Monday, March 25, 2013

Our Decrepit Constituion: Protecting Vested Interests

Our Decrepit Constituion: Protecting Vested Interests

Our present constitution is an experiment. Our previous governing document, the Articles of Confederation was seen as a failure because it had severe and incurable problems. The Articles created a loosely allied group of states. There was no central authority, no president, and no way to resolve disputes between the states. The Articles led to trade and taxation disputes between the states and outbreaks of violence.

A group of citizens led by Daniel Shays took up arms against the government of Massachusetts. The federal government lacked the military power to put down the insurrection, so the state's wealthier citizens formed a private militia to do the job. The state government easily suppressed the rebellion, which had been inspired by taxation and austerity policies. Washington considered the rebellion an awful presage of things to come, but was happy that the state had been able to control it so quickly.

Shays's Rebellion had at its root the difference between the well-off and the poor. At that time, the currency was worthless and the small farmers in rural Massachusetts had nothing with which to pay taxes. They had to watch as banks foreclosed on their property. They also resented the money from taxes being transferred to wealthy financiers. Massachusetts resolved the problem by discounting its debt.

Jefferson, with his typical laissez-faire philosophy, considered Shays's Rebellion a good thing, a means to water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants. George Washington and James Madison considered the uprising a sign that a stronger central government was needed, one that had the ability to raise revenues and support a professional army. They took steps in the new Constitution to strengthen the federal government and to increase its ability to levy taxes and maintain a standing army.

The adoption of a new Constitution did not prevent armed uprisings, however. The Whiskey Rebellion was a revolt against excise taxes proposed by Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary under President Washington. Once again poor farmers revolted against paying taxes when they had no paper money, only produce. Washington led a sizable militia force into western Pennsylvania to put down the revolt. The revolt evaporated before any military engagements occurred.

Fries's Uprising in 1799 was caused once again by taxation issues. The poor farmers of western Pennsylvania objected to the imposition of a property tax. Farmers in slave states could apply this tax to their slaves. Slaves could be sold to get cash, but property could not. While the newly strengthened federal government was able to suppress the insurrection, President John Adams drew criticism for his handling of the crisis, while Albert Gallatin, by acting as a calming force, gained prominence among the anti-federalists.

All three of these rebellions were popular uprisings against the wealthy financiers who held war-debt from the revolutionary war. Hamilton's excise taxes transferred money from the poor farmers in the west to the wealthy bankers in the east. Madison referred to these uprisings as excesses of democracy. He and his allies designed the Constitution to assure that the faction of the majority (I.e., the poor) could not dominate the faction of the minority (I.e., the wealthy).

The Constitution protects the wealthy minority from the poor majority by a system of checks and balances. The Framers explained these features as intended to prevent tyranny or anarchy. John Adams gives the Long Parliament as an example of a single-house legislature that led to tyranny. While John Adams was a well-read, well-traveled man, his conclusions do not take into account changing times and circumstances. The Long Parliament may have led to tyranny, but it started out as a reaction to tyranny of the British king. It failed to hold regular elections, which Thomas Paine suggests as a counterweight to tyranny. Adams discounts this argument entirely. Yet we know today that there are many single-house legislatures that have not devolved into tyranny or anarchy, the British House of Commons foremost among them. Whatever arguments may have been accepted at the time of the framing have now been refuted by subsequent events.

The British Parliament found a way to neutralize its obstructive House of Lords because it has no written constitution and hence has more freedom to change its customs to respond to changing circumstances. The American Constitution has no such ability. In evolutionary terms, the American Constitution has proven itself unable to evolve and has set itself on the path to extinction.

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