Forgotten Fallibility

The Founding Fathers were no dummies.

We of course revere them as near godlike omniscient creatures, but they did not see themselves, or anyone else, as such. They knew all human beings are fallible and corruptible.

This is why they wrote the Constitution as they did; they had seen how Kings and other forms of government had failed, and they sought to correct those problems. They added multiple layers of checks and balances against otherwise inevitable failings of fallible human beings. A few examples for those of you not schooled in such:

Members of the house are elected every two years; this keeps them “on the ball” in terms of listening to constituents. A short leash, so to speak.

Senators have 6 year terms, and this is staggered timewise, so every 2 years only a third of the senate is up for re-election. This means that, for example, if some feverish fad is sweeping the nation, two thirds of the senate, a clear majority, has time to ride out the current fad and buck the trend without losing their seats. The Founding Fathers knew that the voters themselves were prone to occasional foolishness. (That is also why we have the Electoral College, as a safeguard against a misguided electorate falling for a populist candidate who might not be right for the gig.)

The president can’t appoint cabinet members or judges without senate approval, and he can’t declare war without approval of congress. This is not some bit of bureaucratic rigmarole. All these checks and balances are in there because the Founding Fathers had seen how, when someone gets too much power, they become driven, as Machiavelli pointed out, by greed, lust, and/ or fear.

Even the Founding Fathers forgot at first to include the Bill of Rights, and that was all added on, because they knew if they didn’t, free speech would not be there for long, and cruel punishment would happen too if not expressly forbidden.  And even then . . .

And by the way, they also knew their work was not perfect, and made it possible for future generations to amend the Constitution. But they also made it hard to do, requiring a 3/4 majority of the states to ratify. Again, they knew they were fallible and may have forgotten something.

In contemporary America, I fear that, for the most part, we have become forgetful of the fact that we are all capable of being in error. We like to always think of ourselves as the “good guys.” This is an element of gullibility, making it very easy to sway our thinking. To keep from thinking about our own shortcomings, we focus our minds on the perceived evil of “others.” Our own fallibility is very hard to think about, but if we don’t, we run the risk of it running wild.  If you cannot accept your own fallibility, you become an easy mark for anyone who wants to manipulate you.

Here is the simple fact, and this will get no “likes” on facebook:

Under the right circumstances, anyone– and that includes your mother, your best friend, your school chums, and yes, even you– is capable of abusing power, and even committing horrific atrocities and crimes against humanity. History and science has taught this repeatedly. The people who did the My Lai massacre, the Germans who threw children into gas chambers, were all just ordinary people coping with extraordinary situations.

The vague sentiment of “this feels right to me, therefore it is true” is the first step on the road to hell. No matter whether you think of yourself as liberal or conservative, the first step to true righteousness is recognizing how flawed we all are, and how easy it is for us to slip into error, bias, and denial. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and this includes vigilant introspection as well.

 

-JL

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