How goes your “constitution”? Here’s mine

Matt, you said you and Dan were engaging in the theoretical, intellectual exercise of trying to rebuild the US constitution to make it work better. And I’d completely forgotten that about a year and half ago I did almost exactly the same thing.

You’ll recall my obsession with Coursera MOOCs before I went back to graduate school. Well, Coursera has moved to a new technology platform and will permanently remove all of its old courses on June 30th. So this evening, I went back to retrieve as many of my old posts and essays as I could, before they all went into the digital dumpster.

I’ll be posting some of my better stuff here, as I sort through it all and figure out what’s worth showing to you and whoever wanders by. It won’t all be about politics!!! That’s a part of life that must, must, must somehow be kept in perspective. But, lo and behold

…for one course on political philosophy, my final semester project was: create a complete blueprint for a more effective state. 

Here’s what I came up with. [The only edits I’ve made were to eliminate identification of the course and professor, in case he still uses this assignment. Everything else is as I saw the world 18 months ago; I’ve resisted the temptation to update based on all that’s happened since. But there are some things in here that you and I have definitely been talking about, even just today (promoting jurisprudence based on empirical fact)…]

Building a State That Works:
Trust, Legitimacy, Citizen Engagement

We need a state. While arguing against anarchism is far beyond the scope of this project, I will note a single line of evidence: historically, dramatic reductions in violence have been closely correlated with the emergence of states capable of gaining and holding what Max Weber called a “monopoly on violence.” (Hobbes would have said, I told you so.)

We need a state that works. Recent experience suggests this is no easy task. To get such a state, I’ll draw on the ideas of the philosophers we have studied directly or indirectly – for example, Hobbes, Rawls, the Federalists, and others. However, in the 21st century, there are difficult new challenges to making a State work: challenges these thinkers considered only tangentially, if at all.

Why Building a State is Now Harder Than Ever

First and foremost among these challenges: building trust in any institutions whatsoever.

It is true that many institutions have betrayed the trust once given them. However, it is also true that we live in an era where many people reflexively expect the worst from even the best institutions and leaders. Increasingly, many people refuse to believe in anything or anyone, demand perfection from everyone except themselves, and declare themselves betrayed when any institution exhibits the least human imperfection.

Moreover, while the evidence can be debated, I am persuaded that the bulk of evidence shows a greater resistance to operating in large groups for a common public purpose; to participating in traditional roles of citizenship; to working with people culturally unlike themselves; perhaps even to making and keeping friends. Fed by difficult economic times, these trends have built an ever-growing market for fear, anger, and hatred; a market that is served to great profit by modern media.

In a society that has deeply internalized Bob Dylan’s lyric that “not much is really sacred” and Sartre’s phrase “hell is other people,” state-building is forbiddingly difficult. Much of the discussion of constitutions and the structure of democratic institutions elides a key reality: if people hold institutions in contempt, refuse to engage with them, and won’t thoughtfully guide or assess their work, those institutions will fail – no matter how they are structured. The strongest of these institutions will run on momentum for awhile. But then they too will fail. Arguably, Americans and many others are experiencing this right now.

A Closer Look at Trust and Social Capital, and Why They Matter So Much

Robert Putnam defines social capital as “the features of social life–networks, norms, and trust–that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.” Social capital powerfully impacts both the way individuals interact with private organizations and with governments; people who are less likely to join the Elks Club or a church are also less likely to vote, serve on juries, or work in political campaigns. They are more cynical about shared efforts to do anything. They are unpromising candidates for citizenry in any democratic republic.

What leads to failures of trust and social capital?

  • They seem to fail when people “hunker down” with others like themselves, rejecting the growing diversity of their societies. Putnam has presented powerful evidence that, for all its long-term benefits, diversity poses a difficult challenge for civic engagement in the short term.
  • They seem to fail when inequality deepens, hardening class distinctions. Deep inequality convinces the poor that they and their children have little chance to advance. It convinces the rich that the poor deserve their current state, whether due to innate or cultural inferiority. While some of the causes (for example, accelerating technology-driven automation) are partially independent of the political system, they collectively make democracy more brittle and less sustainable.
  • Closely related to the preceding points, trust and social capital seem to fail when people sort themselves by religion, class, culture, and especially politics – thereby destroying the cross-cutting ties that have been empirically shown to strengthen democratic societies. This process of sorting is well underway in the US, and seems to be a key cause of its growing internal divisions.

Two examples may suffice. First: the percentage of Americans who said they would be “displeased” if their child married someone from a different political party has grown from 5% in 1960 to 40% in 2010. Second: In researching his book American GracePutnam found that “as recently as the 1970′s there was essentially no correlation between how often you went to church and how you voted.” That meant churchgoers met plenty of Democrats, and atheists encountered plenty of Republicans. But, Putnam continued, “far more people have their religion and politics aligned now.” Of those who changed, Putnam added, most “changed their religion to fit their politics rather than the other way around… It was hard to believe that people would be making decisions about their eternal fate on the basis of how they feel about Bill Clinton or George W. BushBut that’s the fact…

Building a successful State requires us to somehow counter massive societal trends such as these. Failing that, we must at least make them a visible and central issue in public debate. In significant part, that is my goal for this essay.

Using All the Resources We Have: Philosophical and Empirical

To have any chance at success, we must draw on tools that were unavailable to great political philosophers like Hobbes, Bentham, Smith, and Mill. We have learned some things about human beings in and out of society since they wrote. Hobbes knew much, but knew no evolutionary biology. Adam Smith knew much – including far more about ethics and empathy than is often recognized — but he knew little or no behavioral economics. The founders of the United States sought to create the conditions for happiness, but knew no neuroscience. Even Rawls and Nozick could not benefit from the latest studies of bonobo and chimpanzee tribes.

I don’t mean to overstate our progress towards understanding the human condition. Nor do I claim that an understanding of dopamine replaces Aristotle’s timeless ideas about a human life well-lived. I simply believe we need to draw on all the resources we now have — from both our traditions and the latest sciences, both hard and soft.

When it comes to building trust and social capital, therefore, I will rely heavily on the remarkable work of the aforementioned sociologist Robert Putnam. When it comes to constructing democratic institutions, I will draw on the empirical research of democracy researchers such as Stanford’s Larry Diamond (whose Coursera course, Democratic Development, was immensely valuable to me). When the authors of the US constitution met in Philadelphia, they had approximately one living democratic republic to draw on for comparison, as well as many failures lost in the classical past. We now have over 100 exemplars of varying forms and longevity; we should learn from them.

Setting Specific Goals for Our State

With all this said, I will outline nine explicit goals for my State, and some of what I propose to achieve each goal. I recommend certain constitutional provisions that are more specific than some of what is in the current US constitution (though that document does contain some surprisingly specific provisions that were clearly designed for their time and place and have gradually lost relevance). I am persuaded that we must now enshrine some principles and institutions in the constitution that the founders did not envision. (Implicitly, I believe my State does need a written constitution — first, because it will serve Americans whose tradition expects this, and second, because a written constitution offers something closer to a set of “official rules and guidelines” for managing a State – something that seems more essential now than ever.)

  1. The State must get things done, building confidence in its effectiveness.

Today, measures of State effectiveness and legitimacy that are commonly used with emerging democracies are every bit as relevant to mature democracies. To build its legitimacy, my State will have to get things done. When a State works, people are more likely to buy into it, support its constitutional structure, and resist attempts to undermine or ignore its rules.

To this end, my state will be somewhat less concerned with checks and balances to prevent action, and far more concerned with ways to promote action. For example, while protecting presidential veto, my State’s constitution would forbid requirements for supermajorities to end debate, enact any form of legislation, or confirm executive branch nominations.

Within executive agencies at both the federal and state level, I would seek ways to streamline public input, reduce opportunities to obstruct decision-making through lawsuits related to process rather than substance, and “put a clock” on certain decisions, so decision-making processes don’t continue endlessly, as is now often the case. Citizens will retain (and perhaps enhance) their ability to eject governments that act in ways they do not approve.

To the extent that special interests and “capture” prevent effective action, I will also seek to improve State effectiveness through the steps in #2 below.

  1. The State must aggressively resist capture by elites and special interests, and the corruption and cynicism this generates.

Constitutions represent tradeoffs; they need to prioritize solutions to the society’s most urgent, persistent, and ubiquitous problems, and this inevitably shapes how they define rights. I am far less concerned with the purported free speech rights of those who inject hundreds of millions of dollars into political campaigns to promote their own ideologies or pet causes. The notion that billionaires will ever have problems using their speech rights to influence the political system seems… unlikely. I am far more concerned that politicians who must spend all their time fundraising have no time left to respond to the petitions of citizens who can’t (or don’t want to) contribute. For American democracy, this problem is immediate and existential. Access to politicians is a zero-sum game; right now, wealthy interests are taking it all.

Research in 2008 by the political scientist Larry Bartels finds that “the preferences of people in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent impact on the behavior of their elected officials.”

Massive influx of private interest money, much of it secret, is now driving national divisions and dysfunction into local elections,including judicial campaigns that ought to be utterly separate from partisan politics. This promotes even greater cynicism about justice as well as politics.

Therefore, my State’s constitution would require public funding of all campaigns, ban large private campaign contributions at all levels, explicitly prevent any court from overturning campaign finance restrictions on free speech or liberty grounds, and prohibit party-based judicial elections at all levels.

If we someday reach a point where our problem is not enough money in politics, or too little power for special interests, or too much oppression of billionaires, we can then amend our constitution to meet the needs of that radically changed society.

To engage true grassroots candidacies and encourage citizen participation in them, my State would also restore tax deductions for small contributions — potentially including in-kind contributions made through campaign volunteer work, if ways could be found to avoid high levels of fraud.

Finally, my State’s constitution would make provision for a well-funded independent special prosecutor tasked with investigating large-scale abuses of the public trust by both public officials and those who do business with or are funded by the taxpayers, and bringing both civil and criminal charges. Reversing the US Supreme Court, my constitution would explicitly permit prosecution based on the deprivation of citizens’ rights to “honest services” from their elected officials.

(The overall effect of the US Supreme Court’s recent decisions has been to accelerate the growth of political corruption. A charitable reading is to note that no current Justice has ever run for public office, and therefore they have no realistic understanding of the realities faced by candidates and elected officials. This has not always been the case; consider former Chief Justices Taft and Warren. One reasonable response is to require my State’s top court to always contain at least two members with elective experience.)

  1. To the extent possible, the State should provide conditions for broad, widely shared prosperity and opportunity.

For many reasons, America (like most mature democracies) is experiencing accelerating inequality. Such inequality is leading to growing social dysfunction, as well as growing disengagement from the political system. It increasingly appears to be a key factor in poor economic growth that impacts even the successful. It makes “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” an impossible goal for growing numbers of citizens, while also making democracy far harder to sustain.

Moreover, large-scale trends are exacerbating the problem. For instance, accelerating automation of both blue-collar and white-collar work is no longer being compensated for by the creation of large numbers of new jobs. We can see the endpoint in societies where only a few live well, and they spend fortunes on security guards and walled neighborhoods to protect themselves from everyone outside. Even pro-technology authors like MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (Race Against the Machine) envision that society may ultimately have to provide a guaranteed income, or at minimum, subsidize wages for tens of millions of people that the market will refuse to pay a living wage.

Given the baneful impact of accelerating inequality on democratic institutions, my State would constitutionalize countermeasures and aggressively utilize tax policy with the intention of moving back towards a more traditional and sustainable wealth distribution.

For example, my State would constitutionalize the right to freely choose union representation, with language modeled on the constitution of today’s most successful capitalist society, Germany: “The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession. Agreements that restrict or seek to impair this right shall be null and void; measures directed to this end shall be unlawful.”

My State would use corporate and individual tax policies to promote higher wages and better training for low-paid employees, discourage soaring executive compensation that has become completely unmoored from business performance; and promote local investment of capital rather than its hoarding or export. My State’s constitution would also explicitly permit the legislature to establish baseline working conditions, including maximum hours and minimum wages; given accelerating automation, there might come a time when the legislature would find it necessary to mandate a shorter workweek.

  1. The State should make decisions based on the best available evidence.

My State’s constitution would enshrine strong, independent, and permanent government research structures to inform decision-makers, such as the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office, and the Office of Technology Assessment (an extraordinarily valuable organization that was unfortunately abolished by Congress in the 1990s.) These organizations would become part of a constitutional structure, and linked directly to the lottocracy features described in Section #9 below, offering randomly-selected representatives the opportunity for objective briefings on key issues from experts not beholden (or at least less immediately beholden) to special interests.

  1. The State should learn from and support institutions that do things well.

My State will seek out opportunities to partner with and support civic and non-governmental organizations at the local level. As James Fallows has eloquently written, “At the national level, American politics is bitterly polarized, and the mood of the country can seem fearful and downcast. But city by city we’ve seen examples of collaboration, practical-minded compromise, long-term investment in a region’s future, and a coast-to-coast resurgence in manufacturing and other startup activity.” My State will seek ways to learn from and encourage more of this.

As Robert Putnam notes, many of the most effective local organizations are religious; my State would seek ways to partner with faith-based (and atheist) organizations wherever this can be done without compromising the rights and beliefs of others. It would posit an imperfect grand bargain: the government will support faith-based organizations in providing social services, but those organizations cannot interfere with the government’s providing additional services to individuals, where these are legal but inconsistent with the faith-based organization’s beliefs.

Since participation in local institutions is a bridge to greater civic involvement, I would promote it in multiple ways. For example, beyond existing unemployment benefits, my State would pay the unemployed a competitive wage for their first eight hours per week volunteering for legitimate tax-exempt organizations.

  1. The State should promote the cross-cutting connections between diverse people that have been empirically shown to strengthen democracies.

One of the greatest failures of modern American democracy is that the vast majority of elected offices are held by people whose political parties have no effective local competition. The Democrat or Republican will always get 65%, 75%, or 90% of the vote, so why bother voting?

Therefore, on the national level, my state’s Constitution would require redistricting for representative offices within states (and perhaps even across regions) to create competitive districts wherever reasonably possible. For example, redistricting maps might require that no district be comprised of voters who had averaged more than 55% or 60% support for the same party in the preceding decade’s elections.

Leading democracy researcher Larry Diamond discusses proportional representation (PR) voting as a potentially valuable tool “for ensuring that all groups in a deeply divided society feel included in the political process, and even for encouraging the development of cross-cutting cleavages that can moderate …conflict over time.”

According to Diamond, majoritarian systems like the current US voting system “have the particularly perverse effect of denying legislative representation to precisely those voters who represent the greatest hope for accommodation, the ones who are willing to vote for a party other than the one that dominates among their group or region… [With proportional representation] votes are not wasted, so parties have an incentive to construct… inclusive lists of candidates, and thus to reach out, integratively, to develop a political base among groups that are predominantly represented by rival parties.”

My State would therefore use proportional representation to temper growing division and extremism, and restrain the tendency to demonize those outside one’s traditional constituencies.

  1. The State should provide equal, fair, and consistent justice, tempered with compassion; and protect human rights against infringement by both public and private agents.

Those who wish their State to deliver equitable, fair justice encounter two difficult paradoxes: How can one build a State that extends equitable, fair justice to all of its people, when many of them seem uninterested in providing such justice to those outside their own “tribes”? And how can one gain the clear advantages of government run at the local level, when empirical evidence indicates that local governance is the type most likely to deny equal justice?

Restorative justice offers significant promise here, given that it combines significant evidence of effectiveness with a sense of intuitive rightness that can appeal to many people who will never take a political philosophy class.

However, my State will also include constitutional provisions to hinder the People when they wish to mete out brutal or unequal justice. For example, I would strengthen the US constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” with additional limitations on punishments for “victimless” crimes and severe restrictions on solitary confinement. My constitution would furthermore guarantee that those who serve their sentences are restored full rights of citizenship and employment.

My State should also constitutionalize a commitment the US (and most nations) have already made: support for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document outlines the core set of human rights that comprised justice as most humans understood it in 1948, after the end of World War II. They include both the types of civil rights enshrined in the US Bill of Rights, as well as rights to healthcare, education, and work. (Nearly every other provision I describe could conceivably earn majority support in the US under the right circumstances. However, I can conceive of no scenario in which a majority of 21st century US citizens would agree to constitutionalize any commitment to international law in any form.)

  1. The State should vigorously encourage greater participation and more meaningful citizenship.

Voting is only a small fraction of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, but it is a start. To that end, my State would make Election Day a national holiday, and would administer voting through an independent national agency the way most successful democracies do. With voting established as a national function, my State’s constitution would mandate a meaningful tax credit automatically linked to federal income tax returns for those who choose to vote.

Again, however, voting is only one piece of civic engagement, and perhaps the least important piece. Election Day and other civic holidays (e.g., President’s Day, Labor Day, and perhaps a new Citizen’s Day) should be recast as major festivals of local and national civic engagement, with opportunities to learn and participate in community and national activities around the idea of meaningful citizenship. While not a constitutional issue, my State would prioritize civic education, and require that it be taught from diverse viewpoints. Where such diverse opinions are not available locally, they can now be provided across the Internet.

Crucially, my State’s constitution would gradually phase in a National Service requirement, making a powerful statement that we all owe something to our nation and society after all. As implemented through legislation, this would be linked to new career opportunities (for example, opportunities to pursue a medical career in exchange for a commitment to serve underserved communities for a specified period of time.)

Surprisingly, perhaps, the idea of “requiring every American between the ages of 18 and 25 to serve one year in public or community service” is supported by 57% of Americans in a recent poll  (though this might be expected to decline if a serious proposal were made). There is unquestionably significant pent-up desire to participate in community service: “in 2011, AmeriCorps received 580,000 applications for only 80,000 positions, only half of which are full-time.” My State would harness this passion to make a contribution.

Finally,  Putnam’s research on the negative impact of diversity on civic engagement does mean that our State will need to enforce reasonable immigration restrictions that do not separate families or exile long-time contributors to our society. We are seeking to rebuild a dying or dead civic culture, while also rebuilding the lost sense that “we are all in this together.” This will be extremely difficult, if it is even possible. Through no fault of the immigrants, ongoing large-scale immigration makes it even more challenging.

Since there is no guarantee that even “long-time Americans” will choose to participate in our State as active citizens, my State’s immigration law would prioritize and welcome immigrants capable of passing a challenging set of exams about American citizenship, and agreeing to participate in civic life once they arrive – perhaps by quickly performing the National Service requirement described above. Large-scale participation in National Service by new immigrants might help soften the nativist attitudes against immigrants that are now darkening political debate in America (and elsewhere).

  1. The State should place decisions as close to the people as possible, consistent with the previous principles (which is to say, definitely not always).

I am persuaded that the advantages of federalism in promoting experimentation and local governance exceed its disadvantages. Moreover, as de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in Americalocal democracy is often the best democracy: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” As James Fallows points out, many good things can be accomplished at levels closer to the people, where citizens are more likely to have direct, unmediated access to decision-makers.

However, I am aware that many of the preceding principles in this list work against local governance. For example, I propose national economic policies that would probably not be chosen in all regions. Moreover, as Americans have learned from experience (and as their current Constitution’s 14th Amendment “Due Process” clause was intended to counter), local communities are often dominated by people who benefit greatly from entrenched discrimination and oppression of the powerless. This is the paradox I’ve struggled most to resolve, with the least success.

Having said that, my State would seek to localize and decentralize in areas where it has been empirically shown to do the most good (for example, economic development involving public-private partnerships); and resist localization where it has been susceptible to the greatest harm (for example, civil rights).

One possible mechanism for strengthening local governance and democratic legitimacy is to establish a jury-like process for selecting citizen task forces to recommend solutions to difficult local or regional problems. This does not, of course, protect local governance from federal intrusion (which, I confess, I often find necessary). Another might be to provide central state financial support for National Service performed through local governments in connection with tasks they select; thereby removing some financial pressure from local governments and giving them new resources to deploy to solve pressing local problems.

On a national level, I am persuaded by our Professor to make substantial use of lottocracy – the random selection of citizens for temporary legislative positions of authority. Lottocracy, if it works, does bring government closer to “something like” the people; though it does so without protecting local governance against the central State.

I would combine the current membership of the US Senate – 100 Senators, two from each state regardless of population – with another 200 members drawn by lot from all US citizens. This would reduce but not eliminate the Senate’s overrepresentation of small states, and dramatically reduce its overrepresentation of multi-millionaires.

My State’s 200 randomly selected senators would serve a single three year term; sufficient to master the process, but only half as long as the standard senate term (thereby protecting citizens from overly lengthy representation by randomly selected incompetents). I would utilize all of our Professor’s suggested mechanisms to protect these citizen senators from capture – high pay, agreements not to go work for lobbyists afterwards, etc. I would also guarantee access by these citizen senators to the non-partisan policy resources discussed above in Section #4.


Building (or rebuilding) a state is a long-term process that will require the rebirth of some level of trust, goodwill, and willingness to compromise. No structure, however well-crafted, can make up for their absence. This is why I have focused so much of my effort on rebuilding legitimacy, eliminating obstacles to action, reducing corruption, and re-engaging individuals in the hard work of citizenship.

Would it work? The odds are long. But I invite readers to consider where current trends lead. Democracies do collapse; societies do fail; cosmopolitan cultures can fall into ethnic hatred and warfare; even the most powerful states and empires can cease functioning virtually overnight (as happened in the Soviet Union just 25 years ago). If we don’t want that kind of future for our children, we had better consider where we are headed, and take responsibility as citizens to steer in a different direction.


My teaching assistant asked me how I drew the line between laws and constitutionally enshrined principles, and asked whether evolutionary insights offered much value to the constitutional project, given the plasticity of human nature. I responded:

Vis-à-vis your question about drawing lines between statute and constitutionally enshrined principle, these are obviously difficult judgments. To the extent that I was gesturing towards a consistent principle, it was this: I would constitutionalize elements that seemed necessary to sustain a democratic state over time.

As our Professor pointed out early in the course, there are deep tensions between growing inequality and poverty and the ability to sustain a thriving democracy. I believe there’s at least some empirical evidence that massive economic inequality translated into massive political inequality leads to growing cynicism about political activity, growing disengagement, and failing democratic institutions. That’s what my economic and political reforms were intended to address. Given the resources of those who would oppose them, firmly constitutionalizing them seemed the best (if imperfect) defense available to me.

As for managing the tension between centralization and localized decision-making, I very much like your suggestion [to clearly identify the problems that must be dealt with nationally if they are to be dealt with at all]. I think it’s sort of related, maybe orthogonal, to my notion that some problems have proven more amenable to local approaches, whereas other problems seem actually to be exacerbated by them.

It’s an interesting question whether the types of problems societies now face are shifting; are they becoming more localized or more global? Problems like global warming suggest the need for wider approaches. However, there are also forces operating in opposite directions (for example, information technology seems to have led to greater decentralization and more loosely-coupled and federated organizations, e.g., today’s wide-ranging supply chains).

Regarding questions of evolution and human nature, I think I take something of a middle ground. I suspect some of the claims evolutionary psychologists make for their understanding of human nature will very much turn out to be “just-so stories,” speculations without evidence that don’t hold up in the long run. However, we do seem to see some real constraints on human nature associated with evolution…

The human race and its close predecessors spent the vast majority of its millennia as hunter gatherers in groups smaller than roughly 200 people, and there does seem to be empirical evidence that at least some of our behaviors are still very much optimized for such environments. Also, things like language structures do seem fairly hard-wired, constraining the kinds of languages humans create and how we use them.

There even do seem to be some proto-ideas of “justice” visible in babies as young as six months; but also proto-ideas of in-groups and out-groups that may underlie bias and bigotry (and could well relate to the aforementioned need to separate “us” from “them” that would have been present in hunter-gatherer societies)…

I think these kinds of issues especially play out in immigration debates, where nativists make all kinds of claims about immigrants that seem to have very deep roots in in-group/out-group psychology as discussed by Jonathan Haidt (immigrants are dirty, diseased, immoral, will rape our daughters), and quickly withdraw legitimacy from democratic institutions that seem to welcome too many foreigners.

That’s an issue where I was especially frustrated with our political philosophers, who seemed to view humans as essentially fungible and cultures as essentially interchangeable. Note that I’m rejecting claims that one culture is “better” than another; simply saying that it’s hard to imagine a democratic society with completely open borders ever surviving for long.

I don’t want to overstate how “hardwired” I think we are. I think societies overall can make progress; I am very influenced by Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, and his charts and graphs discussing the reduction of violence over time.

There are so many things that human societies accepted as routine a few hundred years ago; people went to bear-baitings and executions for entertainment; slavery was not just accepted but financialized as big business worldwide, with banks buying and selling bonds backed by slaves just as they now do with mortgages. We can make slow progress over time in, as Peter Singer describes it, widening the circle of concern. But it takes time and indirection; it doesn’t happen overnight, nor can it be mandated by constitution. This is why I found the Bush administration’s reversion to torture so horrific; it made a statement that we in America were prepared to reverse hundreds of years of painfully slow and hard-won progress overnight.

Pinker says the existence of a strong central state was one key element in our progress, and I agree. The more I reflect on this, the more I think Hobbes had a really stunningly powerful insight about states and violence.

It’s also why I personally think those who fetishize self-defense and the Second Amendment are taking an awful step back into a more violent past. Delegating protection to a reliable state means that fewer of us will ever have to act violently ourselves; that tends to help delegitimate violence, reduce our tolerance for it, and build less violent societies in the long term. (And it’s why, more broadly, I think libertarians are so terribly wrong.)

…So that’s my constitutional revision. What did you and Dan come up with?






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s