The U.S. Constitution: Rules of the Game

Social Education, March 2007 | Go to article overview
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The U.S. Constitution: Rules of the Game


The students examine key economic clauses in the U.S. Constitution. They read about contemporary examples where the application of these constitutional provisions would have important consequences.


Many nations have adopted written constitutions but have failed nonetheless to grow economically. How is it that the U.S. Constitution became an effective force in promoting economic growth within a market system?

Economic History

From May until September of 1787, 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia for "the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation." Instead, they decided to write a new Constitution. The Constitution they wrote embodied important ideals of economic freedom, as envisioned by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Notions, and created the possibility for the United States to emerge as a strong, dynamic market economy.

The Constitution established the rules within which the U.S. economic system would develop. Rules determine the incentives that influence people's economic behavior. By establishing rules that enforce contracts, provide for a financially responsible central government, protect private property rights and encourage trade and innovation, the Constitution created an environment in which a market economy could develop and flourish.


* Money

* Incentives

* Innovation

* Private property

* Taxation

* Trade


Students will:

1. Identify sections of the U.S. Constitution that fostered the development of a market economy.

2. Analyze the relationship between productive behavior and provisions in the Constitution that protect rights to private property and freedom of contract.

Content Standards


* There is an economic role for government to play in a market economy whenever the benefits of a government policy outweigh its costs. Governments often provide for national defense, address environmental concerns, define and protect property rights, and attempt to make markets more competitive. Most government policies also redistribute income. (NCEE Content Standard 16)


* Students should acquire historical understanding of the institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundations of the American political system based on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. (Era 3, Standard 3, National Standards for History)

Time Required

60 minutes


* One copy for each student of Activity 1.

* You may wish to have students refer to textbook copies of the U.S. Constitution.


1. Tell the students that the purpose of this lesson is to examine the U.S. Constitution. They will use economic reasoning to understand how the Constitution created an environment that fostered the development of a market economy.

2. Remind the class that in 1787 it was not at all clear how the United States would develop economically. Large problems existed during the time of the Articles of Confederation, including unpaid war debts, the inability of the Continental government to levy and collect taxes and fears of tariff "wars" between states. Everybody knows that the United States eventually developed a strong economy, but it did not necessarily have to turn out that way. Many nations that have adopted written constitutions have nonetheless failed to grow economically. What is it about the U.S. Constitution that fostered the development of a market economy?

3. Explain that the economic growth of the United States reflects certain general rules set forth in the U.S. Constitution. These rules create incentives that reward some kinds of behavior and discourage others.

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