The Constitution in 8 words

A frequent commenter on the blog Cafe Hayek, JohnK, asserts that political progressives tend to reduce the U.S. Constitution to the following eight words:

General welfare, regulate commerce, necessary and proper.

If this were the full extent of the Constitution it would give government the power to do just about anything it wants, or at least anything it can convince others that are necessary and proper for general welfare.

I know this is a bit a straw man.  After all, even progressives fall back on the Constitution when  government does something they don’t approve of like wiretap terrorists phones without judicial oversight.

But, generally people seem to accept arguments for government activity with smart sounding “greater-good” rationales (whether it actually is for the greater good or not, but that’s a blog post for another day).  For people to believe government is empowered to carry out such programs means people are viewing the Constitution as the eight words that JohnK highlights.

Even as a young liberal, my intuition told me that it made sense to constrain the politicians I supported so that the politicians I didn’t support would be constrained as well.  I personally didn’t care to give W the right to wiretap without judicial oversight because I knew someday someone else might want to use that same power.

Only later did I learn what is spelled out in my previous post and that my intuition had some merit.  The interpretation of the Constitution by judges, and the electorate, was not meant to change over time.  The Constitution was meant to change through the amendment process.

That view doesn’t fit the cosmic reasoning of some people, like E.H. Allen commenting on this column by David Harsanyi (HT: Don Boudreaux) in the Denver Post:

George Dennison, retired president of the University of Montana, was my Constitutional History professor at Colorado State University. He would often say in class, “the beauty of the constitution is its eternal flexibility. Its ability to adapt to changes in time without having to amend the document several hundred times”. I agree with Dr. Dennison. 

We cannot survive constitutionally if the document is burdened with pithy detail.  We rely on the good and honest judgment of the nine men and women who sit on the Supreme Court to protect the American people from executive and legislative excesses.

I disagree with E.H. and Dr. Dennison.  The last sentence means that E.H. would like to give arbitrary powers to the Supreme Court and trust them to decide whether an action by executive branch or legislature is excessive.

I’m not so generous.  All I want the Supreme Court to do is decide whether something is lawful or not.  If we have a problem with the way the law is written, then by all means lobby the legislature to change it.  That’s the branch of government that actually has the power to write laws.

1 thought on “The Constitution in 8 words

  1. Pingback: Why some folks don’t like markets « Our Dinner Table


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