by Tim Donner
As a naive young boy seeking my own happiness, it was second nature for me to believe that most people were the same way. I believed that attaining personal happiness was more than enough of a challenge for individuals, without adding other people into the mix. I thought that this was the natural state of affairs.
Thus, the growing realization that this world is full of people who seek to control others was disconcerting at best. But this, I concluded reluctantly, was inherent in human nature.
As a child, I also understood that a small candy bar given to me was cooler than a larger one I had to earn. I have learned that human nature is such that people generally default to whatever requires the least effort, the path of least resistance.
This, I came to understand, means that most people will submit to control in return for the free candy bar—unless there are incentives to seek the larger candy bar.
This immutable human nature, and the attendant greed and selfishness that resides in each of us and is common to all civilizations from all times, can never be conquered, but it can be tamed. Just as in medicine, some conditions can be cured, but others can only be managed.
That is why the principles embedded in the Constitution, and the great men and women who fought for them, are an inspiration to me. And this 228th Constitution Day is a cause for both celebration and introspection.
Because they are based on the most realistic reading of human nature ever conceived, the principles embedded in our Constitution inspire me because they work. I like things that work: plans that come together; principles that work in practice.
The principles embedded in the Constitution, and stated so eloquently in the Federalist Papers, work. We know that not just because of its accounting for human nature, but because of results.
Guided by this blueprint, America rose from a colonial backwater to the greatest nation in the history of the world.
From beginning to end, the Constitution accounts for human nature by dispersing power, specifically enumerating responsibilities, and empowering the broad mass of citizens to determine their own individual fates.
Make no mistake, this was revolutionary stuff. Suddenly, in the most dramatic reversal in world history, the government would become the servant of the people instead of the other way around. And this goal would be achieved with the application of principles large enough to persist in their relevance to issues in the future that its framers could not possibly have envisioned.
Perfect it is not. Nothing is. Some framers sought to outlaw slavery before realizing it was politically impossible at the time. And if they had it to do again, they might have, for example, included term limits for Congress. They might have limited the power of the presidency more than they did.
But as Winston Churchill famously stated, democracy is the worst form of government … except for all the others. And it’s not even close.
Consider the alternatives—dictatorship or collectivism of one form or another.
It has most often taken no more than a single man with an insatiable thirst for control to destroy entire civilizations. Just two years shy of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution that produced the Soviet state, we now have an unbroken history of tyranny and death attached to one tyrant after another, particularly the barbaric practice of communism, and powerful centralized governments that consistently discourage an ethos of productivity among its citizens.
But it is in response to this reality that my love for the Constitution developed. Human nature cannot be changed, but it can be recognized, accounted for, and mitigated for the sake of a nation. And properly applied, the founding principles mitigate this human nature, this thirst for control, more effectively than any document ever created.
A president cannot change laws, nor start a war without the consent of Congress, nor veto an act of Congress without that body having the opportunity to override. No money can be spent without a majority of the people’s representatives from the entire nation approving. No law can be passed by Congress without the ultimate assent of the courts. Any power not specifically enumerated as federal rests with the states or the people. And the list of particulars on the vertical (between federal and state) and horizontal (between federal branches) division of power goes far beyond those.
But even more important are the unprecedented rights afforded to individuals. No person can be jailed for expressing an opinion. No person can be subject to unreasonable search and seizure. No accused person can be denied representation or tried twice for the same crime. And that list also goes on and on.
These remarkable checks, balances, and rights are central to the fabric of America, but how they were attained is just as remarkable.
They were championed by elites who could quite easily have seized power for themselves. The founders could have formed their own monarchy, oligarchy, or other top-down or authoritarian form of rule not dissimilar to the one against which they had successfully revolted.
Instead, they created the first bottom-up system of self-government. “We the people.” Not, “we the rulers.”
The founders had so much to lose personally—not the least of which were their own lives. It would have been far easier to protect their own positions—to feather their own comfortable nests—than to place their lives in the direct line of fire by fomenting a radical movement for independence from the most powerful nation in the world.
That is why the courageous pledging of their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in defense of an experimental system that would remove their own safety nets and limit or disperse their own power remains truly awe-inspiring to this day.
I’m inspired by the courage it took to even conceive such a thing. And for the courage it took to stare down human nature and invent the only form of government ever to successfully account for it.
John Adams famously said, “Posterity, you will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom. I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.” Let us continue to honor the courage and foresight of our nation’s founders by working to ensure that “We the People” are informed and engaged.