By Anthony W. Hawks
The recent “Conference on the Constitutional Convention” (www.conconcon.org) at Harvard Law School began a civil and, I hope, fruitful dialogue among liberals, conservatives, and libertarians on the need and potential for an Article V convention to amend the Constitutio. The most striking aspect of the conference was the desire by both the left and right to invoke Article V, especially the fact that this desire arises out of a mutual concern over the influence that special interests now exert over national policies. In a sense, this mutual concern parallels a similar congruity between Tea Party groups and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters. Here is a Venn diagram illustrating what I mean:
(Hat tip: Jim Harper at the Cato@Liberty blog)
A similar consensus could be found at ConConCon 2011, where liberals were targeting the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision because they believe that it further corrupts our political system by greatly increasing the power of large corporations to influence federal elections and law-making. For their part, conservatives and libertarians at ConConCon 2011 were focused on the excess of power that government already exerts, which facilitates rent-seeking by all special interests, not just large corporations. As the Venn diagram illustrates, the area of common interest between Tea Partiers and OWSers is opposition to rent-seeking, at least by large corporations.
Another way to understand this point is to deconstruct the left’s growing attacks on the so-called “rich.” Leave aside how any monetary threshold for defining the “rich” is purely subjective; the distinction I wish to draw is between the “economic rich” and the “political rich.” By “economic rich” I mean anyone who becomes wealthy by creating wealth for others. We just saw the passing of Steve Jobs – someone who epitomized what I mean by “economic rich” – and I do not recall a single commentator on the left or right decrying Jobs’ well-earned riches. Is this really the type of rich person whom OWS protesters want to castigate?
The ‘political rich,” on the other hand, are those persons who become wealthy by taking or diminishing the wealth of others through political connections and clout. There is a world of difference between these two categories of “rich.” It is easy to deplore the unsavory collapse of Solyndra because it resulted in the loss of a $535 million taxpayer subsidy, but libertarians would have deplored the result even if Solyndra had succeeded. Such success would have meant the creation of another member of the “political rich” ready to fund favored politicians in return for yet more political favors.
If the OWS protesters are upset at Wall Street simply because of how much wealth has been acquired there, then they won’t get much support from the right, or I believe, from most of the middle class. If, however, they focus their anger on how Wall Street wealth has often been acquired through influence peddling and a rigged political system, then they may well earn our sympathy.
These themes were played out at ConConCon 2011 in Professor Larry Lessig’s keynote address “from the left,” which was an updated version of what can only be described as the stump speech in his campaign to overturn Citizens United. As entertaining as it was informative, the speech brought a standing ovation even by skeptics like me who nonetheless believe that the Lessig solution (public financing of federal elections) is seriously misguided.
The problem that so disturbs Professor Lessig is special interest legislation and the problem of rent-seeking at the federal level, for which he offered three egregious examples: (1) the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (also known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”), which perverted the notion of copyright as an incentive to creative artists and authors by adding decades of copyright protection to their heirs and successors; (2) the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup in our diets as a result of sugar tariffs and corn subsidies, resulting in wide-spread obesity for the benefit of sugar and corn producers; and (3) the failure of then Vice President Gore to deregulate the telecommunications industry in 1994 because the legislators in Congress needed regulations for leverage in raising campaign funds. The scourge in all three cases, according to Professor Lessig, is both the constant pressure for Members of Congress to raise money and the fact that they have become so dependent on lobbyists for their fundraising. For Lessig, this illegitimate dependency of elected officials on the funders of elections has displaced the legitimate accountability of elected officials to the voters in elections, corrupting the political system to an unprecedented and dangerous degree.
In response, Lessig’s fellow ConConCon co-chair, Mark Meckler of Tea Party Patriots, suggested that problem was not one of dependent government, but overweening government, with the root cause being “money in government,” not money in campaigns. As David Boaz of the Cato Institute has often remarked, “when you lay out a picnic, you get ants.” Similarly, when you spend $3.7 trillion in a single fiscal year (2011), you draw lobbyists to Members of Congress like ants on steroids.
Ironically, Meckler’s point was demonstrated by Lessig’s story about Vice President Gore’s failed attempt at telecommunications de-regulation. Rent-seeking suggests that it is always the special interest who comes to Capitol Hill (and The White House) in search of political favors. The telecommunications example reveals just the opposite: rather than showing how an industry pressures Congress for preferences or protection, it confirms how Congress purposefully creates a benefit (or threatens a burden) that they can then withhold (or impose) as leverage to assure campaign contributions from the industry being “favored.” We need to coin an idiom other than “rent-seeking” to describe this phenomenon – “rent-trawling” perhaps?
Also impressive was the second ConConCon 2011 keynote address, this one “from the right” by Professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds of the University of Tennessee College of Law (and Instapundit fame). The Reynolds keynote picked up on a metaphor that he used in his Foreword to the Tennessee Law Review symposium discussed in the previous post. Professor Reynolds compared the Constitution to a computer operating system, as opposed to all the “application software that is layered on top” in the form of statutes, regulations, and Supreme Court case law.
The point of the metaphor was cautionary in suggesting that even modest changes in the Constitution/operating system can crash the “machinery of government” in potentially catastrophic ways. This led Professor Reynolds to conclude that a “constitutional convention is analogous to the ‘hyperspace’ button in the old Asteroid videogame – worth pressing only in extremis, since it was almost as likely to kill you as to save you.”
Maybe so, but there are many who believe, like me, that today’s constitutional operating system has not been modestly changed, but drastically changed to the point where it is nothing like the operating system actually written into the Constitution. For this we can thank not only (1) the numerous “judicial amendments” that have resulted from the Supreme Court’s failure to constrain the legislative power of Congress, especially on interstate commerce and “general welfare” spending; but also (2) the less numerous ”presidential amendments” that have resulted from Congress’s failure to constrain the executive power of the President, particularly with respect to war powers.
Finally, I should note who was not at ConConCon 2011, but should have been: Professor Rob Natelson of the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado (who not coincidentally has the most substantive and research-based article of the Tennessee Law Review symposium) and Professor Michael Stokes Paulsen of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. These two scholars are perhaps the leading advocates of opposing viewpoints on what is the central obstacle (in both theory and practice) to calling an Article V convention: whether states can submit valid applications that are limited in subject matter. Professor Natelson argues that they can, and Professor Paulsen asserts that they cannot. Since I side with Professor Natelson on this issue, I will critique Professor Paulsen’s article, How To Count To 34: The Constitutional Case for a Constitutional Convention, in the next post.
Copyright © 2011. Anthony W. Hawks. All rights reserved.