Common Law, Common Ground, and Jefferson's Principle
43 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2000
Date Written: April 2000
Thomas Jefferson's famous argument that "the earth belongs to the living" - and therefore no generation has the right to rule another - is a standing challenge to anyone who believes that written constitutions (or, in many instances, statutes) are binding. Most answers to Jefferson's challenge rely, in one way or another, on a claim that being an American means owing an obligation of some kind to previous generations. These accounts should not be disparaged, but in a large and heterogeneous nation the obligation to adhere to decisions made decades or centuries ago should rest on something less contested.
Our written Constitution performs two functions that justify adherence to it, without relying on a contested conception of American citizenship. First, the text, and the judgments of those who wrote and ratified it, are a source of precedents, roughly on a par with certain judicial decisions. Second, the text provides what game theory calls a "focal point": it establishes common ground on questions (such as the length of a President's term) that need to be settled one way or another. There are no other justifications, beyond these two, for requiring adherence to the text of a document adopted long ago. But this account helps explain current practices that might otherwise seem unjustifiable: an emphasis on the words of the text often without regard to the intentions of the drafters, as evidenced, for example, in the debate over the incorporation of the Bill of Rights; the highly selective use of historical sources (what is often called "law office history"); the fact that the text of the Constitution matters most for issues that are the least important; and popular attitudes about constitutional amendment.
JEL Classification: K19
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation