Sunday, April 7, 2013

Our Decrepit Constitution: Welcome to the Future

Our Decrepit Constitution: Welcome to the Future

The Framers were intelligent, perhaps even brilliant men. But they were not clairvoyant. They could not see into the future. They designed a government for the times they lived in, assuming that all future times would be similar.

The pace of change quickened abruptly after 1860. The Civil War accelerated the building of railroads, which in turn led to increased production from steam power. The industrial revolution brought great wealth but also brought poverty, dangerous working conditions, and child labor. The Framers could not imagine either the problems themselves, or their scale. European governments, where industry was well-established by 1860, created a safety net for victims of disclocation and unemployment. Germany passed the first unemployment and social security laws in 1889, 36 years before the U.S. passed theirs.

American thinkers have played important roles in the establishment of human rights and international institutions. Woodrow Wilson helped establish the League of Nations in 1919. The United Nations based its human rights proclamations on a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wherein he defined the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The Framers recognized the importance of the first two freedoms. They did not mention the others in their Constitution.

The United Nations wrote treaties guaranteeing the four freedoms after World War II. These treaties are known to many Americans as the Geneva Accords. The United States Congress refused to ratify many of these treaties. The current Senate refuses to ratify the Law of the Sea, a treaty that formalizes traditional laws concerning the use of the oceans and their protection. The Supreme Court does not accept many international treaties as binding on the U.S. court system. U.S. Presidents have ignored the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war and torture.

The U.S. Bill of Rights needs to be extended to protect foreign nationals from ill-conceived and dangerous military adventurism, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and interventions in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Chile. The Constitution should incorporate the International Bill of Rights, so there is no question whether U.S. Courts should recognize the rights of women, children, and the poor.

Justice Scalia claims that the Supreme Court cannot ask whether a person is guilty of a crime, only whether his trial met the bare minimum standards of due process. Likewise, Scalia claims that the Court cannot look at the reality of discrimination and voter suppression, it can only consider whether Constitutional standards are being met. Scalia challenges his critics to find a right to privacy in the Bill of Rights, although the Tenth Amendment reserves any rights not mentioned in the Constitution to the States or the People. Scalia accepts the concept of implied powers because it suits him but refuses to accept the concept of implied rights because it does not.

This ability to pick and choose which concepts to accept and which to reject is exactly what the Framers had in mind when writing the Constitution. They wanted the privileged minority to make choices for the people as a whole. The Framers assumed that these gentlemen would make better decisions than the majority of the people. After two hundred years of experiments, we now know that this opinion is false. Democracy works.

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