Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Tommy: Nuts or Genius?

We hear that while Tommy was frolicking about the French countryside that he actually found the time to speak with several local peasants. These conversations must have had a profound affect upon Tommy because he, perhaps remembering his Rousseau, wrote a very strange letter to his little apprentice J-Mad:

"The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but a place also, among the fundamental principles of every government...I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, "that the earth belongs in usufruct* to the living"; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it."

In his letter Tommy used this logic to argue that debts should not be contracted for more than a generation and that lands should not be locked in the possession of one family in perpetuity. He also extended his logic to the duration of the constitution:

"It may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern as they please...Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right."

J-Mad agreed about debts & land ownership, but disagreed with Tommy about the constitution, essentially calling him a silly dreamer:

"However applicable in Theory the doctrine may be to a Constitution, it seems liable in practice to some very powerful objections. Would not a Government so often revised become too mutable to retain those prejudices in its favor which antiquity inspires, and which are perhaps a salutary aid to the most rational Government in the most enlightened age? Would not such a periodical revision engender pernicious factions that might not otherwise come into existence?"

So, those are the two positions: one side says that it is tyranny if every generation does not make or assent to the laws that they are obligated to obey. The other side says that such revision would be impractical and would lead to faction and increased instability.

As Tommy says, this is an important question that has never been resolved (nor has it ever been tried). What do you think?

*usufruct is a Roman legal term that means "enjoy the fruit of" without materially damaging it (i.e. the earth belongs to the living to enjoy, but not ruin).


GayProf said...

The earth should belong to the living.

Alas, though, would you want living Texans to devise a new constitution?

Mercy O. Warren said...

Dear gayprof,

Thank you for the comment, you raise a really interesting question!

I think that this is precisely the question with democracy in general, isn't it? (aye, there's the rub) For if we are truly democratic, then we have to accept that the people's choice is the correct choice, whether or not we agree with it. Therefore, while I may not like how Texans would write their constitution, I would have to say that it is just for them to do so and accept whatever they decide. I suppose that to stay in the Union Texans would still have to have "a republican form of government," but as you know, 'republican' is a slippery term that be translated into lots of different constitutions.

In a sense, I'm arguing here for the same logic that Voltaire used about the freedom of speech: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

And, I think that this is precisely the question of abstract versus practical justice that J-Mad talked about. Its really easy to say that we should believe in democracy and trust the people and allow them to govern themselves, but it is very difficult to actually do it.