April 17, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
Our Constitution begins with the phrase “We the people.” The people precede the Constitution. They, through their representatives, wrote it and then voted to adopt it. Following generations amended it. Since we can amend the Constitution, ultimately we cannot depend on it unless we ourselves are dependable. The people are the foundation upon which the legal edifice of the Constitution rests. No matter what the Constitution says, no matter how clever its provisions, it will never be sound and constitutional government secure, if the people are not sound.
We often hear another account of the relationship between the people and the Constitution. This account presents the Constitution as a necessary constraint on the people. The people are a collection of self-interested individuals, perhaps even self-indulgent. If not for the rule of law, the authority and the procedures of the Constitution, who knows what they would do? This was a view held by some at the time of our Founding. It is a view still held today.
This must disturb those who love liberty. For if the people are weak, and divided by self-interest, then the government must be strong. For what else could control such people and direct them to useful ends? It is also a paradoxical view of the Constitution, since some of those who complain of the self-interestedness of the people also praise limited government. But, again, if the people are weak and divided, does this not encourage their government to be strong and to take over responsibilities for which the people are supposedly unfit?
How we, the people, view ourselves, therefore, is critical to the kind of government we have. How should we view ourselves? One test we might apply is a now ancient one, offered by those who sought to revive republican self-government after centuries of rule by emperors and kings. The test was simply this. What are the people like when a crisis comes? What do they discover in themselves?
We might think this a test we will fail. Have we not heard stories of the horrors in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, for example? Once government disappeared—the narrative goes—savagery returned. The first reports did convey that sense, but the first reports were wrong or at least exaggerated. Further research has revealed that violence was rare; people helped one another. The people of New Orleans and surrounding areas, in the absence of government, organized on their own an evacuation that saved thousands from the flood waters.
Something similar but on a larger scale happened in New York City on September 11. When the twin towers fell, thousands were trapped in lower Manhattan. They moved to the tip of the island. There they stood, growing numbers pressed against the water’s edge. Some of those who worked the waters around Manhattan started to take people aboard. Other boats joined them, starting an evacuation that lasted almost nine hours and brought more than 300,000, perhaps nearly 500,000, to safety. The evacuation took place without panic. No one was injured or killed during it.
This evacuation was the spontaneous response of people to a crisis. As such, it reveals something about the people. One observer saw businessmen, no doubt from the financial district in lower Manhattan, those we might think of as the very paragons of conniving self-interest, carrying the old and disabled to boats, setting them down and then returning into the dust and crowds looking for others they could help. Such actions occur not just in great crises like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. They occur when a tornado rips apart a town and people from surrounding communities come to help or when an ice storm takes out the electricity and neighbors share firewood or check on an elderly couple.
It is important, of course, not to flatter ourselves. A small number of the people do take advantage of a crisis for their own ends. The people did get some assistance from the government on 9/11. Seeing the evacuation starting, the Coast Guard issued a call for all available boats and announced that the normal safety rules about how many passengers a boat might carry would not be enforced. Above all, we should not take our bearings solely by what people do in a time of crisis. We live mostly in more normal times, when complacency has a more marked effect and where the law as constraint and guide is helpful.
Still, we should not accept the idea that the people are above all self-interested, especially if it suggests that the government, therefore, needs a heavy hand. Or, perhaps, we should take from the example of how the people act in a crisis a better understanding of self-interest. What we see in a crisis, we might say, is people who think enough of themselves, and what they can do, to think of others as well. We see that self-interest in this sense derives from self-respect. If you think well of yourself, you will take an interest in yourself. Taking an interest in yourself, you will take an interest in and help those who are important to you, your family, friends, neighbors, and fellow-citizens. The circle of regard spreads, in due proportion, outward from the self-regarding individual. That is the true foundation upon which the Constitution and our hopes for limited government rest.