Monday, January 2, 2017


How to make someone mad at you: When they start grousing about the "undemocratic anachronisms" of American politics, innocently ask: "Like the Constitution?" Despite the reverence in which we hold the document, the Constitution of the United States can be described as both undemocratic and anachronistic.

While it's fashionable to describe the men who put together what became the model of governance for the United States as snobbish aristocrats who had nothing but contempt for the public as a whole, a more charitable reading of the time could be that they knew something that we often have trouble with: that "democratic" and "enlightened" are not synonyms. The idea behind democracy, direct or representative, is to give the citizens of a nation say and/or a hand in the decisions that are going to directly impact them, and that they are going to, in many cases, pay the price for implementing. Democracy doesn't automagically make people less selfish or more capable of foresight. Democracy is also a poor way of apportioning scarce resources between two mutually antagonistic groups of people, especially if those groups have ossified into fairly stable camps. Opportunities, and the benefits they bring, often come at a cost to someone, and in an unfettered democracy, a slim majority can consistently reap the rewards that come from taking advantage of opportunities, while saddling the remaining populace with the price.

It's for this reason that the Bill of Rights was put into place. While people today frequently grouse about government functionaries seeking to stifle free speech or get around due process in criminal cases, the fact of the matter is that sometimes, these abuses also serve the interests of large swaths of the public. While the sorts of laws that bar causing offense to religious groups are often the targets of derision here, I can think of any number of people who would happily outlaw open criticism of Christianity, and still sleep the sleep of the just every night. And while people seek to ban hate speech for reasons that they understand to be perfectly reasonable, things like that have a way of getting away from you, often more quickly than anticipated.

And while the history of the United States prior to effectively universal adult enfranchisement wasn't one long horror story of majoritarian tyranny, there are a lot of instances where it's fairly easy to figure out which groups found themselves being raked over the coals for the benefit of everyone else.

It's also clear that the times have changed. When was the last time you encountered a court case that dealt with the provisions of the Third Amendment? Has there been a Third Amendment challenge to anything in living memory? And the right to a trial buy jury attaches to any "suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars." While changes in the price of silver mean that twenty early American silver dollars would have a metal content value of just over $300 today, the changes in actual buying power are much more substantial - $20 from just about a century ago purchased nearly $500 in goods and services in today's money. And let's not forget that whole three-fifths of a person thing...

The fact of the matter is that we haven't been consistently re-writing the constitution to keep up with the times, and several of its provisions are specifically aimed at coming between the majority of the public and their ability to enforce their will on the rest of society. So it shouldn't be surprising that other artifacts of the nation's past are still floating around today.

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