This Fourth of July it is clear that our society’s failings are not the constitutions’ fault. It’s our collective political ignorance and sloth that allow politicians to slip the chains and jump the fence of constitutional rule of law.
Despite what you’ve been told, the constitutions, state and federal, are still short and simple enough. You don’t need a decoder ring or a ten-dollar-a-minute lawyer murmuring incantations over your shoulder to understand the contracts to restrain our politicians.
There’s no excusing the confusion over the 14th Amendment’s words, “No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Indiana Constitution’s Article I, Section 23 is even clearer: “The General Assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.”
Equality under law — it’s an old fundamental principle, but highly elusive practice, that we are all to be treated as equals by our government. Every now and then, the law is dusted off and used to the surprise of everyone but the delight of surprisingly few.
Why? Let’s be honest with ourselves. Our political order doesn’t merely wander from equality; it is predicated upon special deals for special people. Based on ever-changing categories like age, employment, income, gender, race, religion and that nebulous condition of marital status, politicians wield inequity like a matador’s muleta, with some promise of the common good.
Who really wants to change that? Clearly we can’t all get Medicare or farm subsidies. Pell Grants, veteran’s benefits, affirmative action, abortion rights and child support are all intentional, special enforcement of special inequality.
You can of course debate the merits and effect of all the inequality, but you cannot argue that people are treated anything like equally under law. We all know that the wealthy and politically connected operate under entirely different rules than we do, and we know that politicians make up their own rules.
And so, there is understandable debate when somebody invokes that word, “equality.”
Our reality is a class-based tug of war in which we defeat our enemies, both foreign and domestic, to tug away a little of what we think is ours. Every election, every court case, every new set of rules determines who wins and loses in wildly morphing spectra of taxation and subsidy, prohibition and mandate, perks and punishment.
What law or regulation, by any agency, bureaucracy, judge or even legislature, doesn’t create new distinctions and disparities in treatment that will provoke retribution? We have special-Interest groups only because we expect that everybody is treated differently under what now passes for law. And in every change, large or small, the power of the government grows, while the significance of the individual declines. Like gambling addicts, we ever-more desperately play for the big payoff, and can’t see that we’re losing everything.
Of course we could fix this. But who’d give up their special exemption, Social Security, trade agreement or loophole in order to achieve liberty and justice for all? We’d have to massively decrease the size, cost and importance of politics in our lives in order to achieve anything close to true equality among us. And of course we’d have to radically reform the biggest disparity of rights and powers of all — the incredibly corrupt mess that we call “government” today.
We don’t need any new laws. We need only resurrect the constitutions that still could make us special, more than any other nation, by treating us all, at long last, the same.
Andrew M. Horning is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation who lives in Freedom, Ind. He was the Republican candidate for the 7th Congressional District in 2004. Horning writes frequently on classical-liberal topics and is an expert on the federal and state constitutions.