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David Harsanyi: Long Live the U.S. Constitution

Perhaps the document's flaw is its ambiguity, not its complexity

Almost every patriotic fiber of my body tells me that reading the U.S. Constitution aloud at the commencement of congressional sessions is a good idea. Heck, a pop quiz might even be in order. It is vital that members of Congress fully immerse themselves in the document if they’re going to circumvent it effectively.

These same instincts demand that I embrace the new Republican rule requiring that every House bill contain a statement from the author specifically citing the constitutional authority on which he or she is basing the legislation. If not for anything else, watching politicians squaring a new law calling for “breast-feeding rights” with the founding document promises an entertainment value that is urgently missing in Washington.

Yet despite all my superhuman patriotism, I also find the whole effort a bit gimmicky and unnecessary. As you know, the Constitution is malleable, and we all believe deeply in our own version; that’s if we’re imbued with enough wisdom to understand it.

Recently, the wise liberal Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein explained that “the issue of the Constitution is not that people don’t read the text and think they’re following; the issue with the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago.”

Or, who knows, perhaps technocrats who believe societal progress is achieved through state control are not yet free to openly assert their aversion to a document conceived — unmistakably — to protect the individual from state intrusion.

The Constitution, curiously enough, always seems to get most convoluted when the wording is most precise. As you know, the First Amendment is fine if the result is “fair” and not too hateful. The Second Amendment is dangerous and misunderstood. To support the 10th Amendment is to pine for slavery. The Fifth Amendment is vitally important — unless the environmental good is threatened.

Perhaps the flaw in the document is its ambiguity rather than its complexity. Giving Congress the wide-ranging authority to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” to provide for the “general welfare,” for instance, gives every do-gooder who can cobble together 50 percent-plus-one of the vote the authority to define the common good.

This includes conservatives, who would often have trouble passing their own originalist constitutional purity test.

Under what authority does government dictate the parameters of marriage, for instance? What in the Constitution allows Washington to prohibit the peaceful economic transaction between individuals — whether it be marijuana or anything else? (Alcohol prohibitionists had the decency to pass a new amendment.)

So, because the Constitution has become too complex for many of us to decipher — and thus irrelevant — it’s time to boil the whole thing down to its troglodytic and/or graceful basics and engage P.J. O’Rourke’s rules of governance in a free society:

» 1) “Mind your own business.”
» 2) “Keep your hands to yourself.”

If the public believes in the spirit of the founding and politicians are committed to the resurrection of the Constitution, those rules are a good guide when looking at new legislation. No need for gimmicks.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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