THE Founding Fathers would be astonished at the transformation in the United States since the Constitutional Convention. The small, primarily agricultural, mostly English-speaking nation that hugged the eastern coast of North America has evolved into a sprawling transcontinental society of diverse peoples and enterprises. The Constitution, although not an ``economic document,'' was born out of economic necessity. Congress and the states were bogged down in challenges regarding trade and tariffs, debts and currency, under the weak Articles of Confederation, which gave too little power to the central government.
The Constitution reversed the relationship of power. Within the restrictions of a federal system, it still accorded greater authority to Washington. Generally, it sought to ``establish justice,'' ``insure domestic Tranquility,'' and ``promote the general Welfare.'' But unlike such modern written charters as the 1978 Spanish Constitution, the 1976 Portuguese Constitution, the 1917 Mexican Consitution, or the 1977 Soviet Constitution, the American document did not include a detailed roster of specific economic rights for individuals. Thus, while the Soviet Constitution grants each citizen the right to have a job, the US Constitution does not. Rather, what the US Constitution does do is provide a legal framework for political and individual liberty, within which an individual can take the steps best suited to his or her development - and prosperity.
Many economic powers have been granted Washington under the Constitution: the power, for example, to lay and collect taxes; to coin money and set its value; to regulate interstate commerce; to promote the sciences and arts. The Constitution recognizes the right to own property and enter into contracts. Moreover, it is full of clauses that can be interpreted in light of today's economic needs, such as the document's many ``phase in'' and ``phase out'' provisions. (Members of the Senate, for example, are phased in and out through staggered six-year terms.) Such phase-in and phase-out clauses became important in the recent construction of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced-budget law, which seeks to phase in a balanced budget over a set period of time.
The beauty of the American Constitution is that it is not overly detailed in economic terms. Over the years, Congresses, presidents, and courts have reinterpreted the document in ways that best meet the needs of the moment. In this century, that reinterpretation has mainly meant authorizing Washington to ensure that government provides the minimum human needs of its citizens. This expanded governmental role was perhaps best summed up in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech in 1941. ``We look forward,'' FDR said, ``to a world founded upon four fundamental human freedoms.'' They are freedom of speech and expression; freedom to worship God; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.
``The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple,'' Roosevelt maintained. They include, he said, ``equality of opportunity for youth and for others, jobs for those who can work, security for those who need it....''
Ringing words - but translating those objectives into realities has not been simple. Proponents of particular economic orientations - whether of the left or right - see solutions differently. And these proponents would seek to embroider their particular ideologies right into the very fabric of the Constitution.
An example on the left might well be the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment act, signed into law in 1978 by President Carter. The objective of the legislation, sought by union and civil rights groups, was, in part, to declare a ``national policy of promoting full employment.'' The unemployment rate was to be reduced within five years to 3 percent for people aged 20 and over, 4 percent for people 16 and over. Inflation was to be be reduced to 3 percent. Unemployment is now running about 7 percent; inflation last year was well below 3 percent.
But conservative economists have also sought, through legislation (Gramm-Rudman-Hollings) or proposed constitutional amendments, to tie the Constitution to their own orientations. Thus, economist Martin Anderson has proposed that an ``Economic Bill of Rights'' be written into the Constitution. It would include the balanced-budget amendment, a limitation on federal spending, the line-item budget veto, a return to the gold standard, and a ban on wage and price controls. President Reagan has preempted much of the Anderson economic agenda, seeking to adopt various parts through enabling legislation.
Economic goals should not be attached to the Constitution in ironclad terms. Such proposals should be considered individually, on their merits, as President Reagan has done, and, if desirable, adopted as laws that can be revised.
Americans, to their credit, are usually found somewhere in the great middle ground on economic issues. They are solution-oriented, not ideological. They reward sound economic management at the voting booth - while penalizing bad management, as they did in 1932.
The US is far too diverse, too creative, to allow national economic policy to be indelibly sculptured into law - whether in terms of legislation or as clauses within the Constitution itself. Economic policy should be subject to constant revision. At the same time, a compassionate society must not neglect or ignore its less fortunate. Liberal ``safety net'' policies, such as the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, social security programs, can just as fairly be termed conservative, because they help foster a work force that feels itself to have a part in the economic and political system. That the dispossessed, the homeless, and the financially burdened are so often overlooked is more a failure of America's collective vision - of national leadership - than of the American Constitution itself.
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