Constitutionally fuzzy.

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Ben Carson's Odd Take on the Constitution

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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So far as I know, no neurosurgeon has ever written a book about the U.S. Constitution. But then again, no neurosurgeon has ever made a serious run for the presidency. Combining personal graciousness and plain exposition with some wild right-wing clichés, Ben Carson’s slim volume tells us a lot about the sources of his appeal. Like the man himself, the book is not what you might expect.

Carson is unmistakably outraged by the direction in which the U. S. has been heading. “Our nation,” he writes, “is in such shambles that it appears that almost anyone could do a better job of execution than the current leaders.” It would have been easy for him to take the well-trodden path of those who share that view. Some popular books on the Constitution tell a terrifying tale of betrayal, in which Democrats (and President Barack Obama in particular) have run roughshod over the framers’ handiwork in order to create a kind of empire.

Carson has evident sympathy for that account, but his approach is far more measured and less polemical. His main goal is education and exposition, not conversion. Much of the book consists of simple summary.

Curious about the thirteenth amendment? It “ended slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States and all its territories.” (True.) Interested in the twenty-second amendment? “After Roosevelt’s death, Americans worried that he had set a bad precedent, and Congress proposed a term-limit amendment.” (Essentially right.) The qualifications for president?  You have to “be a natural-born citizen, be at least thirty-five years old, and have been a resident of the United States for at least fourteen years.” (Right again.)

But in his unfailingly low-key manner, Carson has some amazing things to say. He appears to think that the Constitution forbids progressive taxation, because the founders “didn’t mean that the government should take money from one group to support another group.” In his account, “a flat tax may be the only tax that truly treats everyone fairly and thus promotes the general welfare.” In the view of some tax reformers on the right, maybe so, but as a claim about constitutional law, that’s pretty far-fetched.

With respect to abortion, Carson gestures toward the plausible idea that state governments should be allowed to decide the issue as they like. But his real conclusion is far more radical. Because children’s lives are at stake, the Constitution actually forbids abortion:  “No ruling that allows the killing of children can be in line with the Constitution’s stated purpose of ‘secur[ing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.’” Welcome back to the land of the far-fetched. No member of the Supreme Court has ever argued that the Constitution requires states to ban abortions.

Carson doesn’t like executive orders, saying they may be used “only rarely and in circumstances where such quick action is required that congressional action is not feasible.” Really? President Ronald Reagan issued over 300 executive orders, and President Dwight Eisenhower issued over 400, and Herbert Hoover 900. The overwhelming majority of these do not attempt to deal with with emergencies. They tend to involve management of the executive branch or policy direction to executive agencies within the confines of the law. Nothing in the Constitution stands in the way of executive orders of that kind.

Carson really doesn’t like gun control. Offering a more elaborate version of his widely publicized remarks on CNN, he writes that “German citizens were disarmed by their government in the late 1930s, and by the mid-1940s Hitler’s regime had mercilessly slaughtered six million Jews and numerous others whom they considered inferior.”

He thinks that the Second Amendment protects assault rifles and armor-penetrating ammunition, because the “intent” of the amendment is to protect people’s freedom from government, which means that they “have a right to any type of weapon that they can legally obtain in order to protect themselves.” That’s an extraordinary view, and Carson offers no historical evidence on its behalf.

On free speech, Carson thinks that the biggest threat comes from what he calls the “Political Correctness police,” who have “created fear in a large portion of our population, causing them to remain silent.” The result, he says, is akin to “living under a tyrannical government.” Carson is certainly right to object that many people on the left strongly discourage what they see as offensive speech. That’s bad, but it’s not really like living under tyranny.

At nearly every point, Carson reads the Constitution as if it mandates, or at least supports, his own policy preferences. But to his credit, he doesn’t demonize anyone, and he never resorts to contempt or ridicule. His preferred strategy is to accommodate those who disagree with him -- for example, by defending civil unions while rejecting same-sex marriage, and by suggesting that private charity might do the work of redistribution by government.

Because of its superficiality, and its occasionally idiosyncratic conclusions, his book cannot be counted as good. But its tone is impressively respectful and fair-minded, and the author’s reverence for the founding document is inspiring. No one could read it without concluding that Carson is a generous and decent man -- and without obtaining a better appreciation of why his message is resonating with a large number of honorable Americans. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net