I suppose the Constitution has seen better times. Time Magazine asked last year if it’s still relevant, a former Speaker of the House scoffed at the notion that a radical expansion of federal power might be forbidden by it, and a fair portion of Americans can’t tell you the first thing about its contents.
We’ve become so preoccupied with teaching the mechanics of the Constitution (e.g., three branches, bicameral legislature, checks and balances) that we have forgotten a truth about man that informs it, and which undergirds its very purpose.
That scrap of wisdom is that man is self-interested, possessed of limited knowledge, and self-deceiving. All of which means that he is capable of doing evil and calling it good.
The American founders understood this, but it flies in the face of our modern civic religion, which may be summed up as a faith in the goodhearted man. Voters hew to their parties like tribes, and come election time they quickly learn to parrot the narrative of virtue about their major candidate, handed down to them by their tribal shamans. The problem with America, they think, is that we just need to get rid of the bad people and put in some good, honest, hard-working leaders to direct us to a bright, shining, jobs-filled future where gas stays below three dollars a gallon.
Once people get worked into a frenzy about the goodness of their leader—be he a former oil man who promises to whip the daylights out of the terrorists, or a former community organizer who promises free medical care—they get impatient with people who question their man, and impatient with restraints on his power.
Thus do so-called conservatives back radical expansions of federal power in wars against drugs and terrorists, and thus do so-called liberals restrict the meaning of the word “choice” to the extraction of unwanted fetuses. We’ll do so much good for you, each tribe tells us, if we can just have some running room.
To which the Founders would reply: we shot and bombed and bayoneted a whole pile of guys for talking that way.
America has a Constitution that restrains the federal government precisely because man, no matter how virtuous compared to his fellows, can deceive himself, once he holds the reins of power, and enslave the rest of us in pursuit of his vision of heaven on earth. We would do well to remember that, and teach children the same.
So on Constitution Day, while of course I hope everyone reads the document itself, I recommend we all spend a little time getting reacquainted with Thomas Sowell’s Conflict of Visions.
And if you’ve never heard of it, well, you’re welcome.