Ryan J. Suto's Blog

06 November 2011

My American Values: The Empty Pot

I begin the My American Values series with a content discussion of our U.S. Constitution and the social understandings of such contents. In this post, I will be concentrating on what our Constitution doesn’t say, and comparing that to other constitutions around the world.

Comparison to other constitutions
As a general note, our constitution is one of the oldest constitutions still in use. As time has gone on, modern constitutions have grown longer, often adding more rights for the people and more detailed powers and limitations of the government. For example, the U.S. Constitution, including amendments, is only about 7,229 words long. In contrast, India’s constitution, in PDF, is 471 pages long, and its table of contents alone contains 6,231 words. While more specificity allows for the document to produce governments more faithful to the text, it also decreases the flexibility and legibility of the document. This is a classic trade-off.

While it is certainly possible to have a more detailed constitution without having the features noted below, I would like to point out some interesting inclusions in foreign constitutions:

·         Egypt’s constitution defines Islam as the state religion.
·         France’s constitution defines French as the official language.
·         Ireland’s constitution holds the ‘family’ as the fundamental unit of society, and describes different rights for mothers.
·         North Korea’s constitution has an economic ideology: socialism.
·         The German constitution refers to a ‘German ethnic origin’.

Our constitution denotes not official language or religion and contains no discussions of the family or an American ethnicity. What about economic ideology? Well, that requires a bit more discussion. Justice Holmes, in dissent in Lockner v. New York (1905), stated the following, ‎"[The] constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory, whether of paternalism and the organic relation of the citizen to the State or of laissez faire. It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar or novel and even shocking ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution of the United States." (Noting of course that this is a dissent to a long-overturned case, doctrine, and line of thinking in U.S. Constitutional analysis and interpretation—meaning it’s not binding law, but it can be persuasive.)
There is no language in the Constitution which even implies a specific economic theory. While the constitution does imply a right to exclusive individual property (as does the common law), it also includes the Interstate Commerce Clause (and to a lesser extent the Equal Protection clause) which imply governmental abilities to regulate commerce. Moreover, note that Art. I, Sec. 8 and Amend. XVI allow the Federal government to tax citizens’ income and general taxes on goods and services. All of these economic statements add up to say that there are times when the government can interact with the economy. That’s it. There isn’t enough in the document to implicate a specific economic ideal. At most it runs antithetical to extreme communism as well as extreme libertarianism, while allowing almost anything in between. 

Beyond what has been discussed above, our constitution also does not offer constitutional protections from non-state actors. It sets up no affirmative duties of parents, no prohibition against discrimination by private organizations, no protections of culture, etc. But should our Constitution speak to such important human issues as family, culture, language or religion?

What is done by not doing
            What this silence on such issues allows is the natural change, development and movement of humanity to occur without need to question the fundamental document. In the long course of human history, what we now call France, whose constitution hold French as the official language, has been occupied by dozens of languages. In Egypt, like many other countries, their constitution specifies Islam as the state religion. However, only a brief investigation of Egyptian history shows that at various times the area was dominated by Christianity and various forms of polytheistic worship. Having such momentary trends artificially codified attempts to freeze in time a snapshot of culture—an ever-evolving, elusive concept which cannot characterized as stagnant. The U.S. Constitution makes no claims of culture, and simply leaves such a discussion to be had elsewhere.
Economies change, languages change, religions change and ethnic compositions change. And when they do, constitutions which designate such elements will become anachronistic. They are simply not equipped for the natural and dynamic movements and changes of the human condition.

When the U.S. was founded the population (which was allowed a voice in such matters) was predominantly Anglo in ethnicity, Protestant Christian in religion, English by language, and agrarian by economy. A mere 300 years after that and the population could well be Hispanic by ethnicity, Catholic Christian in religion, Spanish by language, and socialist by economy. Or perhaps too mixed to characterize by ethnicity, no religion as religion, Spanish by language, free-market by economy and having no discernable family structure of which to speak. In either scenario, this would still be America. The Constitution would still be relevant.

The U.S. is often called a ‘melting pot’. This means that people of different colors and creeds come here and mix and mingle peaceably. In this analogy the people are the ingredients, the stuff which is being melted together. What, then, is the state? In such an analogy what symbolizes the fundamental structures on which the country rests? It’s the pot—the empty pot in which any people can be placed. No matter what cultures or people are placed in the pot, the label on the outside of the pot says the same thing: the United States of America.  


  1. The sardonic title, might I say, is misleading. I didn't expect the discussion to be so eloquently in favor of the American values. You articulate the "melting pot" metaphor well.

  2. Thank you for your comment, my friend. I didn't mean 'empty' in a negative way, just illustrating the ability for the people to fill it however we wish.