Among the Intellectualoids

A Reply to Time Magazine

The U.S. Constitution is not an "obstacle" to a better America -- it is the sure path to it.

By 7.25.11

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The July 4 issue of Time magazine carried an image of the U.S. Constitution on its cover, along with the headline: "Does It Still Matter?" The photo of the Constitution showed it was being shredded into narrow strips -- which describes what Time managing editor Richard Stengel attempts to do in his accompanying article.

There was a time, decades ago, when Time magazine had great influence, but in the age of the Internet, cable TV, battling blogs, Facebook, Twitter and instant e-books, there is delicious irony in an ink-on-paper news weekly suggesting that the U.S. Constitution is obsolete in the modern America. Oh, Mr. Stengel, the Constitution is not anywhere as obsolete as Time magazine. As for Time, the question might be asked: Does it still matter?

But let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Time might influence some Americans' views on the subject, and examine the case put forward by Stengel. He sets out to suggest that the document written by the Framers in the 18th century is hopelessly out-of-date to govern a modern, progressive America. And he does it in a way that almost begs hysterical laughter at the first sentence.

Honestly, I did not make this up -- Stengel wrote it, and I quote:

Here are a few things the framers did not know about: World War II. DNA. Sexting. Airplanes. The atom. Television. Medicare. Collateralized debt obligations. The germ theory of disease. Miniskirts. The internal combustion engine. Computers. Antibiotics. Lady Gaga.

The framers did not know about Lady Gaga? Or sexting? Then how could they possibly have devised a system of government and a statement of our natural rights that would be worth anything today?

After inviting ridicule with his silly opening, Stengel moves on to pose what he thinks are a series of questions that could show how irrelevant the Constitution is to modern conditions:

What would the framers say about whether the drones over Libya constitute a violation of Article I, Section 8, which gives Congress the power to declare war? Well, since George Washington didn't even dream that a man could fly, much less use a global positioning satellite to aim a missile, it's hard to say what he would think.

No, it's not. Obviously, Washington couldn't foresee modern weaponry, but as our Commanding General he had seen weapons evolve and would have known future wars would bring new ways of battle. But all that's beside the point. He would have opposed undeclared wars initiated only on the will of the Chief Executive just as he outspokenly opposed foreign alliances and U.S. involvement in foreign wars. Washington and the Framers would have certainly seen American participation in NATO's war in Libya as unconstitutional.

What would the framers say about whether a tax on people who did not buy health insurance is an abuse of Congress's authority under the Commerce Clause? Well, since James Madison did not know what health insurance was and doctors back then still used leeches, it's difficult to know what he would say.

Stengel again revels in irrelevancies, like leeches (to show how backward those people really were then) but so what?

Madison argued that the Commerce Clause was necessary to manage trade and commercial relations between and among the various States (so that one state could not impose a tax on goods crossing its border from another state, for example). The Commerce Clause was never intended to manage or dictate decisions of individual citizens as to whether or not they would engage in commerce. Not buying health insurance is a decision to refrain from engaging in commerce, so it's ludicrous to argue that Congress can penalize a citizen for not buying something. This very issue will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in considering the Obamacare mandate -- and if the Court should uphold the mandate, the justices would indeed shred the Constitution and there would be no limit on Congress's power to compel individual decisions by citizens. If the Federal government can tell you what to buy, and what not to buy, then what's left of liberty?

Stengel goes on to examine -- all in the context of his liberal, all-powerful-state bias -- four contemporary issues: the war in Libya, the debt-limit debate, Obamacare and immigration. But he gets to the heart of his progressive argument in the wind-up of the article, portraying the Constitution as some kind of roadblock on the statist's highway to Utopia, where the all-powerful central government will decide what's good, what's allowed, and what's forbidden for all Americans.

We can pat ourselves on the back about the past 223 years, but we cannot let the Constitution become an obstacle to the U.S.'s moving into the future with a sensible health care system, a globalized economy, and evolving sense of civil and political rights.

The Constitution as "obstacle" has become a staple of leftist political thinking, for it establishes limits on the reach of government power, and it explicitly recognizes God-given rights that the state cannot abridge. These are obstacles to the progressive's vision of the modern democracy, where new rights "evolve" in liberal courts, where an unelected bureaucracy of "experts" regulates behavior, and where the states become administrative agencies of the all-powerful Federal government, rather than what they really are: the sovereign governments that united to create a limited central government.

Stengel and his ilk may wish to shred the Constitution, but the American people seem to be awakening to the urgent need to return to Constitutional government, with all its limits, checks and balances -- before our debt-burdened economy implodes and our central government takes over our individual lives.

The Constitution is the only path to a viable future for our beloved republic, and its immediate re-emergence as a guide to good government is the only hope for avoiding the fate of former empires that found their ruin in debt, decadence, endless war and loss of their founding values and culture.

May the Constitution long survive when Time is forgotten!

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About the Author

James P. Gannon is a retired former Wall Street Journal reporter and newspaper editor. He lives in Virginia.