What’s Good About the U.S. Constitution?
Rob Natelson, April 5, 2019
Suppose you’re supervising a group of 25 randomly chosen able-bodied people. You organize an informal game of softball among them. Chances are that most participants will have a good time, and no one will be injured.
Now change the rules to those of tackle football. A few might enjoy themselves, but many will not, and several participants might get hurt.
Now alter the rules yet again so that the same group plays the game called Russian Roulette. The consequences will be horrific.
This simple example shows how different rules even among the same people can lead to drastically different results.
The same principle applies to larger society. The rules governing a society can lead to good or bad results.
A society’s political rules are its constitution. (The word ultimately derives from the Latin verb constituere, meaning to arrange or decide.) A good set of rules, honestly and fairly applied, can encourage prosperity, progress, and freedom. A bad set or a good set not honestly and fairly applied can lead to poverty, stagnation, and tyranny.
Moreover, if a constitution improves, outcomes generally improve. But if its good features erode, outcomes deteriorate. American history illustrates this.
The American Founders—those who drafted and ratified the U.S. Constitution—understood the importance of good rules. This was a subject they studied in great detail. They examined how earlier societies had fared under all sorts of constitutions. They found the histories of Great Britain and the ancient Greek and Roman republics particularly useful. But they also scrutinized the experiences of other nations, and of the previous 150 years of American colonial history.
One lesson they learned was that a constitution should be in writing. Eight centuries of English constitutional documents, such as the Magna Carta, the Habeas Corpus Act, the English Bill of Rights, and others, taught them that. So they decided to put their state and federal constitutions in writing as well.
Having learned what works and what doesn’t, the American Founders deliberately incorporated the best features into the federal Constitution, at least to the extent politically feasible. Specifically:
- They granted the central government enough power to keep peace among states, to provide for common defense and foreign policy, and to address some other common concerns.
- They limited the central power to itemized functions, leaving the remainder with states, localities, families, and individuals.
- They added other restrictions to forestall bad governmental practices and to prevent federal and state politicians from oppressing individual rights.
- They outlined key federal institutions, such as Congress, the president, and the courts, and erected checks and balances among them.
- They added various useful administrative details.
Were they successful? We can judge by the historical record.
Although much of the Constitution remains effective today, during the 1930s and 1940s some of its key safeguards—particularly the sharp limits on federal power—began to erode. Politicians and courts increasingly disregarded those safeguards. Most have not been restored, and the damage has become permanent.
But aside from temporary aberrations during the Civil War and World War I, the Constitution was in full effect from its adoption in 1789 until about 1930—a term of 141 years.
What was the record of that 141 years?
First, other than one four-year stretch (the Civil War), the states remained at peace with each other. This situation was very different from the intermittent warfare among the countries of Europe and South America.
Additionally, the United States expanded enormously, both in population and geography. Economic growth was also explosive, attaining an annual rate of 9 percent in some years. (Today, 3 percent is considered good.)
During this period America adopted the British Industrial Revolution and ultimately overshadowed it. Americans wrought stupendous improvements in commerce, agriculture, transportation, communication, and other technologies. Living standards soared, not just for the wealthy, but for almost everyone. There were unprecedented advances in medicine, health care, and life expectancy.
Economic progress was matched by social progress. The slaves were emancipated. Women were liberated and enfranchised. Education became nearly universal. Colleges and universities spread and flourished. Family structure and civic participation remained strong and probably became stronger. A web of state, local, and private programs created a powerful social safety net.
Arguably, this time period—the period the U.S. Constitution remained in full effect—represented the greatest era of progress in human history.
What of subsequent years, when the Constitution remained in partial effect but with key safeguards broken? Economic progress has continued, but at a sharply reduced rate. Some of the advances of which we are most proud, such as the computer revolution, are largely elaborations on earlier achievements.
Many federal programs have been adopted in excess of the original Constitution’s limits on federal authority. They have been identified as culprits behind a number of serious social problems. Arbitrary economic meddling seems to have converted an ordinary financial crash (1929–30) into a decade-long Depression. Some programs, particularly the “Great Society” initiatives of the 1960s, contributed to the decline of the American family. Excessive federal regulation and spending have slowed economic growth and saddled us with a huge public debt.
That is why some civic groups, such as the Convention of States movement, have sprung up seeking to re-establish some of the Constitution’s original safeguards.
The truth is that good (and bad) constitutions make a real difference. And the American Founders did an exceptionally good job in crafting theirs.
Rob Natelson served as a law professor for 25 years at three universities. He taught constitutional law, and is now senior fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including “The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant.”