The Constitutionalists

Here's the good news.  According to a recent article in The Hill, the Constitution has become a runaway best-seller.  The Government Printing Office has sold nearly 9,000 copies in the past eight months and that's not counting the copies provided to constituents by members of Congress (who collectively dispense with thousands more) or copies bought in stores or downloaded from the Internet.  We who love the Constitution beam with joy.

But of course that assumes a lot: I read Kierkegaard once; didn't understand a word.  I wonder how many of the people currently reading the Constitution, citing it, waving it at rallies, have a clue as to what it means.

Interpreting the Constitution is not as simple as just reading it, of course, although I lean a bit toward the "strict construction" view myself ("words have meanings; it means what it says").  There is also the "originalist" view, mostly propounded by people like Justice Scalia, who have advanced degrees in mind-reading and argue that what really matters is not what the Constitution says but what the Founders meant.  And there are the LBC'ers ("Living, Breathing Document") who argue that the Constitution, having been written by a bunch of white guys, now long deceased, we should interpret it to say what we think it should say without bothering to go through either of the two prescribed methods for amending it. 

There's the Bork school (Robert Bork, even though he was a federal judge, thought we have no rights at all unless the Constitution grants them to us; obviously the bells ending his classes at the University of Chicago Law School rang before discussions reached the reiterative Ninth and Tenth Amendments).  And there's the Gingrich school, wherein the First Amendment protection of religious diversity is taken to mean that it is the government's duty to embrace religion, its failure to do so constituting the "secular" portion of the Gingrichian assault on what he defines as the "secular socialism" of the current presidential administration.  I do not personally fault Mr. Gingrich for his use of the words "secular" or "socialism"; he was not, after all, an English major, and words are slippery in his grasp.

All this is by way of saying that one who feels strongly about a preferred course of action might be inclined to see the Constitution through a carefully calibrated lens.  But there are limits.

Many who today wave the Constitution as Dracula's hunters might have brandished a wooden stake claim it as a protector of the virtue of a constitutionally-guaranteed "small government."  Herein lies a fundamental error.  Preference for a small government -- a lighter tax burden, more reliance on private initiative, less direction and intrusion emanating from Washington -- have a valid political case to be made; for the most part, I share it.  Governments that grow too large threaten both liberty and prosperity.  But "small" government is a political preference; it is not a constitutional mandate.  What the Constitution offers us is "limited" government.

Here's the difference.  If government sticks to its knitting -- does what it's authorized to do -- it might grow quite large, especially in a nation of 300 million people.  If the people (or at least those among them who bother to participate in the political process) opt to pay higher taxes for greater benefits, I might oppose them at the polls but what they ask is not constitutionally prohibited.  "Limits" are as to scope, not size.

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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