everyone wants something from the Federal government, the easiest way for the 535 to get re-elected is to give them something by spending someone else’s money. That is natural not malicious. Sending new faces to Washington will have little effect.

Finally, it is appropriate for Americans to look in the mirror. To what extent has more than two centuries of living within the rules of the Constitution defined what it means to be an American? How has that history created a culture and education system that has molded the expectations and purposes of the citizens of the United States? Surely, it means something to live in America under the rules of the US Constitution. It molds our lives and beliefs in myriad ways even if we cannot define exactly how it makes Americans.

Good or bad, America is the way it is because of the rules established at its foundation. The Constitution is a beautifully worded, politically debated document that encapsulates a negotiated philosophy that is firmly grounded in the 18th Century. And it has made American what it is. To make it something different we would need to change its purpose or the mind-set that underlies this system. Because the Constitution determines both how the purpose of the US system is decided and the mind-set that underlies the system, we would need to change the Constitution. And the Constitution has rules for that, too.

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