Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Friday, December 9, 2016

The Founding Fathers Are Dead — Can We Stop Using Them To Settle Every Argument?

WASHINGTON — It’s entirely appropriate that the week of our July Fourth celebrations should coincide with a moment when the Supreme Court’s health care decision has prompted intense debate over the purpose of our government and what the Constitution allows it to do.

We are a more philosophical people than we give ourselves credit for. Constitutional questions enter the political conversation in the United States more than in most countries because our diverse nation is bound by our founding principles, not by blood, race or ethnicity.

This has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantages are our openness and the fact that we tend to argue on the basis of high principles. The biggest disadvantage is that differences over policy are often disguised as differences over whether a preferred choice is constitutional or not. When we should be addressing pragmatic questions — Will this approach work? Will it solve the problem it’s designed to solve? Is this a problem government should do something about? — we instead fall back on rather abstract discussions of whether a given idea violates the Constitution.

It’s not a recent habit. When Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed that the federal government establish a Bank of the United States in 1790, his idea was strongly opposed by James Madison, his partner in writing both the Constitution and the Federalist Papers that defended it.