Although governments are instituted among men to protect individual rights, history has shown that governments often become the largest threat to those rights. Knowing that unlimited, arbitrary power of the government is dangerous, men found a partial solution. They called the solution a constitution.

A constitution is a set of laws that specifically apply to the government. A properly constructed constitution limits the power of a government by specifying which actions they are allowed to take, and disallowing all others. The founding fathers of the United States were the first to create such a constitution. They additionally added a list of rights that specifically prevented the government from certain kinds of actions. The Bill of Rights, though, was redundant. The government had no power to do anything that wasn't specifically designated to it.

A piece of paper cannot protect people from a tyranny, of course. It did have a number of positive effects. The first was that it defined limits on the government that everyone had access to. In this way, if the government attempted to reach beyond its limits, the people had clear, objective grounds for resisting it. This allowed for easier organization against violations of their rights, and made them stronger and more confident in dealing with their representatives.

The second effect was that, through legal channels, a citizen could challenge any particular government act. Without a constitution, there was no way of arguing against an act by government. The government had unlimited power. A constitution invalidates that premise. It makes clear that even the government is constrained by the law. In the past, governments were above the law. No longer.

There are many varieties of constitutions now in existence. Most of them are not constitutions at all, but documents that attempt to hide under the umbrella of legitimacy provided by the US Constitution. For instance, the Soviet Union had a constitution. It was a document saying the Soviet government could do anything it wanted, without limit. This is nothing more than a document asserting the government's claim to power.

To keep things clear, a constitution has the following properties. It is a limit on the government, denying absolute or arbitrary power. It applies to the government specifically, and not to the people qua citizens. It enumerates particular powers the government has, and denies all others. It is written as law, and cannot be changed by the government itself.

Moreover, a proper constitution would have these additional criteria. The enumerated powers all specifically defend individual rights. All powers are further constrained to not violate individuals rights themselves. The constitution should be interpreted in light of its duty to protect individual rights, and if there is ever a question of meaning, the one that conforms to individual rights must be accepted.

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Landauer and Joseph Rowlands