Friday, January 1, 2016

constitutional contradictions

At the National Archives, the signed copy of the Constitution is displayed in a darkened room, carefully protected from light or damage. Quiet crowds pass by the treasured document, a kind of holy relic. It's on parchment but could be carved in stone. It's hard to realize that it is riddled with ambiguities and inconsistencies, the outcome of vigorous disputes and artful compromises.

Cambridge historian Gary Gerstle has a provocative new book, Liberty and Coercion, that offers an explanation for how the Framers combined limited government with the powers of a strong state. His thesis is that they expected the member states to be strong, even intrusive. The federal government was designed to be weak and the bill of rights limited its powers, while refusing to impose similar limits on the states.

Gerstle shows the recurring tensions between liberty and coercion as the government dealt with various issues over the decades. He argues that federal power grew as its leaders used various strategies to get around the Constitution's strictures: exempting some areas from controls [such as war and immigration], use of surrogacy [such as using the post office to police censorship], and privatization of public activities [such as roads and railways].

I think it's better to think of the Constitution as providing a mechanism to resolve an inherent tension rather than saying it settled the question once and for all in 1787.

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