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How to Understand the Constitution Without Really Trying

Ben Franklin US Constitution quote

Here’s an excerpt from our new book, The Constitution – A Revolutionary Story

A constitution is a contract. It’s also a rule book. One could also describe it as an etiquette guide in which bad manners are answered with real consequences. In short, it outlines the expected behaviors of all parties involved in the consent-based government we discussed in the previous chapter.

The easy way to think about a constitution of a consent-based government system is to compare it to a lawn mowing service contract with little Jimmy Husqvarna down the street. Yes, I chose an analogy where the role of our government is played by a 12-year old on purpose. It’s in everyone’s best interest for your lawn to get cut on a regular basis. It’s in your best interest to do important stuff like arranging the food in your pantry alphabetically rather than laboring behind a lawnmower. It’s in your neighborhood association’s best interest for your lawn to be maintained, so they don’t have to send nasty letters. And last, but not least, it’s in your 12-year old neighbor’s best interest to make 25 bucks so he can hurry up and buy the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto.

So, if we want to model modern little league soccer and make everyone a winner, we must establish a contract. While it may not be written down, it’s still an agreement. The kid agrees to mow the lawn. You agree to pay him. The neighborhood home owner’s association becomes depressed because they have no reason to send you nasty letters. Almost everyone is happy because all parties are voluntarily consenting to this mutually beneficial arrangement.

But what happens if your adolescent horticulturist fails? Maybe he’s stuck on level 19 of Assassin’s Creed and can’t get away from the X-Box, or maybe he finally left the basement and discovered girls. Whatever the cause, since you have a consent-based contract, it’s your prerogative to find another teenage lawn hand. You voluntarily agreed to hire that little weasel who only edges every other week so you can voluntarily agree to un-hire him too.

The Constitution is basically a voluntary consent contract between the people and the government. The people agree to be governed because it makes sense, but the government has to behave because the people are only voluntarily agreeing to be governed as long as the government doesn’t act like a weenie. That sounds like circular logic, and in a sense, it is. That’s OK, however, because the circle can be broken for cause.

As to the rulebook concept, the Constitution sets forth exactly how the government will operate. Not only does it define the structure of the government, but it also clarifies the limits of power granted by the people to the government. Getting back to little Jimmy Husqvarna, it’s analogous to our lawn mowing agreement specifying that he’ll edge and trim every week, use only a Fisher-Price approved lawnmower and promise not to dump the grass clippings on the neighbors’ lawns.

In fact, the Constitution is largely written in such a way that all authority is assumed to belong to the people except that which is expressly granted to the government by the language in the Constitution. Technically speaking, if the Constitution doesn’t establish government authority, then it doesn’t exist. That’s in theory, of course, because we all know how much government’s role and authority has bloated over the past 200 years.

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Matter of Fact…

James Madison was a seriously busy guy during the Constitutional Convention. Not only did he do the summer reading and come prepared with an outline, but he also took copious notes during the entire proceedings. After his death, the government purchased his journal for the sum of $30,000. That was a lot of coin back in 1837. Often going to the level of detail of who said what when, it makes for fascinating reading.

The Constitution – A Revolutionary Story is available in print and Kindle format from Amazon.

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