Agovernment professor at Skidmore College, a liberal arts institution in upstate New York, recently wrote an op-ed that was carried in my local newspaper. My wife, who reads this newspaper faithfully, recommended the column to me since it was about one of my favorite subjects — the United States Constitution.
This professor, Beau Breslin, argues that our Constitution is outdated and doesn’t reflect opinions prevalent in today’s society. Specifically, it does not reflect the beliefs of the iGen’ers, young people in their mid-twenties and younger. If I understand his point, he contends that the Constitution should reflect the majoritarian view of the present time as these are the people who must live under it.
And he believes that the iGen’ers, the group most representative of college students, should be given a chance to rewrite our Constitution to construct a polity more suited to their philosophy. He would send them to Philadelphia to give it their best shot.
I can sympathize with this suggestion, at least to an extent. College years are a time for unconstrained idealism even at the cost of erratic ideology. There is a conceit among every generation of college students that if only their elders would get out of the way, they could make things a whole lot better. The Greeks called this hubris. I know; I was there myself 50 or so years ago.
One example from my dissolute undergraduate days will suffice. I was a member of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the conservative-libertarian alternative to the left-wing radicalism of the time. We decided one day, or rather late one night, to write the perfect constitution for a student fraternity. Of course the Greek letters had to symbolize YAF, except for the inconvenient truth that the Greek alphabet has no letter F. With undaunted egos we did some research at the library — there was no Wikipedia back then — and discovered that there was an archaic Greek letter, digamma, that looked a lot like an F to us. Problem solved. Upsilon Alpha Digamma was born.
This constitution was packed with every political science theory and historical precedent we could recall … and more than a dollop of nonsense. We were playing at this. No one, not even we ourselves, took us seriously. No matter; we were quite proud of our efforts at irrelevancy.
Therein lies the practical objection to the Skidmore proposal. Putting a bunch of inexperienced, self-indulgent young people in a room certainly will produce more heat than light. Their new U. S. Constitution would prove as unworkable as our erstwhile effort at fraternity-building.
The more serious objection is that Breslin’s premise rests on an assumption which is dangerous to democracy — that the majority should always get its way regardless. Federalist Papers 10 and 51 spoke to the threat of a tyranny of the majority. One of the fissures at the Constitutional Convention was between large and small states. No document emerged until the small states were satisfied that their interests and liberties would be protected. The Electoral College, the last compromise reached, is a case in point.
Is our Constitution a failure because it doesn’t give government enough power to impose solutions on us simple citizens who are inexplicably wrapped up in our anachronistic principles? Is a more activist government needed to move us along to the “more perfect union” envisioned by the Founding Fathers?
Activist government is nothing more nor less than a waypoint on the path to tyranny. If the government is to be “active” across a whole line of social and economic issues, it perforce means passivity on the part of individual citizens. In other words it requires a surrender of individual liberty and responsibility.
Yet, in this professor’s mind, this current generation should not only have a right to rewrite the Constitution, it should be the only one allowed to do so. The iGen’ers are the least partisan generation in his view and not bound by tribalism. Isn’t identity politics a particularly pernicious form of tribalism? He also calls them libertarians. Seriously? Isn’t it the iGen’ers who demand safe spaces from unwelcome ideas and what they call microaggressions? How canceling speakers represents libertarianism is beyond my ken.
Still, youth should be a time for unfettered thought processes producing ideas that may be irrational, unreasonable and hardly practical in the real world. But there must be adults in the room. By adults I mean those who have lived more than a decade or two with real world responsibilities like jobs, families and mortgages.
By all means, give them their heads. Maybe they will come up with an ingenious constitution for our nation. Just don’t bet that individual liberty will be the guiding principle for this new enlightened effort at self-government.