From the Progressive movement in the early 1900s to today, the chief criticism of the Constitution, created this week (Sept. 17) in 1787, is that it is outdated – it may have been germane to the late 18th century, but not to modern times. The Founding Fathers never anticipated such technologically advanced changes as computers, ATM machines and cellphones.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “I would not look at the U.S. Constitution if I was drafting a constitution in the year 2012,” but instead look at Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedom, because it’s “more recent than the U.S. Constitution … it dates from 1982.” Another judge wrote there is “absolutely no value” in studying the Constitution, because the Founders “could not foresee the culture, technology, etcetera, of the 21st Century.”
Except that the Founders did clearly foresee that one thing never changes, and that foresight is embedded in the Constitution.
What never changes is human nature. The Founders believed their new nation would require some civic virtue, in which citizens voluntarily obeyed the law and contributed to the betterment of their neighborhoods, communities, cities, states and country. But the Founders understood that the primary motivator of human behavior is, always has been, and always will be, self-interest. Therefore, we need government to protect us and our God-given rights from the self-interested depredations of others. Without government, what is to stop the worst of us from robbing and killing to obtain the things we want and need?
But as the Constitution’s chief creator, James Madison, wrote, that same self-interest principle requires we also restrain government by giving it only those powers absolutely necessary to protect our rights. Governments are run by self-interested humans who will often attempt to use government power to further their self-interest. This is why our Constitution has so many checks on power – three governmental branches checking one another, a division of power between the national and state governments, frequent elections, a free press, a judicial system to uphold the law, and more. “If men were angels,” Madison wrote, “no government would be necessary.” But we aren’t, so it is.
The point being, someone robbing us with a musket in 1792 is no different fundamentally from someone hacking into our bank account today. The technologies are vastly different, but the threat to our constitutionally guaranteed right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the same, and the Constitution ensures that both perpetrators are punished accordingly.
So, time marches on, and change is the result. But human nature and the self-interested behaviors that spring from it are timeless, and because our Constitution was created with that in mind, it too is timeless.
Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.