Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

How Liberals Think

In the past few days, Jim Geraghty has noted a couple of interesting items.

The first is this survey:

"While 82% of voters who support McCain believe the justices should rule on what is in the Constitution, just 29% of Barack Obama’s supporters agree." Their preferred metric? "the judge’s sense of fairness."

Then there’s his post on the McCain ad about a bill that would teach sex ed in kindergarden. The Obama camp calls the ad grossly unfair. Yet, as Geraghty points out (a follow-up can be found here):

On the sex ed bill, it’s possible that Obama had the best of intentions, but the bill text did include, "Each class or course in comprehensive sex education offered in any of grades K through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV." Do kids really need to know about STDs starting at age 5? Isn’t it a strong argument that the "good touch-bad touch" stuff could start that early, but the nitty-gritty about exchanging bodily fluids could wait until the kids are at least a little closer to double digits?

All would agree that it is absurd to teach five-year-olds comprehensive sex education. To liberals, that’s the key question. No reasonable bill could require that. Hence, they reason, even if the language seems to imply such a thing, it ought not to be so construed. Conservatives, tend to believe that laws should be interpreted as written, even when the law is bad. (There’s a separation of powers argument here too. Since the 1920s, our legislators have grown comfortable with giving vague plenary grants of power, rather than strict legislation, to the bureaucracy to interpret. When the interpretation causes public outcry, Congressmen hold a hearing and berate the bureaucrats for their interpretations.)

This dynamic reflects a larger idea that has been part of liberalism since the rise of Pragmatism in the early 20th century: no statement ought to be interpreted strictly to the full extent of its logic. Sometimes I wonder if the pragmatic epistemology is behind this idea. On one hand, it holds that the human brain is incapable of grasping certain truth about nature or about right and wrong. On the other hand, it still keeps going as if we really do know what we’re doing and saying.

Update. I meant to ask whether the same idea applies to Senator Obama’s comments about going to the UN to censure Russia after it invaded Georgia: the UN was created to handle precisely such situations in an above-board, legal, and regular way. It would be absure to allow a country to be able to subvert that process by excercising its veto . . . (Might this be a living Charter argument? Over time, the necessary compromises from 1945 are overturned by the underlying purpose of the thing?)

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The first quote is garbled. The story means to say "rule based on what is written in the constitution."

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