The Overlooked Importance of Our (U.S.) Constitution’s Preamble

infinitely more significant than some innocuous introductory words

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

Here it is:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To begin, it must be noted that the Preamble starts with “We the People.” That means that it is not a document pertaining only to relations among a group of separate states, but was written on behalf of the whole of the citizenry of this newly formed nation — “nation” as in ‘a people’, though a people bound together by common values, not ‘blood’ or cultural traditions. To become a citizen of this nation it is only necessary to affirm one’s acceptance of those values — but to be a citizen is, most importantly, to put those values above all else.

The Preamble is a statement of purpose: to establish a nation on the basis of the values of equality and liberty, as stated in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. To that end it enumerates specific goals to be achieved. The entirety of the rest of the document is a plan for accomplishing that purpose, a blueprint for a design of government for such a nation.

Plans and blueprints are subject to change. No matter the goal, no matter how brilliant a plan or a design might be, unforeseen circumstances will inevitably arise. If it becomes clear that an unanticipated challenge to or opportunity for achieving the goal has presented itself, then the means of achieving it must be adapted to that new reality.

The writers of our Constitution understood that. They planned for the need for such changes. They were wise enough to know that they could not possibly anticipate what might lie ahead for this new nation, so they built an all but unencumbered flexibility into the design.

Only one thing is not changeable: the values that are the foundation of the nation. Those values define the nation. To abandon either of those values is to make it a different nation altogether. Any such nation would be one with less justice.

Even the specifically enumerated goals are subject to the variable influences that are inexorably wrought by the passage of time. The goals remain the same, but our understanding of those goals can — must — evolve as experience teaches us and material circumstances bring us new problems as well as new possibilities as a nation.

At present we are experiencing difficult times. We are faced with serious material challenges and deeply held differences in beliefs regarding all of the goals enumerated in the Preamble — even in some minds those very values.

To my mind, there is one overriding concern: justice. Save “defence,” all of the other goals follow from the presence of justice.

I don’t see how it can be any plainer: we need a better understanding of what justice is. It must be consistent with the values of liberty and equality, but it must put justice on firmer intellectual ground and make the implications of justice more straightforward (especially where the economy is concerned). To that end, “Equality Is All We Need” (here in Medium, but not behind the paywall).

It is indicative of the dire political straits in which we currently find ourselves that roughly half of the population is incensed that equality would be ‘put ahead of’ liberty. Especially, people of that frame of mind are wont to equate equality with socialism and socialism with tyranny.

That equation is erroneous. When its implications for individuals and society as a whole are better understood, equality does not lead to socialism in any form.

It does maximize liberty. Liberty, it turns out, is the certain product of justice, not its predicate, or source, or foundation, etc. In that way maximizing liberty is still the ultimate point of justice.

Recognizing equality as the font of justice can also result in a society with no unemployment or poverty, but here that would be achieved without imposing costs on employers and without redistributing anything. For that matter, taxation in any form could be abolished. Moreover, those outcomes would be accomplished in the context of the existing economic system: neither the institutional structure of the system nor the way the economy functions would be changed. It would, however, become stable and fully self-regulating. To be clear, there would be no limit on income/wealth.

What can I say? The point of this article is that to preserve this nation, united by nothing but the values we hold in common, we must allow for new possibilities. We must be open to new ways of looking at things, including our understanding of what justice is.

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice