There are important truths that large numbers of human beings across many generations in relatively free societies have come to embrace in some form. In this country, many of those truths are enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. For the most part, they have to do with the things that government may not do: infringe on freedom of religion, speech, the press and association; deny the right to keep and bear arms; deny those accused of committing crimes of the means of securing justice; treat those convicted of crimes inhumanely. Together with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, these have become the unalterable foundations of our political society.
There was disagreement at the time of the ratification of the Constitution about whether or not such a listing of rights was even necessary. The staunchest advocates for the Constitution argued that the institutional structure itself would be sufficient to protect the rights of the citizenry. That Congress, in the first decade after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, legislated against expressions of dissent suggests that these advocates were wrong.
With the exception of the 18th and 21st Amendments, our U.S. Constitution’s relatively small number of amendments all focus on the structure, membership and methods of engagement of the people with their government. Some have added segments of society to the ranks of full-fledged citizens. Some have changed procedures for the selection of certain officials. But none have sought to enshrine a particular public policy perspective behind the layers of protection afforded the Constitution. None, that is, but the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) . . . which proved a total failure.
That lesson should not be lost on us when we consider other policy choices. If a community, a state or the nation wishes to adopt a policy banning alcohol, that’s fine. But it should be adopted in a manner that allows other elected officials in future generations to change the policy. Today’s wisdom (or lack thereof) should not, to the extent this is feasible, bind tomorrow’s decision makers to an essentially unalterable course of action . . . unless there truly is no good alternative.
This idea is merely an expression of the democratic ideal. The people should be free, through their elected representatives, to decide most matters of policy . . . which means that they also should be free to change their minds. It is anti-democratic to act as though today’s leaders (or today’s citizens) know the best course of policy, not only for today, but for forever. Actions that have the effect of depriving future generations of choices about policy must, from a democratic perspective, be taken only after alternatives that preserve future options are found inadequate to meet today’s challenges.
Recently, there have been some who have fought to enshrine in their city’s charter a prohibition on the imposition of certain fees. Advocates for these bans say that simply not adopting (or simply repealing) the fee is not enough. They want to prevent anyone from adopting the fee in the future . . . even the very distant future.
I understand opposition to a particular strategy for funding municipal services. And I understand following through on that opposition by passing, or refusing to pass, an ordinance.
But enshrining the ban on an otherwise legal funding policy in the charter implies that we, today, know what is best for our community forever. Today’s leaders will bind tomorrow’s leaders not to pursue the policy they think best, taking options off the table (or making them very difficult to get back on the table).
There are matters of high principle that certainly deserve to be protected and enshrined this way. But a policy preference for one way to generate revenue as opposed to another, or one way of providing a service as opposed to another, does not rise to that level.
In matters of policy, each generation of leaders has an obligation to do what they think is best in their time for their people. Each generation of leaders also has an obligation not to mortgage the future for contemporary expedients. That applies to the resources we consume, and it applies to the power we have in our hands. If we were worthy to exercise it, we ought, in humility, to trust that future generations will be worthy to exercise it as well.