October 18, 2011
To My Fellow Citizens:
In my first letter, I spoke of the need for a constitutional conversation. I called upon citizens as much as our elected representatives to reflect on “the limitations and principles of the Constitution.” Perhaps the most important requirement for such a conversation is the recognition that the Constitution is itself a limitation on the actions of the people and their government and that such a limitation is good.
The Constitution is a limitation because it establishes the border between legitimate and illegitimate political action. It specifies what we may or may not do in our political life. The people are sovereign, the ultimate power in the land, and may amend the Constitution, of course. But however it may change, its stipulations impose limits on the people and their government. The federal Constitution does this for the people as a whole and the federal government. State constitutions impose limits on state governments and the people acting as the sovereign power in each state. Living within these limits is what we mean by the rule of law.
Why do the sovereign people accept this limitation on their power? Why should officials in their government accept the limitation? In the 1830s, as mob violence spread across America, Abraham Lincoln warned his fellow citizens that joining a mob, ignoring the rule of law, even to do an evident good, such as punishing a heinous murderer, posed a grave danger. Those who had acted beyond the limit of the law or took the law into their own hands one day could just as easily become the victim of such action another day. Politicians who assumed the power to do whatever they believed was good for the country, whether allowed by the Constitution or not, taught their opponents to act similarly, to do things those who first acted outside the law were bound to find harmful. Ignoring the Constitution or the rule of law might appear an expedient way to do good but was just as likely to produce harm.
The harm of ignoring the law was not just this or that harmful action, however, for even lawful action might produce harm. The greater harm was that ignoring the rule of law bred a spirit of lawlessness. In such a situation, citizen would be less able to trust fellow citizen, since no accepted rules would guide their actions. Not trusting each other, citizens would look only to themselves. In due course, their public and then private lives would be impoverished. They would come to see too late that accepting limitations on their power, living within the rule of law, was the basis of all the goods they enjoyed because it was the basis of the common good.
The conjunction of the good and the limits that make it possible brings me to the current demonstrations over the financial crisis. Let me say immediately that the demonstrations themselves are not the problem. Those gathering in public to express their views have a right to do so, and if legally exercised, this action should receive the support even of those who disagree with them. The problem is in the views the demonstrators express.
The demonstrators claim that we are suffering now because of the greed of the financiers and politicians who run the world financial system. Undoubtedly, there are greedy financiers and politicians. But if they were the cause of the financial crisis, the crisis would be constant. The real cause of the crisis is not, to paraphrase the poet, in our financiers and politicians, but in ourselves. We, the people, are the sovereign power in the country and, ultimately, financiers and politicians can do only what we let them do.
What we let them do was to let us, as a nation and individuals, live beyond our means, to live beyond the limits of what we could afford. It is good to own a home, for example, but it is not good to buy one with easy credit, made available by financiers with the encouragement of politicians, that one cannot afford. Both nations and individuals go bankrupt when they live too long this way.
But the bankruptcy may not be financial only. In the early days of our republic, many argued that excessive credit was a bad thing. They did so precisely because they believed that someone who lived on such credit showed that he would not accept limits, could not impose them on himself and was thus in a sense unable to govern himself. Self-government requires self-imposed limits, financially and constitutionally.
Financial recovery will come, slowly perhaps but certainly. Constitutional recovery, more difficult and more needful, is less certain. Most needful of all—if both recoveries are to endure to the limit possible for human achievement—will be a recovery of our willingness to live within our limits.