Notes From Babel

Our Constitutional "Ship"

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I see our founding documents as something like guidelines for building a ship. It specifies the kinds of materials to use, some of the key design elements, etc. There is one key omission from those plans, however: they never lay out the maximum size or occupancy of the ship. However, by looking at the specifications that it does provide, we can see that there is no way that it could ever grow past a certain size and still be seaworthy.

As the ship took its initial voyages, it became apparent that there were some changes that needed to be made. In our case, it seems that we allowed an original defect to be left unresolved — slavery. This “defect” might be compared to something like providing that an enormous boiler was to be placed in an unbuttressed part of the ship that would eventually give way and cause the vessel to break apart. When that portion of the ship indeed started to give way, we permitted the designers to put the plans aside for a moment so that we could toss the old boiler overboard and repair the gaping hole. But in so doing, we changed the way that the designers would forever be permitted to make changes to the design over the rest of the vessel. (I.e., the balance of states’ vs. federal rights was forever changed.) [more…]

A bit later, it seems that we let the ship grow a bit over-large because we happened to be in calm waters. But when the storm season came along (WWII and then the New Deal), we again permitted the architects great leeway over making changes to keep the vessel seaworthy, to again keep it from breaking up. We allowed hundreds of mini-teams of designers to make improvements and additions throughout the vessel (agencies — our “fourth branch” of government). And we made sweeping changes to what was permitted and not permitted on the vessel. In order to make all these changes, we had to allow great leeway in the way we read the original plans. No longer would we just use wood and nails — those requirements of the kinds of materials that must be used are now read as being flexible, merely suggestions, because now of course we need steel and rivets to support the ever growing vessel.

But I think it may have been a mistake to do this. The original materials requirements were not so simply because the original designers could not imagine that later generations might like a larger boat. Instead, perhaps they intended to impose a limitation on the size and scope of our political “ship.” Perhaps they believed that such an enormous vessel as we now have–which continues to grow without foreseeable limit–could not possibly be expected to remain seaworthy.

They did, however, have a pretty good idea how to build a modest vessel that would suit any reasonable political necessity. Sure, if our ship came to be populated by many new people of different ends–such as those who want a very fast ship, or those who want a pleasure cruiser–then most likely a new design would have to be drawn up. But it is perhaps dangerous to suppose that the framers meant that the original vessel is so malleable that its design can be tweaked to fit these new whims. The appeal of the original design would be lost forever, and the new amalgamation, designed to appease the fancies of all, will wind up an unworkable contraption capable of achieving none of the ends for which a constitutional government is needed in the first place.

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Written by Tim Kowal

November 16, 2008 at 1:10 am

Posted in Political Theory

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