Liberal Principles Evident in the American Constitution and Governmental System

Topics: Liberalism, United States, Political philosophy Pages: 5 (1545 words) Published: May 17, 2005
Within the framework of democratic capitalism, the American Constitution and government structure have a fundamentally liberal backbone. Viewed as a social contract, the relationship between the state and the individual is expressed in the Constitution which dictates the liberal values intrinsically woven into American history. Combined with the Bill of Rights, the Constitution holds the representative government accountable for its actions and sets finite limits on the power it wields over the individual. A capitalist society such as that of the United States uses taxation and wealth distribution as a tool for controlling social equality, an unavoidable hypocrisy of liberal values in a democratic welfare state. Classical liberal values that hold the individual's rights as paramount have been modernised to accommodate a mildly paternalistic social welfare system. Classical liberalism suggests that the state and society can be viewed as an immense social contract. In a liberal democratic country such as America, the constitution is the fundamental part of that social contract; it is a contract between the state and the civil society. The American constitution is a guide to legislation and its interpretation. An essentially liberal contract, the constitution binds not only the government, but also the people. Through the constitution, the people collectively commit to certain institutional procedures for managing public affairs and resolving social conflicts. The constitution not only limits the arbitrary power of the government, it also prevents public administration from being poisoned by people's short-term tempers and passions. Through the constitution, the people collectively commit to certain checks against those capricious human sentiments. A central liberal principle which the American constitution serves, is to limit and separate governmental power. The classically liberal distrust of majoritarian tyranny has continued into present-day American politics through its role in the Constitution. In a liberal constitutional system, there is an important difference between the constitution and ordinary laws. While ordinary laws can be modified or repealed to protect civil liberties by the national legislature, or be declared illegal or unconstitutional by the process of judicial review (Burns et al, 1993, p.21), the national legislature usually has no unilateral power to modify or repeal the constitution, and the judiciary has no power to declare the constitution illegal. For example, in the United States, the constitution can only be modified after the legislatures (or constitutional conventions) of two-thirds of the states approve, or by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, followed by ratification from three-quarters of the states or their ratification conventions (Burns et al, 1993, p.34). The federal legislature alone cannot amend the American Constitution. Thus, the Constitution is framed in a way to protect it from amendment by unilateral acts of government, as such amendments could infringe the civil liberties of the people. Such a fear of powerful government is Classically liberal, the view that the people need be protected from their government by limiting and separating its powers; Quis custodiet ipsos custodes - who guards the guards?

The liberal preoccupation with individual rights is predominantly portrayed in American political culture through the Bill of Rights. Its liberal purpose of guaranteeing individual liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion dictates the universal rights of all citizens. The purpose of The Bill of Rights is to protect citizens from abuse of power that may be committed by the different areas of their government. It does this by expressing clear restrictions on the three branches of government laid out previously in the Constitution. As stated by Hugo Black, Associate Justice to the Supreme Court, the Bill of Rights protects people by clearly...

References: Black, H. ‘The Bill of Rights ', Reprinted from New York University Law Review, Vol. 35, April 1960.
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Burns, J. et al. ‘The Living Constitution ', Government by the People, 1993, pp.27-49.
Greenberg, E. ‘The Cultural Milieu: America as a Liberal Society ', The American Political System: A Radical Approach, Fifth Edition, 1989, pp.36-52.
Heer, C. ‘Taxation as an Instrument of Social Control ', The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 42, No. 4, January, 1937, pp. 484-492. Online (Stable URL):
Heywood, A. Political Ideologies: An Introduction, Third Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2003.
Heywood, A. Political Theory: An Introduction, Third Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004.
Mill, J.S. On Liberty, Penguin, London, [1859] 1974.
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