Prior to the American Constitution, most countries and most people who thought about designing governments were very concerned about the problem of inequality, and the fear was that, in a society that was deeply unequal, the rich would oppress the poor and the poor would revolt and confiscate the wealth of the rich.
The answer to this problem, the way to create stability out of what would have been revolution and strife, was to build economic class right into the structure of government. In England, you have the House of Lords for the wealthy, the House of Commons for everyone else. Our Constitution isn’t like that. We don’t have a House of Lords, we don’t have a House of Commons, we don’t have a tribune of the plebs like they had in ancient Rome.
At the time, people debated having a wealth requirement for entry into the Senate, but that didn’t happen. That would have been a common thing in the generations and centuries prior to the creation of the U.S. Constitution. So there’s actually a radical change in our Constitution that we don’t build economic class directly into these institutions. The purpose of the Senate, with its longer terms, is to allow representatives to deliberate in the longer-term interest of the republic, and that’s the goal of the Senate.
What we have is a constitutional system that doesn’t build class in at all, and the reason why is that America was shockingly equal at the time in ways that seem really surprising to us today.
Rosen: Of course, the point here isn’t only that class is ignored, or left out of the Constitution, but that the Constitution actually relies on a kind of equal society in order to function. Could you explain the premise there?
Sitaraman: That’s exactly right. The idea is that the Constitution relies on a relatively equal society for it to work. In societies that are deeply unequal, the way you prevent strife between rich and poor is you build class right into the structure of government—the House of Lords, House of Commons idea. Everyone has a share in government, but they also have a check on each other.
In a country that doesn’t have a lot of inequality by wealth, you don’t need that kind of check. There’s no extreme wealth, there’s no extreme poverty, so you don’t expect there to be strife, to be instability based on wealth. And so there’s no need to put in some sort of check like that into the Constitution.
That’s how our Constitution works. The reason why it works this way is that when the founders looked around, they thought America was uniquely equal in the history of the world. And I know that seems crazy to say, but when you think about it, it makes sense. If you imagine in the late 18th century, America is a sparsely populated area, just on the coast of the Atlantic, with some small towns and cities, and lots of agrarian lands, and it’s really at the edge of the world, because the center is western Europe. It’s London, it’s Paris, and when Americans look across the ocean at those countries, what they see is how different it is. They see that there’s a hereditary aristocracy, something that doesn’t exist in America. There’s feudalism, which doesn’t exist in America. There’s extreme wealth, there’s extreme poverty, neither of which really exists in America. As a result they don’t need to design a House of Lords and a House of Commons, they don’t need a tribune of the plebs in order to make their constitution work.