The principles that rule this blog

Principles that will govern my thoughts as I express them here (from my opening statement):


  • Freedom of the individual should be as total as possible, limited only by the fact that nobody should be free to cause physical injury to another, or to deprive another person of his freedoms.
  • Government is necessary primarily to provide those services that private enterprise won't, or won't at a price that people can afford.
  • No person has a right to have his own beliefs on religious, moral, political, or other controversial issues imposed on others who do not share those beliefs.

I believe that Abraham Lincoln expressed it very well:

“The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or cannot
so well do, for themselves — in their separate, individual capacities.”


Comments will be invited, and I will attempt to reply to any comments that are offered in a serious and non-abusive manner. However, I will not tolerate abusive or profane language (my reasoning is that this is my blog, and so I can control it; I wouldn't interfere with your using such language on your own!)

If anyone finds an opinion that I express to be contrary to my principles, they are welcome to point this out. I hope that I can make a rational case for my comments. Because, in fact, one label I'll happily accept is rationalist.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

On reading the Constitution

There are two conflicting philosophies on reading the Constitution, or so it seems: "original intent" and "the living Constitution." But there is no reasonable way of following either of these in a consistent manner.

Justice Antonin Scalia is a great disciple of the concept of "original intent." In other words, provisions of the Constitution need to be understood in the way that was understood by the Founders of this country at the time they were writing those words. The problem with this "original intent" philosophy is that it doesn't address the question of whose intent. For example, the First Amendment (as well as all nine others in what we call the "Bill of Rights") was drafted by James Madison. There are arguments currently as to what the Establishment Clause means, but it is clear that Madison, specifically, meant the kind of aggressive separationism that I myself advocate (thugh, as we will see below, only on a Federal level). We have examples of correspondence that prove this. (The "wall of separation between Church and State" often cited by separationists is, it is true, not in the text of the First Amendment, but in a letter sent by President Thomas Jefferson to some people in Connecticut asking for assistance. But Jefferson and Madison were close allies, and there is correspondence between the two of them that establishes that on the issue of separation between Church and State, the two thought alike. And it is not only to Jefferson that Madison wrote in such terms. On July 10, 1822 he wrote to Edward Livingston as follows:
Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Gov will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.
It is quite clear what his position was.) But when the First Amendment was approved by Congress and the States, it is also true that not everyone held Madison's view. So whose interpretation of the First Amendment applies?

And in 1791, when it was approved, of course, the First Amendment did not apply to the States. The Thomas Jefferson letter that was cited regarding the "wall of separation between Church and State" in fact was in response, as I said earlier, to some Connecticut residents asking for relief from the provisions of Connecticut law establishing the Congregationalist Church (which continued until 1833!) and in it he also stated that he, as President, could not do anything about a State law.

So "original intent" has its problems. On the other hand, treating the Constitution as a living document runs into its own problems. Every citizen, not to mention every Supreme Court Justice, has his own idea as to what a term in the Constitution means. So if one Justice feels that the death penalty is now "cruel and unusual," while another feels the opposite, who is right? I don't really know the answer.

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