Monday, December 19, 2011

Rethinking America

Listening to the debates among the candidates contending for the nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, I have been struck by how many references there have been to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. There seems to be a feeling, among some candidates at least, that these documents are unambiguous and that one can simply read them and understand immediately what the law is without any further interpretation. One gets the feeling that some candidates feel that much of the history of the Supreme Court has involved replacing the constitution with new laws rather than arriving at legitimate interpretations of the guidelines provided in the document. One candidate, Newton Leroy Gingrich, has even suggested he would, as president, feel free to ignore court decisions he disagreed with and perhaps even impeach judges whose decisions he found objectionable.

All this talk of the constitution has made me wonder whether the problem of current American politics has been properly identified. It could well be that the source of the deep divisions that have paralyzed America's legislators is the Constitution itself, since that document was the product of legislators who were incapable of seeing eye to eye on how the nation could be governed. Although it would admittedly be a big task, it might be time to put the Constitution of September 17, 1787 into the nearest shredder and start all over again trying to provide a more workable set of guidelines in order “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” If a new American constitution is written, I would recommend making a few minor changes in the structure of the country. A few of the suggestions I would make are the following:

  • Abolish the states. The very idea of trying to unite states was wrong-headed in 1787, when the only states were Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, all of which are clustered together on or near the Atlantic coast. Now that the nation that grew out of those twelve states whose representatives signed the constitution in 1787 has fifty states that cover many times as much territory and have over one hundred times as many people as in 1787, the prospect of uniting them all is incalculably more difficult than it was as the nation was just getting started. The task of running the country as a country is hampered at every step by the existence of states with artificial boundaries, many of them so large that there is very little common ground within those boundaries. If one looks at a state such as Colorado, just to give one example, it is obvious all four of its borders were drawn on a map with a straight-edge rather than following natural geographical features. The eastern third of the state is prairie, the middle third is mountainous terrain, and the western third is a mostly arid terrain of mesas, canyons and hills. All three of these regions have different ecosystems, different economies and different demographics. What is now called the State of Colorado is an absurd monstrosity, an outrage to both reason and emotion. And Colorado is but an example of a kind of absurdity that is multiplied across the expanse of land between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

    Once the monstrous fiction of a state is removed, dozens of now-untractable problems will immediately disappear. Gone will be the conflict that now exists between federal laws and state laws. In the absence of state laws, there could be (as in Canada) a single set of federal criminal and civic laws. People who favor reducing the size of government should welcome the total elimination of fifty state legislative bodies, and people who favor the reduction of the tax burden should welcome the complete elimination of all state taxes. Much of the waste and redundancy that cripples the United States of America would be eliminated immediately by the elimination of states. (Of course, if there were no states to unite, the name of the country would no longer make sense, but it should not be difficult to find a new name for the more streamlined and much-improved country. It could be called Atlanto-Pacifica.)
  • Abolish the Senate.The Senate exists only because the founding parents could not agree on whether each state would be represented in the federal government by a number of representatives proportionate to its population or each state would have equal weight just by virtue of being a state. (This whole issue was made even more complicated by the fact that some states that had a large number of human beings living in them, most of whom were slaves, wanted slaves to count as represented population, even though they could not vote to choose their representatives.) If there were no longer any states, there would be no need for equal representation among them, and hence no need for a Senate. Again, people who feel that government has grown much too large should be overjoyed at the prospects of eliminating one of the two bodies that make up the current Congress.
  • Abolish the office of President. The office of President of the United States (POTUS) is surely the second most ridiculous political idea in the history of governance, the first prize going to the office of Vice President of the United States. No country needs a president elected separately by the people, let alone a president elected by an electoral college. A country does need some kind of leadership (unless it is a country run on Quaker principles), but a prime minister will suffice. If the House of Representatives were structured more like a House of Parliament, then the leader of the party with the most elected representatives would automatically be the Prime Minister. A Prime Minister appoints a cabinet of elected members of parliament, who may be, but are not required to be, of the same political party as the Prime Minister. The cabinet is both an executive branch and a legislative branch.
  • Abolish an electoral cycle with fixed periodicity. Rather than having elections every fourth year, elections should be called as they are in all countries that have a parliamentary system. It should be the law that a government in power must dissolve parliament after five years of rule, but there would be provisions for the ruling party to call elections more frequently than that, and there should be mechanisms in place for the opposition parties to have motions of non-confidence that would force an election if governance is going badly. In order to reduce the amount of time and money wasted on political campaigns. elections should be held no more than thirty days after parliament is dissolved. In an age of rapid communications, thirty days is ample time for a political party to inform the voters of its platform and for the voters to evaluate the platforms they are asked to consider.
  • Reconstitute the Supreme Court. If judges continue to be appointed by the party in power, they should be appointed for a limited amount of time, say, a non-extendable term of eight years. If judges are elected by the people, as perhaps they should be, then they should have to stand for election every time there is a parliamentary election.

These are a few of the structural changes that could be made to enable a more efficient and streamlined and much less costly form of government to emerge in the country now called the United States of America. If the Constitution of 1787 is retired and replaced with an improved document, many of the amendments to the current constitution, including the Bill of Rights, would also be retired. Many of the ideas now rather poorly and ambiguously expressed in the Bill of Rights that came to be attached to the original constitution of 1787 could be expressed more clearly. The ambiguous amendment calling for the separation of church and state, for example, could be replaced by a provision declaring that there be absolutely no reference to any sectarian religious dogmas within the Parliament or Supreme Court or in federally funded educational facilities or health care providers, but guaranteeing that no individual ever be limited in his or her choice of religious views and practices, so long as those practices do not violate the criminal laws of the nation.

There are other reforms that I personally would recommend, but some of them are controversial, and I do not wish to enter into controversial issues here. They can wait for another communication. Suffice it to say for now that it seems perfectly obvious that the Constitution that has been in place since 1787 is no longer a fit instrument for effective government. It was never particularly good, but as times have evolved its few good points have ceased to be as good as they once were. It's time to bring an end to the United States and to replace it with a constitutional democracy more like those in most European countries and in such countries as India, Korea and Japan—or our next-door neighbor, Canada.