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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The United States Constitution vs. the European Constitution

By: Jordan and Michelle

Part I: The Structure of American Government

America has always looked to Europe for guidance. During the Revolutionary Era, faction vied for power by claiming to look to Revolutionary France or Great Britain for ideas. In the early 1900s, various Old Progressives were influenced or directly taught by German Idealists and British Historicists. In fact, before he became President, Woodrow Wilson wrote volumes on the superiority of the British parliamentary system while lamenting the flaws of the American Constitution. Today, the New Progressives look to Europe's growing unity (and growing government) and feel envy. The European Union (EU) has passed sweeping environmental laws, has a large welfare system, and in most nations, state-run universal health care. To a leftist, Europe is the future. To most Americans, however, transplanting the EU's system to the U.S. would be a nightmare beyond words. To understand why, we must understand the history of the American structure of government.

The Confederation

The United States of America began under a much smaller and much weaker Constitution. The Second Continental Congress took the role of a provisional national government during the Revolutionary War and presented the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union to the states in 1777. After years of haggling and dealing, Maryland, the final state, ratified the Constitution, and the first permanent structured government of the United States was established.

Thirteen articles made up the first Constitution, and recognized the following:

• The name of the United States of America
• The equality between the thirteen states
• The assurance that the United States of America is a free and independent nation
• The union between the states is perpetual
• The freedom of movement between the states except for criminals
• The establishment of a Congress with each state having one delegation and one vote per delegation
• The central government can conduct foreign relations and war, and that no individual state can declare war nor have a state navy
• When an army is raised, all officers ranked Colonel and below are named by state legislatures
• The United States expenditures will be paid by funds raised by the states
• The job of the central government encompassed war, weights and measures, and mediation
• A Committee of the States was to be established to act as the government for when Congress is not in session
• Nine states are needed to ratify new states
• The war debt incurred by the previous Congress is now owned by the Confederacy
• The declaration that the Articles are perpetual and can only be altered by Congress with the approval of all state legislatures

While this document is quite the read, one can see the emphasis on decentralization. Each state had vast amounts of power over its own destiny. The central government was essentially a mediator and a very weak commerce regulator, as the states each had their own trade policy. There was no executive branch, no judiciary and no bureaucratic regulatory commissions. In fact, the Congress had no way to force the states to submit troops or supplies which made it difficult to prosecute the war. Many people such as John Adams, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton saw the weakness of the Articles during and after the war. Congress had no power to tax; and, therefore, it had no power to pay debts, fund roads or any other kind of basic national infrastructure. Congress had to ask the individual states for money. Unsurprisingly, the states, without having any mandatory reason to give money, were reluctant to work outside their own self-interest. A slightly similar, but more centralized version of this structure can be seen in Canada where the provinces are forced to give money to the federal government who then distributes that money back to the provinces. The rich provinces receive very little of what they gave, and the poorer provinces receive far more than their contribution. This system creates a lot of ire between the individual provinces as well as between the provinces and the federal government.

The Union

Due to the compounding problems of the Confederation, a call was made to amend the Articles to create a stronger central government that could levy taxes, create domestic and international trade policy, conduct foreign policy and war with more coordination. This process began with Charles Pinckney of South Carolina (the Virginia Legislature at the time). Following a recommendation by James Madison, the states were invited to Maryland to talk about how to simmer inter-state conflict. That convention endorsed a motion that called for the states to meet in Philadelphia to discuss ways to amend the Articles of Confederation, which became the historic Constitutional Convention of 1787. On its face, the “Grand Convention” was about amending, not replacing, the Articles; however, the delegates in Philadelphia began closed-door meetings and hashed out a new constitution.

There were several proposals on the structure of the new government. The Virginia Plan, drafted by James Madison, proposed a bicameral (two chamber) legislature (seats distributed by population or taxes) with the lower branch being elected by the people and the upper branch elected by nominations from the thirteen state legislatures. The upper house would be able to veto laws of the states if it conflicted with the national union. The executive branch would be elected by the national legislature. Both branches would be limited to one term. A national judiciary was also proposed. With the Virginia Plan and a similar plan proposed by Charles Pinckney, the smaller states were under threat of losing influence in the national government. The New Jersey Plan, or the Small State Plan, proposed a single legislature with each state having one vote. Similar to the Virginia Plan, there was a judicial branch and the single house electing the executive branch. A fourth plan, called Hamilton's Plan after Alexander Hamilton, proposed the abolishment of the states in a government based on the British government. It wasn't seriously considered.

On July 16, 1787, a compromise was proposed by Connecticut that combined the Virginia and New Jersey Plans. There would be a bicameral legislature in which the lower house (House of Representatives) would be elected by the people, and the seats would be distributed by population. The upper house of the legislature (the Senate) would be elected by state legislatures. Instead of the Congress electing the executive branch, the President would be elected by electors who in turn would be elected by the people of each state. Out of all these plans, the only consistent branch was the independent judiciary appointed to life terms. There had been a call for a bill of rights before the Constitutional Convention as a protection against government tyranny. During the ratification of the Constitution, many states added recommendations to amend the Constitution. When the First Congress met, it wrote and proposed the Bill of Rights, which was ratified on December 15, 1791.

Why It Works

The key to understanding why the United States government is shaped the way it is in its current manner is to understand why the Revolution happened in the first place. It wasn't simply about taxes, but about representation and rights of citizens of the British Empire. During the Revolutionary Era, colonists were treated as second-class citizens with their natural and legal rights under the British Bill of Rights being violated. After the victory over Great Britain, the founders had it in their mind to prevent an overbearing, centralized government from forming. The way they came to do this was to pit the government against itself while leaving room for it to progress and function.

Unlike a number of other nations who have a parliamentary model based on that of Great Britain (my second home of Canada being one); the lawmakers and the law executers are not of the same cloth. The powers of the executive branch and the legislative branch are specifically appointed to the former or the latter. This allows each branch to try to outmaneuver each other in their mutual attempts to gain more power. However, it was written not only with checks on both the legislative and executive branches, but with an originally established check on both houses of Congress. Before the Progressive push and victory for the popular election of Senators, those of the upper house were elected by state legislatures. This kept a check on the populism of the lower house with the interest of the state governments. The removal of this check has had drastic consequences, as seen with the alliance of both Senators and Representatives on many, many questionable bills that took more power away from the individual states. This would never happen if the state government had its own representation in Congress. In spite of the loss of that check, the short but dramatic history of the United States has shown that the system still works - both before and after the removal of certain checks. During the Civil War, civil rights were suspended, but reestablished quickly after its end. During the First World War, a proto-fascist state was established. However, the President that created it was voted out of office; and the government's powers were reigned in by a rightly fearful judiciary, Congress and public. The policies of the New Deal and Second World War had a similar fate with the slow dismantling of many of Franklin D. Roosevelt's giant government programs and the repeal of questionable war-time laws.

The philosophy behind our entire system, at least at the time it was created, was the idea that human nature will not change. Politicians will grasp for power, national leaders will attempt glory and have grand ambition, and the citizen mob will be moody and prone to frenzy. The founders knew of the history of republics and saw the abuses of a powerful, unchecked government in their own cities and towns. There are millions of Americans today who think we have progressed beyond what the founders deemed an eternal constant. They believe humanity is progressing towards an endgame, a final state of bliss, utopia or some kind of better world. This leads these Americans to promote or defend structural changes that do not fit into the original design and purpose of the American government (popular election of Senators being one example - judicial “first among equal branches” being another). The Declaration of Independence says "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." It does not talk about progressing or advancing. It doesn't talk about modifying our views for a new age. The first document of principles by the United States talked about taking back rights from those who did not believe they existed.

Part II: An Analysis of the European Constitution

Contrasts to the U.S. Constitution

First of all, one must ask if it is possible to unite nations as opposed to individual states. Nations have different cultures, different economic structures and different ideologies. When the founders built the United States government, the nation had just been born. The attempts made by the EU to devise a constitution to bind nations that have long histories of standing on their own is a far more difficult and dangerous task. The caveat here is to question the intentions of such a document. Will such a document preserve individual freedom, or will it be used as a mechanism for regulatory control over multiple nations?

The idea of the constitution has been sold under the guise of unity and that is necessary for better trade between nations, a stronger international market presence and job growth. The Founders of the United States created the Constitution not to strengthen international presence, but to PRESERVE individual liberty and freedom from an overbearing government. Over the past century, the United States has seen power become more centralized in spite of the efforts of the framers of the Constitution to keep power decentralized. An EU constitution does not seek preserve the identity of nations, but to blend nations into one and establish a centralized law-making bureaucracy. Centralized power does not preserve freedom, and for this reason, Europeans should fear an EU Constitution.

In addition to the original intent for a constitution being dissimilar, another stark difference is voting power. The EU constitution seeks population based voting power (Article I-25), which means that nations with the largest populations would have the most control over policy making. A population-based law would violate the classical principle of local control and state equality. The founders in America realized the importance of state and local power – hence the New Jersey Plan. If a population-based policy were implemented in the U.S., then populous states such as New York and California would be making Federal policy while less populous states would have no influence. In addition, as long as there is collusion between the populous states, laws would be passed with ease and little debate.

The Dangers of Centralized Economic and Monetary Policy

Article I-13 of the Constitution gives the EU exclusive legal power to decide policy in regards to trade tariffs, quotas, monetary policy, competition rules for the international market and trade agreements to name but a few. The issue of the Federal Reserve being “constitutional” in United States is a widely debated topic. The idea of a centralized body having total control over monetary policy obviously conflicts with the idea of decentralized power. The powers of the Federal Reserve can essentially make or break the economic stability of the United States. The reasoning behind the establishment of the Federal Reserve was to reduce systemic risk; however, many have argued that such authority and the history of monetary policy have actually increased systemic risk. The Federal Reserve shares the blame for the creation and bursting of the housing market bubble.

If the EU wishes to implement their own “Federal Reserve,” it can be far more dangerous in the sense where the ultimate goal could be to abolish the currencies of individual nations. Such a move would place one institution in charge of the economic fate of several nations.

The corporatist traditions of countries such as Germany and France, whose population size would give them disproportionate influence on monetary policy under the voting system, could make “crony capitalism” the norm for all of Europe in spite of countries that wish to pursue a more classical liberal approach. Article I-4 states that Laissez-faire and economic competition based on the unobstructed movement of goods, capital and labor throughout the EU countries are constitutionally mandatory, however, this motive serves no purpose in a constitution that would bind nations together. Decentralized power seeks to preserve the principles of a free market. A binding document that would determine “fair” economic and social policy for multiple nations would have the opposite outcome.

The Power of the Lobby

The process of European integration has stemmed from socialist parties, trade unions and big business. These tenants remove freedom and give large bodies the power to impose policy with little resistance. Socialists who have not been able to transform society to their liking through the ballot box, can now have socialist policies imposed through an EU Constitution. In addition, multi-national corporate conglomerates have only one legislative body in which to lobby and negotiate. Compromise and voice from the opposition have only been possible because groups had to deal with the elected democratic governments of each nation. The difference between American framers and their European counterparts is the former sought to protect America from those who have no faith in the democratic process while the latter holds such beliefs.


If a constitution is not devised as a mechanism to preserve individual freedom and reign in the powers of government, then the creation of such a document serves no purpose. Constitutions should not be devised to band nations together to create a super-power rival to other powerful nations with the “power-elite” in control. Constitutions written with such motives lead to oppression and tyranny. If the EU wishes to follow the footsteps of America’s Founding Fathers, then the framers of the EU Constitution must recognize the importance of localized power, and adhere to the rights of the individual nations’ liberty.


Libertarian Advocate said...

Jordan: All in all, a pretty good analysis of the distinctions between the US and EU constitutions.

As to the differences in culture and language as between various European nations and the fact that many have stood on their own for centuries, while accurate, doesn't tell the whole story of course, Many fought long and bitter wars against each other so there is that history to contend with today. The French remain contentedly and irreconcilably French which best explains that country's vote against the pact. The same may be said of the Brits and the Scots and the Irish. The Germans, well, they are what they are (no pejorative intended) The Greeks, Italians and Spanish are more "Mediterranean" than they are "European"

Anonymous said...

(1) Despite the complexity of conjoining sovereign states, states as you point out that have long histories and different cultures, what is amazing is that Europe actually works.

(a) eliminating barriers to trade and movement of goods and peoples.
(b) ending centuries of war.
(c) bringing the standards of living in poor areas up to a par with the rich countries. In the 1960's, much of Europe was Mexico poor. Poor mexico poor. This was brought about by massive investment.
(d) european-wide laws have made it possible for national corporations to become large enough intra-europe to compete with US multinational.

All in all, its been pretty successful. Europe eliminated its tens of different currencies with less difficulty than the US had in abolishing analog TV.

The best criteria of its success, is the long list of countries clamoring to get in. Another yardstick is to see how Europe has absorbed dirt-poor communist countries that were still living in the 50's. A comparison would be for the US to assimilate mexico and all the central american countries. Clearly, Europe is able to accomplish difficult tasks well.

Now back to your main issue. I have a one-word answer for you:


Go look it up, and how central the idea is to Europe, and you will understand how Europe addresses "states rights".

Anonymous said...

The problem with your post is that you're looking at Europe from a US perspective, how Europe fails to fit the US model. The thing is, Europe has moved way beyond the US model. Its been 200 years, and 2 world wars have focussed the leaders minds.

The US started out with a lead, as it had no monarch. Today, it has been left far behind, in terms of developing new political systems that can respond to the changing needs of society.

In that time, Europe has abandoned tens of monarchies, converted to parliamentary systems, flirted with dictatorship, and settled down, in the main, to proportional representation, which is a far more representative system than the US "winner takes all" system.

It has created the structures that enable it to respond to global warming and environmental degradation, it has universal healthcare, at a third the cost of the US, it can absorb massive numbers of new citizens, most of whom are used to a far different system, it has developed high speed rail infrastructure, better freeways than the US (in the main), its citizens are far more educated, and it is exporting its cultural values as trading partners are required to adopt them.

The US has some remaining advantages; these include: (a) the ability to attract rich people and top scientists. The former is a function of low tax rates (and low welfare for the citizenry), the latter is largely bootstrapped by scientists fleeng WWII, but has been maintained by large university endowments. (b) As a young country, the US still has vast untapped natural resources. This is increasngly less true. (c) Its vast military on which more is spent than the next 6 countries combined, is able to keep a vast array of vassal states in check. This ensures its ability to access foreign resources and the domination of the dollar.

In the relatively near future, US resources will decline, demand for the dollar will decline, and the US will no longer be able to sustain its military.

Whereas Europe has moved to "soft" power, the US is still reliant on "hard" power. When the US is foced to use half the power per capita, as Europe does, there will be hell to pay.

And when that bill comes due, the question is whether the US, fractured as it is, fighting over abortion and - of all things - evolution - secession and civil war will not be far away.

Europe spent the last 50 years making the new system. It is equivalent in its stage of development to the US in 1815.

Europe has a bright future ahead of it, as it is adapting to a renewable energy future, based on equality and cooperation.

The US is doubling down on oil, on exploitation and competition and greed. The financial collapse shows how well that particular model works in the 21st century.

US-style independence, greed, competition, lack of regulation works well when resources are effectively infinite. When the limits are reached, then cooperation become the critical factor.

As the US is depleting its resources and becoming more crowded, every day it becomes more like Europe. Its inevitable. Trees and weeds are adapted to different environments. The live fast, reproduce widely, die quickly model works when nutrients are abundant. But it doesnt work in mature forests.

Jordan said...

@ Anon

You're comments are a rehash of the US during the early 1900s. The Progressives "looked past" liberal democracy, economic freedom and individual rights to a better, more co-operative world. That world was communism and fascism. Of course, today's Europe is not moving towards a militaristic totalitarianism, but it is not the happy go-lucky utopia that you make it out to be.

Today, Europe's "soft power" as you call it led to its ability to rely on American military power to protect it from the USSR. After the Cold War, Europe's soft power led it to impotence while a series of wars were fought in its own backyard that killed hundreds upon hundreds of thousands. Wars that the US had to intervene in. Europe's economy is dependent on Russian gas and oil. Europe has a problem with un-assimilated immigrant populations. Europe can't defend itself against Iran. Europe can't stop kissing Russian ass. Europe still depends on American innovation. Europe fights among itself over immigration and... for God's sake... light bulbs.

I'm sorry if I can't see the world through statist eyes. Maybe you should try seeing the world through the eyes of an individualist.

And sign your name. We're not monsters here.