Tuesday, April 22, 2014

George Will's False Constitutional Dichotomy

George Will offered a recent lecture on the U.S. Constitution in an editorial that falls victim to one of Will's trademark logical fallacies, the hollow man. Will suggests that he borrowed his argument from a book by Timothy Sandefur, who Will characterizes as conservative but who is more commonly and accurately described as libertarian,
The argument is between conservatives who say U.S. politics is basically about a condition, liberty, and progressives who say it is about a process, democracy. Progressives, who consider democracy the source of liberty, reverse the Founders’ premise, which was: Liberty preexists governments, which, the Declaration says, are legitimate when "instituted" to "secure" natural rights.
The hollow man argument is one in which you ascribe to those who don't share your view a position that few to none of them hold, but that is easily batted down. Such a demonstration is usually followed by vigorously patting oneself on the back. Will departs from his traditional hollow man arguments, in that rather than simply making up a position he ascribes to liberals or progressives, here he has borrowed Sandefur's. Nonetheless, I think he would be hard pressed to find an appreciable number of progressives who blurt out, "Democracy!" when asked to identify the purpose of the Constitution, let alone the constrained concept of Democracy that Will presently deplores.

Further, to the extent that some of the political left might blurt out "Democracy!", so might some on the political right. Consider, for example, this guy:
After half a century of misconstruction, the First Amendment cannot be helped by a piddling-fiddling amendment about the flag. It needs serious thought about why the Amendment's framers, who used words more carefully than the court does, used the word "speech" rather than "expression." The answer is that speech, meaning the use of words, is the sine qua non of reasoning and persuasion, and hence of democratic government. Democracy is, after all, the point of the Constitution, to which the Amendment is appended.
The person who wrote that essay was also not so keen on the elevation of individual rights over those of the community,
[Both flag burning and abortion] involve a particularly American tension between the values of individualism and community. Actually, the rights of communities are so attenuated that there is not nearly enough tension....

The fundamental problem is a social atmosphere saturated with a philosophy of extreme individualism. In many manifestations this philosophy is anti-democratic because it overrides the right of the community to speak and act. This philosophy has been absorbed by many judges, including some so-called conservatives, who have supported the assault on the rights of the community.
In short, a younger George Will thought it absurd that the constitution might be construed to protect symbolic speech, as opposed to words that flow from your mouth (or from the printed page), and was contemptuous of giving constitutional protection to reproductive freedom. He saw the core of the Constitution as being about democracy, and was disdainful of the elevation of individual rights over constraints that the larger community wished to impose. He openly questioned the conservative bona fides of those who advanced individualism over community. It's possible that Will changed his mind, although his writings do not suggest an actual evolution of thought. It seems more likely that he forgot his past words, written in what he likely believed to be a time of conservative ascendency, and that his present position is inspired by his fear that the Republican Party is on a downward trajectory. After all, democracy is more fun when you're winning.

Contrary to Will, I don't believe that if you asked random liberal and conservative voters, "What is the purpose of the Constitution", you would get a majority of liberals arguing "to protect democracy" or a majority of conservatives aruing, "to protect individual rights". I also think that, whatever the initial response, both groups would acknowledge that the Constitution does, in fact, protect both democracy and individual rights. I think he would find vanishingly few people in either faction who would articulate the conception that democracy is a "process" and that individual liberty is a "condition".

The essential argument advanced by Will, paraphrasing Sandefur, is unconvincing:
Progressives consider, for example, the rights to property and free speech as, in Sandefur’s formulation, "spaces of privacy" that government chooses "to carve out and protect" to the extent that these rights serve democracy. Conservatives believe that liberty, understood as a general absence of interference, and individual rights, which cannot be exhaustively listed, are natural and that governmental restrictions on them must be as few as possible and rigorously justified. Merely invoking the right of a majority to have its way is an insufficient justification.
Sandefur works for an organization that actively opposes eminent domain, and that appears to color and perhaps dominate his perception of this divide. After all, the most notable cases of eminent domain have occurred in urban areas in the name of urban renewal, and it follows that a lot of the governments advancing that renewal are Democratic.

There is a problem within that sphere, in that many Democrats are not comfortable with the government taking private property for a public purpose, particularly a nominally "pubic purpose" that involves handing seized land over to private developers. But more than that, when you move outside of that narrow sphere, the conceit collapses. When it comes to protecting the rights of marginalized and disenfranchised groups, progressives have consistently taken the lead. When the left embraced the civil rights movement, the Republican Party embraced the Southern Strategy. In the present push for equal rights for gay Americans, leadership comes almost exclusively from the left and resistance almost exclusively from the right. When it comes to reproductive freedom, it has not been the Republican Party that has taken the position that "individual rights, which cannot be exhaustively listed, are natural and that governmental restrictions on them must be as few as possible and rigorously justified". Quite the opposite.

Will embraces an odd argument, advanced by Sandefur, that you should derive your beliefs about the Constitution's purpose not from the Constitution itself, but from the Declaration of Independence,
The Constitution is the nation’s fundamental law but is not the first law. The Declaration is, appearing on Page 1 of Volume 1 of the U.S. Statutes at Large, and the Congress has placed it at the head of the United States Code, under the caption, “The Organic Laws of the United States of America.” Hence the Declaration “sets the framework” for reading the Constitution not as “basically about” democratic government — majorities — granting rights but about natural rights defining the limits of even democratic government.
Alright, then, let's take a look:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Is it actually possible to read the Declaration of Independence and miss its emphasis on democracy and the consent of the governed?

I do have some sympathy for some of Sandefur's arguments, as stated by Will. In Will's formulation, which I am accepting as accurate, Sandefur deplores the manner in which the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was effectively written out of the Constitution by the Supreme Court. I also appreciate Will's argument that the purpose of the constitution is not to leave the rights of the individual to the mercy of the strong, although I again have to note that, outside of certain narrow spheres, the protection and advancement of individual rights has been largely a concern of the political left. I'm impressed that Will has moved away from his past narrow textualism, now arguing that an "individual’s natural rights... include — indeed, are mostly — unenumerated rights whose existence and importance are affirmed by the Ninth Amendment", and I would be pleasantly surprised if Will revisited some of his past positions in light of his new understanding of the Constitution.

I'm not sure what to make of Will's embrace of judicial activism,
Many conservatives should be discomfited by Sandefur’s analysis, which entails this conclusion: Their indiscriminate denunciations of “judicial activism” inadvertently serve progressivism. The protection of rights, those constitutionally enumerated and others, requires a judiciary actively engaged in enforcing what the Constitution is “basically about,” which is making majority power respect individuals’ rights.
Is Will acknowledging the obvious: that much of what has occurred in recent decades in advancement of conservative causes has involved rampant judicial activism by Republican-appointed judges? Is he embracing the notion of a "living constitution", one that should not be interpreted by its actual language but should instead be interpreted consistent with a contemporary view of individual rights? By what measure are courts to decide cases, in the process upholding and defending the Constitution, if not the language of the Constitution? Perhaps Will is arguing that he sees a great need for conservative judicial activism as a counter to democracy, not so much to protect individual rights as to protect his conception of conservatism from voters who keep electing Democrats.

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