All dieters will know, intuitively and at once, what the attractions of the balanced- budget amendment are. First and foremost among them is that you don't start until tomorrow. The proposal to amend the Constitution of the United States so that it compels a balanced federal budget, or, if you prefer, forbids drawing up an unbalanced one, would not go into effect until two years after the required number of state legislatures had approved it--whenever that might be. This is the dieter's eternal, metaphorical Next Monday, a day so bright with promise, in fact so absolutely giddy-making in prospect, that the mere thought of it requires a handful of peanuts.
But there is more to commend the technique than a simple reprieve from immediate sacrifice. Dieters know this, too. Delay, indulgence, profligacy, whether fiscal or caloric, can only be depressing, as distinct from fun, unless there is a fixed, if hypothetical, moment when the whole disgusting business is scheduled to come to an end. This is the necessity as well as the genius of the "plan": the oaths and charts and carefully drawn-up calendars and regimens for the future--or, in the case under consideration, of the draft of the constitutional amendment, the order that the country shape up.
These pieces of paper, with all their triumphant projections and assumptions (down by this at the end of the first week, down by that at the end of the second), provide something far more gratifying than hope. They provide an illusion of achievement, only without the intervening travail. Things will be utterly different by the 23rd of next month, the piece of paper says, or in the second full year of operation. The resulting sense of well-being is all-suffusing. We are contented. Who ever could have guessed it would be so easy?
This, to depart from our Dr. Pritikin preoccupation, is pure King Canute stuff. Wishing, or more precisely, commanding will make it so. What is novel in our time about this type of policymaking, if policymaking is not too generous a term, is its constitutional connection. More and more we are trying to get the Constitution to do for us what we can't or won't do for ourselves.
We used to be wiser. For years we were in the habit of putting these ringing, unrealistic exhortations--half threat, half promise, total helium--in the place most suitable for them: our party platforms. There they couldn't do much harm and might even do some good. They served as guides to the basic values of the political parties and candidates, as inspiration, as recorded deeds of intent and ultimate political purpose: we will balance the budget . . . we will end poverty and injustice for all time . . . we will rid the world of the threat of nuclear war . . . we will restore freedom and dignity to the enslaved peoples of Eastern Europe . . .
Somewhere along the line, when these declarations had proved predictably meaningless in any practical sense, we got the idea that they should be legislated. People seemed to figure that party platform-ese once transmuted into law would have to be enforceable. But of course, it wasn't. So the federal statute books and the reams of agency regulations meant to put into effect what those statutes demand are strewn with the wreckage of this bum idea. Our laws and rules now require results that cannot be achieved, pronounce unalienable rights that cannot be fulfilled and otherwise create the conditions for a cynical and disillusioned public and an ever more hypocritical and double- talking world of politicians.
With a kind of touching, childlike pigheadedness, each time we fail at this endeavor we raise the stakes instead of lowering them. We insist that we can order up these idyllic outcomes, rather than facing up to the truth that we can get only so much and that even this will cost us something in self-denial among all those things we want but cannot have at the same time. So, characteristically, instead of backing off from inscribing these exhortations in our lawbooks and, say, sending them back to the party platforms where they belong, we take the project one step higher: we attempt to put the demands in the Constitution.
The spirit in which all this is undertaken is not, of course, confined to constitutional amendmentry. You can find it elsewhere. What we are dealing with here, after all, is a sort of yielding up of will, choice and responsibility to some theoretical higher power that will simply compel us (we think) to behave another way. It will relieve us of both the duty and difficulty of reasoning or of choosing or of trying to direct our fate. "We can't do it" --we seem to be saying--"Let's put it on automatic; the result may be disastrous, we may lose everything else in the process, but by God, whatever it costs we will get this one thing done." From across-the-board freezes and moratoriums to fixed- percentage cuts in spending (without saying spending for what) you find comparable efforts. The daddy of them all is the launch-on-warning nuclear strategy, proposed over the years, that would minimize a president's discretion and choice and simply direct that if they shot theirs, we'd shoot ours. Period.
I know that, democracy or not, there are areas in which extraordinary, almost coercive measures may be needed to get anything sensible done. And I know too that exasperation with our superblimp budgets and deficits, justified exasperation, is behind much of the agitation for the balanced-budget amendment. But I do think they have got this one exactly backward, that the ascending deficits will only be brought under control by continuing acts of political courage and volition and direction, rather than by an order. Congress and the administration surely would find as many ways to circumvent such an order as they have to circumvent their own laws and good intentions.
In response, the supporters of the balanced-budget amendment say the existence of a constitutional prohibition would make it easier for politicians to resist constituent pressures to spend more. In effect, they are conceding their weakness and, then, seeking a kind of court injunction against it. Meanwhile--a handful of peanuts here, a fistful of M&M's there--the deficits go up. Just give us the amendment they say, and we'll bring it all under control. Want to bet?