We the people

What does the preamble to the Constitution really say? If you back away from it far enough so that you can see only the outlines, you find some surprising things. Here is today’s example

We, the people of the United States, in order to achieve a number of common goals (six are specifically listed) adopt this constitution. The logical flow is certainly clear. We have some common goals we would like to achieve. In order to help us do that, we adopt this constitution.

What happens if there are other goals, more attractive goals, that some us hold. What if some of these goals are in conflict with the ones we have specified? It doesn’t mean that we don’t have common goals; it means only that there are other goals that are more important to some of us.

Consider for instance “securing the blessings of liberty” and “promoting the general welfare.” We should probably take “liberty” as “independence from other nations,” especially Great Britain. It could not mean “liberty” as freedom from constraint. You can’t have a society in which constraint is not available to society at large to be exercised against breakers of the agreement. And furthermore, it cannot mean that the government is not empowered to specify the procedures for achieving the general welfare.

It seems odd that these two should have come into such conflict in the Covid pandemic. “Liberty” has been interpreted in some states as freedom to maintain active pools in which the virus can mutate and attack other citizens. This, of course, prolongs the pandemic and puts fellow citizens at risk of disease and death. It opposes the general welfare in the most flagrant ways.

When we go back to the formal structure of the Preamble—we, the people, in order to achieve certain common goals, adopt this Constitution to help us pursue them—there is no reason to think that “liberty” would come to be interpreted as freedom to oppose the general welfare, but it has.

There are two elements in this degradation. The first, alluded to above and illustrated by the anti-vax collage is that “liberty” has been expanded to impractical dimensions. The second is that common knowledge of what the “general welfare” requires has been denied in principle.

It was always the case, of course, that just what constituted the general welfare could not be independently inferred by each citizen. The idea was always that the stratum of citizens with the best sense of what the nation required would be trusted to say what that is. That is what has made taxes and military drafts possible. But if any formulation of “the general welfare” can be denied as without basis—a fabrication, perhaps a plot—then the general welfare can be asserted generally, but it cannot be specified. The implications of the general welfare for our own actions also cannot be specified. We need to be able to trust some account of what to do or we will never effectively coordinate our actions; that means that to the extent the general welfare requires the cooperation of the whole society, we will fail.

And we are failing.

What we would have to do differently in order to succeed is not a mystery. First, we would need to revise our understanding of “liberty” as the right to do whatever I think is right or, more commonly, whatever I think should be allowed. It cannot be that. Second, we would need to trust the most reliable notion of the general welfare we can get. No point in holding out for a perfect one. The best one we can get will be good enough.

Then, having resolved that one conflict—liberty v. the general welfare—we can give our best effort toward solving our most urgent common problems. We are not doing that now.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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