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Why the Constitution Is Relevant Today

Those who mock the Constitution have it backwards.

by
Barry Rubin

Bio

January 6, 2011 - 12:00 am
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There has been a great deal of discussion in the United States about the Constitution — despite the fact that it was promulgated over two centuries ago — and whether it is relevant to contemporary America. I’d like to remark briefly on this.

The founders of the United States were not merely technicians setting up an administrative framework and a set of rules. They had pondered long and hard over the lessons of long-term history as to why republics had always seemed to fail and how governments had tended over time to become tyrannical.

From this study, debate, and analysis, their most important conclusion was that human beings could not be trusted with power. Those who had power — at least many or most of them — would misuse it to make themselves wealthy; to order around others; to hold onto office; to increase their authority; and to benefit themselves, their friends, and their supporters.

What was the solution? Their unanimous conclusion was that two safeguards were needed:

1. To divide power among as many institutions as would be possible without paralyzing government. On the federal level this meant there was a division among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Each of them had a large measure of independence and could check the others if they went too far.

Equally, power was divided among the federal government and independent state and local authorities.

2. To limit government, leaving the maximum amount of freedom in the hands of individuals.

These two strategies were tremendous innovations. While in need of some adjustment over time, this was basically to define the precise boundaries in each case, not to transform fundamentally the structure as a whole. The history of the past two centuries — and especially the twentieth century — showed just how right they were in this plan.

For example, Communism came up with the idea of being even “more” democratic, placing power in the hands of the “proletariat.” But as the founders of America could have told them, in the end this just meant giving absolute power to those who claimed to be the representatives of the masses, and in particular a man named Joseph Stalin.

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