Published in The Tennessean, December 20, 2009
Constitution keeps us on the straight and narrow
Richard J. Grant
In Homer's epic, The Odyssey, Ulysses knows that he, like other men, will not be able to resist the Sirens' song and the temptation to get closer and turn his ship into the rocky shores of destruction. He wants to lead his ship and crew safely past the land of the Sirens, but he also wants to hear the Sirens' song and to know when he has passed the danger.
So he orders his men to fill their ears with beeswax and to bind him tightly to the mast so that he can take no action that might endanger the ship as his men continue to row.
Each of us has lived a similar story in that we have adopted rules of conduct that might at times clash with our temptations but guide us safely through the challenges of life. Sometimes we adopt these rules consciously and take responsibility for living up to them. But for the most part we absorb such rules, as part of our growing up, from the example of those who were here before us. We might never know where the rules came from, yet in our present comfort imagine that we can do without them and suffer no ill consequences.
Today, we recognize this tale of Ulysses and his men as the timeless story of our need to bind our leaders to the mast of limited authority, to keep the ship of state on the straight and narrow. In its modern form we recognize it as our Constitution, which grants limited powers and responsibilities to states and branches that comprise the federal government.
The beeswax represents the "red tape" or rules that restrict the actions of government bureaucrats. Many of us are tempted to see this red tape as a tedious impediment to getting things done, as a source of inefficiency. But the rules we call “red tape” are not there to restrict citizens engaged in private endeavors. They are there to restrict those who would serve and regulate us, and to prevent them from taking on the powers of little kings.
Our constitutional rules, as intended by the Framers, maintain a practical conservatism with regard to the foundations of our society. The Constitution is hard to change, and it limits the way that we produce legislation. By maintaining a constitutional attitude we reduce our chances of frivolous action, stoked by the passion of the moment, or the terror of the crisis, or the urgings of the demagogue.
It is a part of citizenship to remember where we came from. There is no role for those who blurt, "We won. Get over it." We have a way of doing things that has worked for over 200 years, and the tyranny of the majority has never been an acceptable part of it.
The essential history of Western civilization and this exceptional Republic began over 2000 years ago, not far from Jerusalem. As men learned to envision a destiny that transcends this life, no man could rightfully claim ultimate authority over any other man. Each individual was important, and in those few countries where this idea was absorbed into the culture and rules of conduct, the people as a whole flourished and grew stronger.
Ultimately, moral rules are only as good as the people who live by them, and constitutional rules are only as good as the people who interpret and enforce them. That we were fortunate enough to inherit the rules at all could be attributed to luck or to grace. However it got here, and whether or not we understand it, the culture bequeathed to us by our ancestors contains more wisdom than any one of us could expect to figure out in a lifetime.
With the light of each day now growing brighter, let us take time to remember where we really came from, and have a happy Christmas.
Richard J. Grant is a professor of finance and economics at Lipscomb University and a scholar at the Tennessee Center for Policy Research. His column appears on Sundays.
Copyright © Richard J Grant 2009