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Belmont Club

Till Grendel Come to Heorot

January 2nd, 2013 - 10:01 am

Louis Michael Seidman of Georgetown University, writing in an New York Times op-ed says, “let’s give up on the constitution.” It’s an old document that prevents government from doing business by interposing silly rules.

Why should a lame-duck House, 27 members of which were defeated for re-election, have a stranglehold on our economy? Why does a grotesquely malapportioned Senate get to decide the nation’s fate? …

Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse.

Trashing the Constitution is survivable, Seidman argues. FDR “professed devotion to the document, but as a statement of aspirations rather than obligations. This reading no doubt contributed to his willingness to extend federal power beyond anything the framers imagined, and to threaten the Supreme Court when it stood in the way of his New Deal legislation. In 1954, when the court decided Brown v. Board of Education, Justice Robert H. Jackson said he was voting for it as a moral and political necessity although he thought it had no basis in the Constitution. The list goes on and on.”

America survived FDR didn’t it? Well it also survived World War 2. Still he says, some conventions should be respected in the vague sort of way that we ‘respect’ our elders and keep holy the Sabbath day.  “This is not to say that we should disobey all constitutional commands. Freedom of speech and religion, equal protection of the laws and protections against governmental deprivation of life, liberty or property are important, whether or not they are in the Constitution. We should continue to follow those requirements out of respect, not obligation.”

Above all don’t worry. You can live without your imagined freedoms.

The deep-seated fear that such disobedience would unravel our social fabric is mere superstition. As we have seen, the country has successfully survived numerous examples of constitutional infidelity. And as we see now, the failure of the Congress and the White House to agree has already destabilized the country. Countries like Britain and New Zealand have systems of parliamentary supremacy and no written constitution, but are held together by longstanding traditions, accepted modes of procedure and engaged citizens. We, too, could draw on these resources.

Even if you read that “a State Department advisory group that is run by former Secretary of Defense William Perry ” argues the president can sign an arms control treaty with Russia without Senate approval, don’t worry. In exchange you’ll get Obamacare, government student loans, subsidized housing and reality TV for as long as supplies last.

Seidel might have added that in countries run under the principle of parliamentary supremacy government grows as big as it can get, constrained only by “traditions” which are another way of saying ‘all that the traffic can bear’. But Seidel shouldn’t worry that America isn’t getting to supremacy. It is. The Wall Street Journal notes that the current fiscal cliff brouhaha illustrates how America is accomplishing precisely that in a Yankee Doodle way.

So Congress has passed a bill to avoid the tax cliff, hallelujah. This is the way to look at it if you have a pre-Copernican view of politics where Washington is the center of the economic universe. The better way to see it is that the tax bill on the private, productive part of the economy is now coming due for President Obama’s first-term spending and re-election.

The Senate-White House compromise grudgingly passed by the House is a Beltway classic: The biggest tax increase in 20 years in return for spending increases, and all spun for political purposes as a “tax cut for the middle class.” But taxes on the middle class were only going up on January 1 because the politicians had set it up that way, manufacturing a fake crisis. The politicians now portray themselves as scrambling heroically to save the day by sparing the middle class while raising taxes on small business, investors and the affluent.

The whole thrust of Seidel’s argument is that the Constitution gets in the way of government doing stuff. Of course the whole purpose of the Constitution was to do exactly that. What is to the professor a bug is actually the constitution’s key feature. His argument that politicians have been trying to undermine it for centuries is ironically proof that it has to some extent worked. Worked too well for his liking.

But Seidel may have been proved right by recent events.  Americans have voted away one chimerical freedom after the other in exchange for another government IOU so that if anything continues to stand in front of the Obama administration’s efforts to expand government power and spending, it surely isn’t Congress, the Supreme Court or any of the Constitutional protections. None of these have worked. What may  ultimately stop the administration is the Creator, which the Founders quaintly imagined to work through the People, driven by necessity.

Nothing will stop the government music except the coins running out. It will clank on until bankruptcy or disaster throws a wrench in the works; until the system runs out of money or suffers repeated economic and security disasters.  Only when things fall apart  will government be checked. Meanwhile it will run heedless through the meadows of fiscal irresponsibility, recking neither Constitution nor consequence, for as long as someone will give it credit.

It was the story of the Old World, but not, the Founders hoped, the New. The United States was founded on an extraordinary wager upon the nature of the human spirit;  predicated on the belief that men valued life and liberty above all; that in order to preserve their individual awareness in order to pursue happiness they would take risks. But let’s face the truth, as Seidel says, people don’t want the anxiety of liberty. The Founders lost the bet. “Perhaps the dream of a country ruled by ‘We the people’ is impossibly utopian.”

Maybe it was. Maybe the Founding Fathers were wrong after all to imagine that men craved freedom. In reality what men craved was Kings; whether in person or in parliament made no difference, for so long as it was some agency to which they could hand over all responsibility for their daily lives. And in exchange they would receive food in the Hall or its modern equivalent, the Mall, till it ran out. Free food till Grendel comes to Heorot — their sole concern being how near or far to the raised table and fire they were in the interim. If Seidel’s right that’s all there is to history: a kind of temporary gaiety with one ear open to the approaching sounds of the night. That’s all it will ever be.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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