Praising the Constitution

by dragonfiremalus 2 min read27th Jun 201553 comments


I am sure the majority of the discussion surrounding the Unites States recent Supreme Court ruling will be on the topic of same-sex marriage and marriage equality. And while there is a lot of good discussion to be had, I thought I would take the opportunity to bring up another topic that seems often to be glossed over, but is yet very important to the discussion. That is the idea in the USA of praising the United States Constitution and holding it to an often unquestioning level of devotion.

Before I really get going I would like to take a quick moment to say I do support the US Constitution and think it is important to have a very strong document that provides rights for the people and guidelines for government. The entire structure of the government is defined by the Constitution, and some form of constitution or charter is necessary for the establishment of any type of governing body. Also, in the arguments I use as examples I am not in any way saying which side I am on. I am simply using them as examples, and no attempt should be made to infer my political stances from how I treat the arguments themselves.

But now the other way. I often hear in political discussions people, particularly Libertarians, trying to tie their position back to being based on the Constitution. The buck stops there. The Constitution says it, therefore it must be right. End of discussion. To me this often sounds eerily similar to arguing the semantics of a religious text to support your position.

A great example is in the debate over gun control laws. Without espousing one side or the other, I can fairly safely and definitively say the US Constitution does support citizens' rights to own guns. For many a Libertarian, the discussion ends there. This is not something only Libertarians are guilty of. The other side of the debate often resorts to arguing context and semantics in an attempt to make the Constitution support their side. This clearly is just a case of people trying to win the argument rather than discuss and discover the best solution.

Similarly in the topic of marriage equality, a lot of the discussion has been focused on whether or not the US supreme court ruling was, in fact, constitutional. Extending that further, the topic goes on to "does the Constitution give the federal government the right to demand that the fifty states all allow same-sex marriage?" To me, this is not the true question that needs answering. Or at least, the answer to that question does not determine a certain action or inaction on the part of the federal government. (E.g., if it was decided that it was unconstitutional, that STILL DOESN'T NECESSARILY mean that the federal government shouldn't do it. I know, shocking.) 

The Constitution was written by a bunch of men over two hundred years ago. Fallible, albeit brilliant, men. It isn't perfect. (It's damn good, else the country wouldn't have survived this long.) But it is still just a heuristic for finding the best course of action in what resembles a reasonable amount of time (insert your favorite 'inefficiency of bureaucracy' joke here). But heuristics can be wrong. So perhaps we should more often consider the question of whether or not what the Constitution says is actually the right thing. Certainly, departures from the heuristic of the Constitution should be taken with extreme caution and consideration. But we cannot discard the idea and simply argue based on the Constitution. 

At the heart of the marriage equality and the supreme court ruling debate are the ideas of freedom, equality, and states' rights. All three of those are heuristics I use that usually point to what I think are best. I usually support states' rights, and consider departure from that as negative expected utility. However, there are many times when that consideration is completely blown away by other considerations. 

The best example I can think of off the top of my head is slavery. Before the Emancipation Proclamation some states ruled slavery illegal, some legal. The question that tore our nation apart was whether or not the federal government had the right to impose abolition of slavery on all the states. I usually side with states' rights. But slavery is such an abominable practice that in that case I would have considered the constitutional rights of the federal government a non-issue when weighed against the continuation of slavery in the US for a single more day. If the Constitution had specifically supported the legality of slavery, then that would have shown it was time to burn it and try again.

Any federal proclamation infringes on states' rights, something I usually side with. And as more and more states were legalizing same-sex marriage it seemed that the states were deciding by themselves to promote marriage equality. The supreme court decision certainly speeds things up, but is it worth the infringement of state rights? To me that is the important question. Not whether or not it is Constitutional, but whether or not it is right. I am not answering that question here, just attempting to point out that the discussion of constitutionality may be the wrong question. And certainly an argument could be made for why states' rights should not be used as a heuristic at all.