What is America’s unwritten constitution?

From my essay “Can there be an American conservatism?

Freedom is not, and cannot be, the principle that orgainizes our common life.  Nor is the proposition that “all men are created equal.”  No, the reality of American common life is not freedom, but authority.

People in other nations may be as free as we are, but an American is someone who is subject to a particular set of authorities.  The first of these is the government, whose sovereignty is divided into its federal, state, and city incarnations.  Americans use Lockean theories to justify their subjection to their State, but this is just sophistry.  Americans are morally bound to obey their federal, state, and local governments not because they have consented to it, even implicitly–for to withhold consent would be an immoral act–but because they recognize these authorities as legitimate.  This acknowledgment of legitimacy is what makes an American an American, and it is a primary goal of conservatives to establish this sense of legitimacy on its true basis.

It’s these sort of unspoken, unchosen, compulsary “givens” that American conservatives try to identify and defend.  So, for example, another taken-for-granted fact is citizenship:  some people are Americans, and other people aren’t.  A foreigner can only become an American if the state chooses to grant him citizenship.  Americans vocally espouse the principle of treating all people equally, but our unwritten constitution endorses the principle of particular loyalty.  Another given is the judiciary.  America’s laws don’t just reflect the will of the current legislature, but reflect a legal tradition developed over centuries.  Through precedent, this tradition is another legitimate authority to Americans.  A final accepted authority is that of parents over their children.  This is so taken for granted that we never mention it in discussing America’s constitution.  Yet, when a child runs away from home, the police will forcibly return the child to his parents, and nobody asks how to reconcile this with our creed of “freedom” and “equality”.  Wisdom makes us hypocrites, because if we were to take freedom and equality seriously–as the liberals wish us to do–it would destroy our society

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