Opinion | Paul Olson: Constitution Day, an under-appreciated holiday
A week ago, Chilean voters rejected a new, progressive constitution by a vote of 62% to 38%. In 2020, 78% of those same voters had approved a referendum to rewrite the existing constitution, but then Chileans became dissatisfied with what the Constitutional Assembly had drafted. The current constitution was written in 1980 during the authoritarian dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and many in Chile wanted to make a clean political break with that era.
Sept. 17 is Constitution Day for our nation when we remember the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. There won’t be any fireworks or parades in Summit County that day, but perhaps there should be. Our constitution is more than a set of rules for how the government should operate. This founding document has grown to symbolize the proud image we have of ourselves as Americans. We take comfort knowing the Constitution will protect the rights and freedom that have made us a prosperous democratic nation.
I feel Chile would have been wise to use the U.S. Constitution as a model for remaking their own. Ours has stood the test of time, with only 27 amendments in 235 years. The constitution Chilean voters rejected had 170 pages and 388 articles. Ours has seven articles. The 155 member Chilean Constitutional Assembly had good intentions but seemed to be trying to please everyone, proposing that the government guarantee a long list of rights that would be a daunting challenge to legally administer. In contrast, the U.S. Constitution assumes that the people retain all rights that are not specifically granted to the government.
The defeated Chilean constitution contained many provisions that were ambiguous and would have been difficult to codify and enforce. For example, the proposed constitution explicitly states that “nature has rights” and orders the state to protect animals. How would this have affected the lumber and cattle industries? Chileans were to be granted the right to “equitable, fair and sufficient” pay and “adequate, healthy, sufficient, nutritionally complete and culturally relevant food.” Imagine these provisions in our constitution, giving bureaucrats far too much discretion and providing an endless supply of cases for lawyers.
I sense from news reports that many of the no votes came from people worried that the government was being granted too much power and their nation was moving in the direction of socialism. Why enact risky changes when the country’s economy is doing quite well? According to World Bank, Chile has the highest per capita income in South America. Economists estimated that implementing the new constitution would have cost the government 9% to 14% of Chile’s $317 billion gross national product.
Our nation’s founders sensibly included a clear process for amending the Constitution, but they also were wise enough to make it difficult to make changes. From 1789 until Jan. 3, 2019 there have been approximately 11,770 amendments proposed in Congress. Only 27 of these have made it into the Constitution. Because it takes a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate plus ratification by 38 states for an amendment to be enacted, we may never again see a change to our constitution in light of the well-entrenched polarization in America.
As an example of the danger of too simple of a process to change a constitution, in 1999 a new Venezuelan constitution was approved by a simple majority vote of citizens which led to a dictatorship, extreme socialism and nationwide economic disaster.
U.S. Congresspersons often propose amendments solely to impress potential donors and voters and not out of hope of actually changing the Constitution. Between 1999 and 2018 there were 134 officially proposed amendments to balance the federal budget, 72 to set limits on campaign finances, 28 to criminalize flag desecration, 21 to ban same-sex marriage, and dozens of others. Colorado allows amendments to its constitution through citizen initiatives. The Colorado Constitution has been amended 166 times since adopted in 1876, including three changes approved by voters in 2020.
We are fortunate that the freedom and economic success Americans enjoy is the result of our constitution being written under the assumption of us having minimal government and a free market economy. Even though the government’s role has increased exponentially since 1787, we still are a country of limited government and a free-market economy.
When I think of all the special interest groups in America, I take comfort in having a constitution that is almost set in stone. Quite a few corporations and individuals would like an amendment to do away with income taxes, leaving it to Congress to sort out how we will pay the nation’s bills. Some Americans support freedom of religion but only if you are a fundamentalist Christian. Many citizens are for freedom of speech but only for speech that does not offend them. Others would be fine with not burdening law enforcement with search warrants and jury trials. Take pride in the U.S. Constitution. Be vigilant in defending the rights of all Americans, especially the least powerful in our society. We should all reread the Constitution every year for some inspiration and to be an informed voter.
Paul Olson’s column “A Friendly Conservative” publishes biweekly on Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Olson has lived in Breckenridge since 1995. Semiretired, he works at REI in Dillon and enjoys snowboarding, Nordic skiing and hiking. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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