Politics & Policy

The Constitution Matters

A reply to Time magazine’s Richard Stengel.

The Fourth of July may be just a holiday for fireworks to some people. But it was a momentous day for the history of this country and the history of the world.

Not only did July 4, 1776, mark American independence from England, it also marked a radically different kind of government from the governments that prevailed around the world at the time — and the kinds of governments that had prevailed for thousands of years before.

#ad#The American Revolution was not simply a rebellion against the king of England, it was a rebellion against being ruled by kings in general. That is why the opening salvo of the American Revolution was called “the shot heard ’round the world.”

Autocratic rulers and their subjects heard that shot — and things that had not been questioned for millennia were now open to challenge. As the generations went by, more and more autocratic governments around the world proved unable to meet that challenge.

Some clever people today ask whether the United States has really been “exceptional.” You couldn’t be more exceptional in the 18th century than to begin your fundamental document — the Constitution of the United States — with the momentous words, “We the people.”

Those three words were a slap in the face to those who thought themselves entitled to rule and who regarded the people as if they were simply human livestock, destined to be herded and shepherded by their betters. Indeed, to this very day, elites who think that way — and they include many among the intelligentsia, as well as political messiahs — find the Constitution of the United States a real pain because it stands in the way of their imposing their will and their presumptions on the rest of us.

More than 100 years ago, so-called “Progressives” began a campaign to undermine the Constitution’s strict limitations on government, which stood in the way of self-anointed political crusaders imposing their grand schemes on the rest of us. That effort to discredit the Constitution continues to this day, and the arguments haven’t really changed much in 100 years.

The cover story in the July 4th issue of Time magazine is a classic example of this arrogance. It asks of the Constitution, “Does it still matter?”

A long and rambling essay by the magazine’s managing editor, Richard Stengel, manages to create a toxic blend of the irrelevant and the erroneous.

The irrelevant comes first, pointing out in big letters that those who wrote the Constitution “did not know about” all sorts of things in the world today, including airplanes, television, computers, and DNA.

This may seem like a clever new gambit but, like many clever new gambits, it is a rehash of arguments made long ago. Back in 1908, Woodrow Wilson said, “When the Constitution was framed there were no railways, there was no telegraph, there was no telephone.”

In Mr. Stengel’s rehash of this argument, he declares: “People on the right and left constantly ask what the framers would say about some event that is happening today.”

Maybe that kind of talk goes on where he hangs out. But most people have enough common sense to know that a constitution does not exist to micro-manage particular “events” or express opinions about the passing scene.

A constitution exists to create a framework for government — and the Constitution of the United States tries to keep the government inside that framework.

From the irrelevant to the erroneous is a short step for Mr. Stengel. He says, “If the Constitution was intended to limit the federal government, it certainly doesn’t say so.”

Apparently Mr. Stengel has not read the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Perhaps Richard Stengel should follow the advice of another Stengel — Casey Stengel, who said on a number of occasions, “You could look it up.”

Does the Constitution matter? If it doesn’t, then your freedom doesn’t matter.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

Thomas Sowell — Thomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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