Quotes of the day

This fatuous infatuation with the Constitution, particularly the 10th Amendment, is clearly the work of witches, wiccans and wackos. It has nothing to do with America’s real problems and, if taken too seriously, would cause an economic and political calamity. The Constitution is a wonderful document, quite miraculous actually, but only because it has been wisely adapted to changing times. To adhere to the very word of its every clause hardly is respectful to the Founding Fathers. They were revolutionaries who embraced change. That’s how we got here.

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Jefferson and his Republicans (not related to today’s Republicans) advocated states’ rights, a weak federal government and strict construction of the Constitution. The Tea Party can claim legitimate descent from Jefferson and Madison, even though they founded what became the Democratic Party. On the other hand, Washington and Hamilton — founders of no mean stature — embraced an expansive view of the Constitution. That would scarcely sit well with Tea Party advocates, many of whom adhere to the judicial doctrine of originalism — i.e., that any interpretation of the Constitution must abide by the intent of those founders who crafted it.

Of course, had it really been the case that those who wrote the charter could best fathom its true meaning, one would have expected considerable agreement about constitutional matters among those former delegates in Philadelphia who participated in the first federal government. But Hamilton and Madison, the principal co-authors of “The Federalist,” sparred savagely over the Constitution’s provisions for years. Much in the manner of Republicans and Democrats today, Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians battled over exorbitant government debt, customs duties and excise taxes, and the federal aid to business recommended by Hamilton.

No single group should ever presume to claim special ownership of the founding fathers or the Constitution they wrought with such skill and ingenuity.

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Accept for argument’s sake that those who argue this way have identified the right problem. The constitution, on its own, does not provide the solution. Indeed, there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century. Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts. He calls it “constitutional idolatry”…

More to the point is that the constitution provides few answers to the hard questions thrown up by modern politics. Should gays marry? No answer there. Mr Klarman argues that the framers would not even recognise America’s modern government, with its mighty administrative branch and imperial executive. As to what they would have made of the modern welfare state, who can tell? To ask that question after the passage of two centuries, says Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution, is to pose an impossible thought experiment.

None of this is to say that the modern state is not bloated or over-mighty. There is assuredly a case to be made for reducing its size and ambitions and giving greater responsibilities to individuals. But this is a case that needs to be made and remade from first principles in every political generation, not just by consulting a text put on paper in a bygone age. Pace Ms Bachmann, the constitution is for all Americans and does not belong to her party alone. Nor did Jefferson write a mission statement for the tea- partiers. They are going to have to write one for themselves.