We Don’t Need No Steenkeen Constitution*

Liberals are a frustrated lot. The progressive agenda is hampered by the governmental restraint embodied in our Constitution. It’s so hard to do good through government when our founding document forbids it from doing much at all. For all the silly pompousness of the Left, they could be tolerated as merely necessary annoyances in the name of political freedom were it not for a disturbing trend–giving up on the Constitution altogether.

First, let us stipulate that the Constitution was not handed down from On High by a band of angels. It is the result of many compromises, many debates, and countless afterthoughts. In other words, it is the product of human beings–fallible, flawed human beings. If so, why give it any reverence at all?

The first reason a constitution (ours or any other) is valuable is political stability. Even deeply flawed documents have the virtue of making the rules known ahead of time. Hammurabi’s Code is a good example. Most of us would question whether an eye for an eye is good law, especially when the particulars were varied according to one’s social status. For all its flaws, though, the Code laid the groundwork for good legal principles to come, such as the presumption of innocence. Some provisions were good, some were bad, but they all let citizens know the consequences of violating the law.

Laws only work for the benefit of individuals when they are intelligible and few in number. Citizens must be able reasonably to know the law before they can be expected to follow it. Laws work for the benefit of tyrants when they are too numerous or too vague. The law is what the political thug says it is when he/she says it. Good for tyrants, bad for everyone else.

Stability may be a good reason to have a constitution, but that alone is not sufficient. Bad laws can be enshrined, as was the case in the US with our counting slaves as a fraction of a “real” person. Fortunately, the Founders provided mechanisms for changing the Constitution. Their intent was to balance the need for stability with the need for adapting to changing standards and hopefully, greater wisdom as our nation aged.

Constitution Signing

This makes the Constitution a pesky impediment to those who would lord over us with their well-intentioned but lame-brained policy prescriptions. Freedom of speech, non-establishment of a state religion, and other provisions of the Constitution place a wonderful burden on all of us–the burden of tolerating others whose ideas and actions are different from ours.

The Right has been no less guilty than the Left of supporting those freedoms only when they happen to conform to their particular points of view. People on the right often advocate laws forbidding naughty literature and nasty pictures. People on the left often advocate laws that make it illegal to insult homosexuals or people of color. Both are revolting in my view, but that is not the point. Both are wrong because the principle of individual freedom trumps both. One cannot legitimately claim freedom only for one’s own point of view while maintaining freedom as a principle of governance.

This is what makes the US Constitution so unique. Never before had individual liberty been articulated as the founding principle of a nation. This freedom, while never perfectly honored or universally understood in practice, has held up fairly well in principle–until now. Liberals, or at least some (see above linked article), are now openly advocating the abandonment of the Constitution in favor of their particular and peculiar view of society.

The progressive agenda currently presents more of a danger to individual liberty than the conservative agenda precisely because so many people embrace it. Few people (fortunately) take seriously anymore the conservatives who want us to ban Catcher In the Rye or wear our skirts below the knee. Many, on the other hand, believe that health care is a right and that talk radio should be monitored by the government to ensure a “balanced” point of view.

Majority rule is no less tyrannical than despotic rule, a problem our Founders understood much better than we do. For example, the Democrats, holding a razor-thin, purely partisan majority, saw fit to enact a 2400-page health care law that no one understands, that cannot be paid for, and that will inevitably ruin medicine in the US. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they actually intended to break the system so they can implement what they really want–a single-payer, socialized system–minorities be damned.

The deeper issue, though, is not whether Obamacare is a bad idea. It is the giddy self-assurance that the Left has of the rightness of its progressive agenda. At times it seems as if they think it beyond possible that the public will shift rightward (or libertarian-ward) and that they will once again be in the minority. Those of us with sufficiently early birth years remember when segregation and censorship were the majority norm. The Left would do well to note this, given that the Right can be just as short-sighted, uncooperative, and obnoxious as they can.

The Constitution was not designed to make government a better master over men and women. It was intended to keep government from becoming a master of any kind. The Founders recognized that human beings cannot be trusted with coercive power, even those who believe they are using it for the common good. They knew the dangers of one person or even a majority of persons dictating to the rest how they should think, speak, and act, even when motivated by good intentions.

Unfortunately for progressives, the very nature of our Constitution precludes the vast majority of what they want to impose on the rest of us. At issue is more than whether more and more government programs “work.” They nearly always violate individual rights, a value that transcends questions of whether society appears better off to the discerning eye of the liberal.

We’ll start with the most obvious case: free speech. Hateful speech is deplorable to sensible people. A bigot in the public square shouting epithets toward Jews or homosexuals offends most of us for good reason–it is hateful and deplorable. Yet most of us still realize that to deny that bigot his/her platform is also to silence in principle those who would advocate for decent things–women’s suffrage, an end to slavery, and any number of other perspectives that at the time they emerged seemed dangerous, absurd, or indecent.

Translating that understanding into a respect for the Constitution’s other protections is not difficult. We simply have to remember to place ourselves firmly in our opponents’ shoes before advocating that their property be subject to eminent domain or that they be required to purchase health insurance. One’s self-assurance that an idea is good for someone else or for society as a whole is not a justification for mandating it. A quick visualization of what it would be like were the shoe on the other foot is never a bad self-check.

One cannot be lazy and free at the same time. In order to retain the freedoms our Founders won for us, progressives/liberals have to be willing to persuade rather than coerce, and I don’t mean midnight hijackings of the legislative process. The Constitution largely requires that. Where it does not do so specifically, it would serve liberals well to remember the spirit of the thing. Regarding the Constitution as flimsy, outdated, or unnecessary will not seem so appealing when the tide turns.

It may be tiresome and frustrating to explain to the rest of us why large, intrusive government is such a wonderful idea, but we staunchly defend your right to try. When you attempt an end-run around the Constitution, though, we are neither amused nor compliant. Remember that before you try to force any more bright ideas on us.


*In point of fact, this line is often misquoted. Here is the real one from Wikipedia:

The line was popularized by the 1948 film adaptation of the novel.[3] In one scene, a Mexican bandit leader named “Gold Hat”[4] (portrayed by Alfonso Bedoya) tries to convince Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart)[2] that he and his company are Federales:

Dobbs: “If you’re the police where are your badges?”
Gold Hat: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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2 Responses to We Don’t Need No Steenkeen Constitution*

  1. Dick Richards says:

    Good points all around. However, I have made similar arguments with liberals before – that using government to force behavioral compliance is a “two-edge sword”, “what goes around comes around”, “the worm turns”, “you reap what you sow (sorta)”, etc. – but the message does not seem to get through. I attribute it to the liberals failing to think beyond the surface of a thing.


  2. Dick Richards says:

    A simple example of your point is when the government, through ObamaCare, forcibly spread the cost of birth control pills across all heath insurance policy holders, making the pills completely “free” for women. I am a 56-year-old married male with a vasectomy. I am in no danger of getting anyone pregnant. Why should I be paying for the birth control pills of the 36-year-old female vice president several rungs (and tens of thousands of dollars) up the corporate ladder from me? But when the other side takes power, what is to keep them from flipping those rules around to force her to pay for my “free” Viagra? (Not that I need it, mind you).

    It is far better for the government to stay out of this kind of forcing business.


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