Birthdays take on a different character as we get older. We see them as a chance to reflect on where we are in life, and where we’re going in the future.
But imagine you were more than 200 years old, in a world filled with 20-somethings. You’d stand out in many ways, and deserve to be respected for your unique wisdom, perspective and experience. Well, that’s how unusual our Constitution is.
As we mark its 226th birthday on Sept. 17, its peers are getting younger all the time. Mila Versteeg from the University of Virginia has read every constitution enacted since World War II. That’s 729 constitutions for 188 countries. Many of those nations, obviously, have had more than one constitution in that time. In fact, the average constitution lasts less than 20 years.
So what has allowed our Constitution to endure for centuries while its counterparts elsewhere are continually replaced? Well, one key is that our Constitution is simple. It’s small enough to fit in a pocket. It’s written in clear language anyone can understand.
But it’s also limited, in that it doesn’t attempt to do too much. Most modern constitutions read as if they were laundry lists of “rights” the government will “give” to citizens. Over time, people come to expect the government to “give” them more things, so the constitution needs to be thoroughly reworked, if not scrapped altogether.
Our Constitution operates on a simpler plane. It creates a solid political framework and allows leaders and citizens to improvise within it.
It set up a federalist system of government, with powers carefully divided between the state and federal governments. Federalism protects local flexibility and autonomy, ensures that power is exercised at the closest and most accountable level possible, and creates competition by allowing states to take different approaches to policy problems. This “competitive federalism” expands citizens’ freedom and encourages states to make good laws.
One key to the system is that it recognizes that humans are not angels. Members of each branch will inevitably try to expand their power and influence, and members of the other two branches should then press back, leading to an ever-shifting balance of power that prevents any one branch from becoming too influential.