The Good and the Bad of Constitutionalism


Column by Paul Bonneau.

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There are many, including myself who, having examined how and by whom and for what purpose the Constitution was used to overthrow the clearly superior Articles of Confederation, tend to throw up our hands at any notion of restoring it. Why bother? Our current police state can be traced directly way back to the 1787 Convention, it seems. However, it might be a mistake to be completely dismissive of constitutionalism.

For example, many have made mince meat of the claim that the Constitution is a “social contract” or that it in some way expresses a "consent of the governed." The notion truly is fantastic; but let’s just hold our sneers for a moment. Is there something wrong with contracts per se? No, of course not. They are one of the more civilized inventions of human beings. The problem with the Constitution is not that it is a contract, but rather that it is not a contract. The problem is that the phrase, “social contract” is a euphemism for no contract at all.

Imagine that the Constitution actually was a contract. That would be a vast improvement. It would have a dotted line you’d have to sign on. It would have provisions for a breach, and a way to exit. The very fact it was a contract that one could sign, would mean there are people who refuse to sign--which instantly gives rise to other different ways to arrange society that they may sign onto instead, not to mention the existence of people who refuse to sign onto any such agreements. In other words, Panarchy would be an almost inevitable result of making the Constitution an actual contract.

Whenever anyone starts going on about social contracts, the thing we should do is tell them we want a real contract, not this phony BS. There is nothing at all wrong with a group of people getting together and committing to live a certain way, as long as others are not dragooned into it. If they are, then it is no longer an agreement, or a contract.

Another thing about the Constitution is that even the most ardent “restorationist” has to admit that this first (or almost the first) attempt at making a constitution fell short in a lot of ways. It’s my impression that most of them are willing to look at modifications to make it work better, rather than just leaving it as it is. If they admit to the possibility of such modifications, they also open the door to other provisions they might not first think of, such as making it an actual contract, or making participation voluntary, or explicitly allowing secession. Certainly, at minimum a significant decentralization of power is always contemplated by restorationists, and what can be more decentralized than going down to the individual level? We should take this tendency and run with it!

The Constitution has always had a “rally round the flag” quality to it, even though to all intents and purposes constitutional government ended in the United States in 1861. People still use it as a rallying cry or a mental landmark. In the coming upheaval, it will be to our advantage to recognize this fact and to work with the people who think of it that way. I believe we anarchists can make an accommodation with them. A good thing, because there are a lot more of them than there are of anarchists.

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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


Glen Allport's picture

Like that kid who pointed out the king's nakedness, you have a gift, Paul, for describing obvious and important truths that have somehow been ignored by nearly everyone, and then making the situation clear without talking it to death. Nice work.

Paul's picture

Thanks, Glen. If you can't put what you want to say on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper, it's not worth saying. :-) Or at any rate, writing more than can be read on one session on the ceramic throne, almost guarantees few people will bother reading it...