My Comments: Most of the recent talk about the Constitution comes in the wake of the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, for obvious reasons. The attention is well deserved but I’d have you think about more than just the 2nd Amendment.
At the national level, if not across the globe, society is re-evaluating itself. Are the values we hold dearly still valid? Are the roles played by the various participants serving our best interests? Are you willing to let the so called ‘elite’ change the economic and social landscape that most of us enjoy without allowing us to express our thoughts? Have we given them so much power that it now makes no difference?
If you’ve followed me for long, you’ve heard me talk about income inequality and the subtle effects it has on not just our society, but in virtually every society on the planet. I hope you will read this, regardless of your political leanings, as it will influence every aspect of the lives of your children and grandchildren. And the clowns in Washington, DC are not helping matters.
Rebecca J. Rosen / Mar 21, 2017
In a powerful new book, the legal scholar Ganesh Sitaraman argues that America’s government will fall apart as inequality deepens.
The U.S. Constitution, it is fair to say, is normally thought of as a political document. It lays out the American system of government and the relationships among the various institutions.
But in a powerful new book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, the Vanderbilt legal scholar Ganesh Sitaraman argues that the Constitution doesn’t merely require a particular political system but also a particular economic one, one characterized by a strong middle class and relatively mild inequality. A strong middle class, Sitaraman writes, inspires a sense of shared purpose and shared fate, without which the system of government will fall apart.
I spoke with Sitaraman about his book last week at The Atlantic’s offices in Washington, D.C. A transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity, follows.
Rebecca J. Rosen: Your new book, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, is premised on the idea that the American Constitution is what you call a middle-class constitution. What does that mean?
Ganesh Sitaraman: The idea of the middle-class constitution is that it’s a constitutional system that requires and is conditioned on the assumption that there is a large middle class, and no big differences between rich and poor in a society.
Prior to the American Constitution, most countries and most people who thought about designing governments were very concerned about the problem of inequality, and the fear was that, in a society that was deeply unequal, the rich would oppress the poor and the poor would revolt and confiscate the wealth of the rich.
The answer to this problem, the way to create stability out of what would have been revolution and strife, was to build economic class right into the structure of government. In England, you have the House of Lords for the wealthy, the House of Commons for everyone else. Our Constitution isn’t like that. We don’t have a House of Lords, we don’t have a House of Commons, we don’t have a tribune of the plebs like they had in ancient Rome.
At the time, people debated having a wealth requirement for entry into the Senate, but that didn’t happen. That would have been a common thing in the generations and centuries prior to the creation of the U.S. Constitution. So there’s actually a radical change in our Constitution that we don’t build economic class directly into these institutions. The purpose of the Senate, with its longer terms, is to allow representatives to deliberate in the longer-term interest of the republic, and that’s the goal of the Senate.
What we have is a constitutional system that doesn’t build class in at all, and the reason why is that America was shockingly equal at the time in ways that seem really surprising to us today.
Rosen: Of course, the point here isn’t only that class is ignored, or left out of the Constitution, but that the Constitution actually relies on a kind of equal society in order to function. Could you explain the premise there?
Sitaraman: That’s exactly right. The idea is that the Constitution relies on a relatively equal society for it to work. In societies that are deeply unequal, the way you prevent strife between rich and poor is you build class right into the structure of government—the House of Lords, House of Commons idea. Everyone has a share in government, but they also have a check on each other.
In a country that doesn’t have a lot of inequality by wealth, you don’t need that kind of check. There’s no extreme wealth, there’s no extreme poverty, so you don’t expect there to be strife, to be instability based on wealth. And so there’s no need to put in some sort of check like that into the Constitution.
That’s how our Constitution works. The reason why it works this way is that when the founders looked around, they thought America was uniquely equal in the history of the world. And I know that seems crazy to say, but when you think about it, it makes sense. If you imagine in the late 18th century, America is a sparsely populated area, just on the coast of the Atlantic, with some small towns and cities, and lots of agrarian lands, and it’s really at the edge of the world, because the center is western Europe. It’s London, it’s Paris, and when Americans look across the ocean at those countries, what they see is how different it is. They see that there’s a hereditary aristocracy, something that doesn’t exist in America. There’s feudalism, which doesn’t exist in America. There’s extreme wealth, there’s extreme poverty, neither of which really exists in America. As a result they don’t need to design a House of Lords and a House of Commons, they don’t need a tribune of the plebs in order to make their constitution work.
“The assumption of our original Constitution was that society would be relatively equal.”
Rosen: Of course, there was slavery at the time—and it was built directly into the Constitution.