The Coming Constitutional Collapse

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Very soon, quite probably within a decade, we will confront a constitutional collapse. Unless we revamp the constitutional order in major respects, it will simply seize up or keel over (pick your metaphor)—in what way and with what consequences, no one can say.

By “Constitution”, I do not mean the formal, written Constitution, which will survive for the foreseeable future. Rather, I mean what scholars sometimes call the “small-c constitution.” It encompasses, in addition to the formal arrangements, institutional patterns and practices that are (1) longstanding; (2) central to the political system’s operation; and (3) too entrenched to be broken by ordinary political means (elections and legislation), in ordinary times. It’s in this sense that we speak of an “antebellum Constitution” or a “New Deal Constitution.” And it’s in this sense that Social Security, the administrative state, and the Civil Rights Act are part of our Constitution or, if you prefer, our constitutional system. No one seriously proposes to abolish these arrangements; and even if you wanted to, you couldn’t.

There is no good, widely accepted term for our current Constitution. Much of it, we owe to the Great Society; but a “Great Society Constitution” has never had currency and certainly wouldn’t stick now. The term I have chosen for present purposes is “The Constitution of Affluence.” The basic intuition was brilliantly articulated by Chris DeMuth over a decade ago: a long stretch of rising prosperity creates both an expectation that the trend will continue and a distinctive pattern of politics. Over time, the arrangements will harden and become part of the institutional landscape.

In this light, the logic of the dramatic “constitutional collapse” prediction emerges. Rising social affluence produces demand for policy as a luxury good, just as private affluence produces demand for BMWs. The glitch is that on a downswing, institutional behavior is far stickier than household behavior (in real life, let alone on the economists’ blackboards): lower expectations with respect to future income fail to produce a downward shift towards the Chevy-equivalent policy set. The tangible result of this dynamic is an ever-growing and now nearly unmanageable level of public debt, on and off the books (as with pensions).

Our deepest problem isn’t that we can no longer afford our extravagant transfer state, or even that we cannot possibly pay back the accumulated debt in real dollars: that much, everyone knows. The real problem is that encrusted institutional structures, built up willy-nilly in times of prosperity, block any meaningful, durable reform.

Way back in 1787, statesmen recognized that the country’s catastrophic debt could not possibly be managed by decrepit institutions that had caused the predicament in the first place. The United States needed a workable Constitution, an effective tax system, and a Bank. 225 years later, we again need something similar—not a new formal Constitution, for sure, but an institutional program on a Hamiltonian scale.

I haven’t the foggiest notion of what such a program might look like. What I do know is that our politicians and pundits are whistling past the graveyard. As for “scholarship,” It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, to quote the latest of many screeds that deliver purported institutional analysis at the level of talk show chatter. Consider these posts a modest attempt to start a more serious conversation.