Should We Have a Liberal Constitution?

Article excerpt

Here is a modest proposal: If I had the power to rewrite the United States Constitution, I would first take some time to think hard about the sort of country I wanted to live in. Having done my homework, I would then draft language that, to the best of my ability, insured that we had such a country. Some of the language would be substantive--for example, guaranteeing the rights that I think people ought to have and directly commanding outcomes that I think we ought to reach. Of course, there would also be procedural provisions. Various powers would be allocated and divided, various offices created and the duties of their occupants specified, and various practical details sorted out. But all of these procedural provisions would have but a single purpose--to produce the substantive outcomes that I preferred.

On one level, this approach seems both obvious and question-begging. It is obvious because, after all, what else would one possibly expect? Of course my choice of a constitution will be dictated by my hopes for the country to be governed by the constitution. It is question-begging because it leaves unresolved the really hard issues about what sort of country I should want to live in and about what sort of constitutional design would create such a country.

On another level, though, my proposal is deeply controversial. The constitution I drafted would not provide a level playing field on which people with different conceptions of justice could do battle. It would not be neutral as between competing conceptions of the good. It would not provide terms of fair cooperation for people with different such conceptions. It would not leave to individuals operating within a private sphere the workings out of the distribution of resources or the pursuit of their own conception of happiness. Because my constitution would resolve, or attempt to resolve, all these matters in a particular and controversial way, it would not be democratic. In short, my constitution would lack all the hallmarks of constitutional liberalism.

In this brief essay, I attempt to accomplish two things. In Part I, I defend my proposed constitution against its putative liberal critics. In Part II, I argue that given contingent but highly plausible empirical assumptions, the differences between my constitution and a liberal constitution are less dramatic than one might suppose. There are often sound, nonliberal grounds for supporting institutional arrangements that appear liberal. It turns out, then, that liberalism is both less attractive (Part I) and less necessary (Part II) than its defenders suppose.


Before mounting a defense of my nonliberal constitution, we need to dispose of a move that would short-circuit the argument. Perhaps the kind of country I want (or should want) should be organized around liberal virtues. Perhaps, in other words, I should value for its own sake a system marked by what I take to be the main features of constitutional liberalism: a commitment to procedural fairness, a large private sphere, expansive negative rights, and neutrality with regard to matters of religion and other conceptions of the good. (1) If these are my substantive preferences, then, obviously, I will end up supporting a liberal constitution that encourages these outcomes. To make the argument interesting, then, we need to assume that, as a substantive matter, I prefer something else. For example, I might think that a fair distribution of resources is central to justice and that a liberal society will not produce this distribution. Or I might worry that we face an environmental catastrophe and that liberal politics cannot be counted on to fend off disaster. Or I might believe that a particular set of religious beliefs is simply true and that a just society must be organized around those beliefs. Perhaps these positions are misguided--perhaps I ought to be a liberal. …