23 September 2000


Charles Beard's Constitution

I spent my dissertation time yesterday working through Charles Beard's (unfortunately) influential An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.  Beard's thesis is that the U.S. Constitution is a product of economic determinism.  He attempts to prove his thesis by demonstrating, with great detail, that:  1) the prime movers behind the U.S. Constitution (i.e. those charged with revising the Articles of Confederation who, in effect, went well beyond their charge in coming up with a new Constitution, and then those who were out fighting for ratification of the same document) had specific economic interests, 2) the final version of the U.S. Constitution protected and advanced those interests.

Now, the error in Beard's logic should be evident -- even if 1 & 2 are proven true, the thesis is not proven!  Rather, the thesis is, at best, a possible explanation.  But another possible explanation would be this:  intellectual leaders in the United States saw the problems with the Articles of Confederation (which are not, by the way, as most history texts portray it, but that's an entirely different topic) and were motivated to craft a new constitution that would allow effective exercise of national power while at the same time frustrating the tendency of majorities to infringe the rights of minorities.  Incidentally, the government they crafted just happened to protect property owners!  Before Beard, some version of that last was the prevailing view of the Founding.

Beard's is an historicist (and, to be even more precise, a Progressive) understanding of politics.  Economics (or other social forces) determine and drive the ideas of individuals, and therefore history.  Much of political science -- virtually all quantitative political science -- is dominated by this approach.  Serious political scientists run regression analyses dominated by variables (socioeconomic status, religiosity, social networks, etc) that suggest how one behaves is simply a product of one's environment.  This is not altogether incorrect -- there often IS a correlation -- but too many political scientists take the Beardian approach that somehow these social forces have CAUSED the behavior of the dependent variable in question and the inquiry ends.

Some of the more interesting social science research in recent years was quickly dismissed by political scientists (not surprisingly) even though it attempted to get beyond this simple understanding of politics.  That's not to say that Murray/Herrnstein's Bell Curve work wasn't somewhat flawed methodologically, because it could have been set up much better.  But their notion was that standard indicators used to predict success (socioeconomic status chief among these) really aren't as good at predicting success as intelligence.  They proved this point pretty well (and generated a firestorm in the process).  But what they didn't do was go on to the next step, which is to investigate the extent to which intelligence changes typical political science modeling of all sorts of phenomena (from political tolerance to voting behavior).  If many of the standard sorts of independent variables (socioeconomic status again a biggie) are simply indirect measures of intelligence, then putting intelligence in those models suddenly makes them more robust and more interesting.  You begin to get past a correlation of "the well off" with "voting" and more towards an explanation of political phenomena:  for example, perhaps the more intelligent are more likely to vote (or, probably what we would actually see, some sort of parabolic curve in which the most highly intelligent perhaps don't vote as much as others, or are more likely to engage in other, more effective, forms of political activism).  I played around some in several required quantitative methods graduate seminars with these sorts of things in the area of political psychology, and it's a tremendous untapped area for research for those who would be interested (one reason it's largely untapped is that it's very hard to get survey's that include any sort of intelligence assessment, and even if one finds one, sampling is an issue).  

But to return to my original point.  Beard's is not a satisfying explanation of the Constitution because it doesn't actually get around to proving his thesis.   It's an interesting work because it, along with the work of his Progressive contemporaries, established the (flawed) paradigm still in force today for social science research.  For the purposes of my dissertation, however, it's useful for another reason:  Progressives opposed to the notion that the Constitution acted as a legitimate restraint on their national agenda found Beard's argument very useful.  Far from being an objective document extending equality under the law to all, the Constitution instead was designed to help some and oppress others.  As such, it was fundamentally suspect -- unless somehow it could be made "living" in order to reflect current realities (never mind there was an amendment process for just such circumstances).  Sociological jurisprudence was borne, and American constitutionalism continues to suffer the effects.  

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