Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Constitution and Representative Government

At the time the constitution was written there was no theory of evolution, no quantum theory, no molecular theory, no theory of relativity, no cosmological theory, no electronic theory. The only light was from the sun or fire. There was nothing that could be called scientific medicine. Only cut and try methods of treating symptoms, like blood letting or distillates from roots and herbs were available.

Antoine Lavoisier first defined a chemical element and drew up a table of 33 of them for his book 'Traité Elémentaire de Chimie' (Treatise on the Chemical Elements) published in 1789, the year the Constitution was written.

There were about 4 million people in the country and only 13 states. Most were farmers, shopkeepers or tradesmen. There were no corporations. People held slaves. Women couldn’t vote. These were all traditions of the times, many of which we have since discarded based on more recent knowledge and development.

Under the circumstances, the founding fathers did a magnificent job of constructing a governing document for the time and as a guide to future needs. But, can anyone really say that we should be bound by the original intent of the constitution, let alone only the original words of the constitution with all the water that has gone under the bridge since then? Certainly the safeguards enumerated in the Bill of Rights remain viable. But the commerce clause, privacy considerations, and the basic rules adopted for representative government could use a little updating and further definition.

One of the major problems encountered in governing is the remoteness of the people from those who represent them, primarily due to the overwhelming growth of our population and the dominance of political parties, which were never given a charter in the constitution. The gap has been filled by special interest groups who usurp the role of voters through the finance of political campaigns and mass media advertising in return for legislation to accommodate their special needs. There seems to now be a need to bring politicians closer to the voters they represent.

Having one representative for every 600,000 people hardly seems adequate. When was the last time you talked to one of your national representatives? Even the mail you send them is answered by auto responders, or if you’re lucky, a low level staffer. They are so well insulated from the average voter that only polls give them a sense of what voters want, and they are easily ignored without consequences.

It may be time for some form of tiered representation where the lowest unit of representation is small enough to where everyone can personally know the person they vote for, like on a precinct level. The representatives at any level would be elected by the representatives at the next lower level, who also know them personally, etc. This system would only have 3 or 4 levels of representation to cover the entire population. A prime minister would be picked at the top level to lead the making and enforcing of laws.

In addition to the formal government elected in this way, a ceremonial head of government would be elected by all the voters at large. His duties would be to meet with kings and other ceremonial heads of government around the world, go to scenes of catastrophe and sympathize with victims, go to holiday events and make rah-rah speeches, present awards to military heroes, citizens of the year and other personalities of achievement, go to press events and rally the country around causes, and generally do all the backslapping chores required by a population that worships celebrity.

This electoral system would be safeguarded by a recall process, where a representative at any level could be petitioned and recalled by a vote of all the people they represent. If they were recalled all the representatives who voted for them would also be recalled, all the way down the line. In this way, representatives would have a stake in picking the best people and would know the people they pick personally. A similar referendum process would allow petitioning and reversal of any piece of legislation by a vote of the people. If a piece of legislation was overturned by referendum, all those representatives voting for it would be automatically recalled, as well as all the people who voted for them, all the way down the line. This would ensure that only laws that the people supported would be implemented.

A similar initiative process would be available to petition and pass laws by a vote of the people. If a law was passed by initiative, all representatives would be recalled and new elections at every level held. This would ensure that representatives would pass and enforce laws that had the support of the people. A classic example needing this kind of attention today is the illegal immigration situation, where politicians refuse to deal with the problem because the money getting them elected and reelected is coming from people who don’t want the problem addresses while the majority considers it one of the most important problems that needs addressing.

It could be expected that these initiative and referendum processes would be seldom used because the system itself would be more responsive to voter sentiment.

People could still join interest groups or even political parties, but these groups would have no role in electoral process like they do now, where the two major parties are able to essentially exclude candidates that don’t belong to one of them by controlling participation in debates and press opportunities.

This is only one of many ways our constitution could be improved by taking advantage of what we have learned over the past 200 years. There is always fear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in any attempt to modify a document that has served us fairly well for a long time. But, there comes a time when even valuable, almost sacred documents become out of date for the times.

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