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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Point Is to Constrain

What is a constitution? The average person on the street will certainly know our country has one. But does she really know what it is for? A constitution is a set of rules meant to constrain the government from going beyond its stated purpose. Many claim the State exists to protect citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Madison’s paradox sums up the problem nicely: If men were angels there would be no need for government but because men aren’t angels a State is necessary. But now for the paradox: Government is made up of men and women, not angels, and government gives certain them power over others. So what is to stop them from abusing that power? Thus the point of a constitution is to constrain governments from such abuse.

Today’s document is a review of Henry Hazlitt’s A New Constitution Now from The Nation on December 5, 1942, by an unknown author. It’s titled “Constitutional Practices vs. Constitutional Revolution.” The author seems skeptical of Hazlitt’s main and radical point, but is overall just descriptive. Hazlitt wanted to replace our current system with an English parliamentary system. Why? Because by 1942 Franklin Roosevelt had almost a complete disregard for the Constitution. Presidential power had grown. The constitutional constraints simply were not working. Hazlitt’s case can still be made today.

Hazlitt’s proposal was radical, not because of what he suggests we replace our current system with, but rather because he saw a problem in the first place. The reviewer wrote, “I feel that it indulges in rather too much exaggeration to be as effective as it might have been.” Such attitudes can cause massive problems. It can lead to adoptions of amendments such as the 18th amendment (Prohibition), which was not meant to restrain the government’s power but to actively extend it. Such attitudes can make a constitution no constitution at all.

The constitutional political economy project, which James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock revived in economics back in the 1960s, is no easy task. Politicians are not so noble as Ulysses, and are unwilling to bind themselves to the mast. And as Tullock pointed out, any government strong enough to create the chains to bind themselves are strong enough to break them anyway. The fact that Hazlitt saw the need for a constitutional revolution back in 1942, and that the case can still be made today, are not good signs.

Hazlitt’s solution, a parliamentary system, might not be the way to go either. As he admitted later in life, his proposal didn’t explain how to check the parliamentary power. No one has produced a real solution for how to maintain a limited government. Maybe there is no way. As Ludwig von Mises put it, “The state is the negation of liberty.” The State’s tool is coercion after all. Hazlitt was right about one thing though: The first step is to admit there is a problem.

Download the book review of A New Constitution Now here. 

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.