Our Constitution Is Out of Step with the Rest of the World

Is the Constitution out of date? That’s the impression that comes across from an article in yesterday’s New York Times, written by the paper’s crack Supreme Court reporter, Adam Liptak. It comes in turn from an article he points to by two law professors, David S. Law at Washington University in St. Louis and Mila Versteeg at the University of Virginia, scheduled for the June New York University Law Review. In it the authors conclude that the Constitution appears to be losing its appeal as a model for constitution drafters in other countries, despite its having served that role up until as recently as 1987, the year of its bicentennial. So what’s changed over the past quarter century?

Unfortunately, from the Times article we don’t get a clear picture of just how it is that the constitutions other countries have drafted in recent years differ from our own, except for the emphasis throughout the piece on rights. Yet right there is a clue about what’s going on. On that score, in fact, Liptak cites striking comments Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made in a television interview during a visit to Egypt last week:

“I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012,” she said. She recommended, instead, the South African Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the European Convention on Human Rights.

Liptak then notes, not entirely accurately, that “the rights guaranteed by the American Constitution are parsimonious by international standards, and they are frozen in amber.”

To be sure, the rights enumerated in our Constitution and in the amendments that were added later, including in the Bill of Rights, are few in number. But numbers alone, like rights alone, tell only part of our constitutional story. To tell the story more fully and accurately, we have to step back a bit.

It’s true that our Framers, unlike many others, especially more recently, did not focus their attention on rights. Instead, they focused on powers— and for good reason. Because we have an infinite number of rights, depending on how they’re defined, the Framers knew that they couldn’t possibly enumerate all of them. But they could enumerate the government’s powers, which they did. Thus, given that they wanted to create a limited government, leaving most of life to be lived freely in the private sector rather than through public programs of the kind we have today, the theory of the Constitution was simple and straightforward: where there is no power there is a right, belonging either to the states or to the people. The Tenth Amendment makes that crystal clear. Rights were thus implicit in the very idea of a government of limited powers. That’s the idea that’s altogether absent from the modern approach to constitutionalism—with its push for far reaching “active” government—about which more in a moment.

During the ratification debates in the states, however, opponents of the new Constitution, fearing that it gave the national government too much power, insisted that, as a condition of ratification, a bill of rights be added—for extra caution. But that raised a problem: by ordinary principles of legal reasoning, the failure to enumerate all of our rights, which again was impossible to do, would be construed as meaning that only those that were enumerated were meant to be protected. To address that problem, therefore, the Ninth Amendment was written, which reads: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Over the years, unfortunately, that amendment has been misunderstood  and largely ignored; but it was meant to make clear that the people “retained” a vast number of rights beyond those expressly enumerated in the document.

Thus, the rights expressly enumerated in the Constitution may be “parsimonious,” but understood in light of the larger theory of the document, they are not. Neither, moreover, are they “frozen in amber,” because the courts are called on regularly to interpret and apply them in the varying factual contexts that surround the cases or controversies that are brought before them. Thus, the right to freedom of speech has been read to entail the right to desecrate the flag, and the right to liberty has been read to entail the right to engage in sexual practices that others may dislike. Judges may sometimes fail to draw the proper inferences, of course, or draw inferences not entailed. But that says nothing about the Constitution itself.

The idea, then, that our Constitution is terse and old and guarantees relatively few rights—a point Liptak draws from the authors of the article and the people he interviews—does not explain the decline in the document’s heuristic power abroad. Nor does “the commitment of some members of the Supreme Court to interpreting the Constitution according to its original meaning in the 18th century” explain its fall from favor. Rather, it’s the kind of rights our Constitution protects, and its strategy for protecting them, that distinguishes it from the constitutional trends of recent years. First, as Liptak notes, “we are an outlier in prohibiting government establishment of religion,” and we recognize the right to a speedy and public trial and the right to keep and bear arms. But second, and far more fundamentally, our Constitution is out of step in its failure to protect “entitlements” to governmentally “guaranteed” goods and services like education, housing, health care, and “periodic holidays with pay” (Article 24 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And right there, of course, is the great divide, and the heart of the matter.

The modern view, which we too have followed, at least statutorily if not constitutionally, is to recognize all manner of “entitlements” of a kind that can be provided only through massive governmental institutions that engage in material and regulatory redistribution. We are constitutionally out of step in that, to be sure. Countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal are far ahead of us.