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November 19, 2004

The Ahnold Amendment

I was listening to Michael Graham on 630 WMAL on the way out of the D.C. area a bit ago and his topic was whether we should amend to Constitution to allow non-native born citizen to run for President. There were the usual range of strong opponents and strong supporters, and a few between, but one point never came up, and I haven't seen it made elsewhere.

I knee jerked in opposition to an amendment myself. Partly this is due to my standard knee-jerk against amendments in general. That's an inherently conservative response. But Machael's point that we should trust the voters to decide on a case-by-case basis is a good one.

The point that hasn't been made, that I've heard, is that we aren't talking about setting precidents when we talk about allowing non-native-born citizens to be elected President. By my count we've had eight already. In fact, we didn't have a "native-born citizen" President until Martin Van Buren, who was born in the state of New York in 1982. All of his predecessors, and his successor, William Henry Harrison, were born in colonies of England. Most were born in the Colony and Dominion of Virginia, the two Adams in Massechisetts Bay Colony, and Andrew Jackson in the Carolinas. So the point clearly isn't meant to be a technical one, of being born as a citizen of the United States, since close to twenty percent of American presidents were not compliant with the technicality.

The issue is either one of loyalty, or one of cultural upbringing. The former cannot be guaranteed by mere accident of birth. In fact, it can be argued that one who chooses to become citizen of a country, rather than being born into it by chance (or through the will of God), has more vested in that country she chose. So it doesn't seem rational to expect accidental citizens to become better public officials than those who choose consciously to join a country in which they see real advantages.

That leaves then the issue of cultural upbringing. There are certainly arguments that someone who understands the country should lead it. Those first Presidents were born and brought up among the people they grew up to lead, even if they were not technically born as citizens of that country that did not yet exist (the Forefather clause?) But America was then, and has remained, a meltingpot of cultures. The Massechusetts Yankee was very different in many ways from the Virginian planter or the Carolinas backwoodsman.

But even if we allow that they shared many significant common values, which would not have been the case with, for example, a Chinese peasant, this hardly justifyies excluding the man who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan as a babe in arms, or the woman who was adopted as a two-year-old infant from Zambia. They too were brought up in the United States. I may well share more core values with them than I do with many who were born in this country.

This law is arbitrary. While such can serve reasonably useful purposes (order is often somewhat arbitrary), any law that is arbitrary should be examined carefully if it stands in the way of reasonable outcomes. What may have made sense at one time, may not make sense now.

But I'm still not anxious to amend the Constitution. The possible harm from excluding a small percentage of the population from the possibility of becoming President is not large. They can still serve in posts all the way into the White House in advisory roles. We do not lose much of their expertise or abilities.

But neither am I opposed to amending the Constitution in this case. I see little potential harm in allowing those not born in the geographical lines of the United States to run for the highest office. They do, as Michael Graham points out, still have to convince the electorate that they are the best person for the job. I don't even really see any reason to put any constraints beyond citizenship. If an 18-year-old can convince the electorate that they are the best choice, why should they not be president?

I could push that to farther extremes, but I'm not aiming at satire (and it would begin to look like satire if I did). Why do we need to exclude legally what the voters will exclude in practice? As a conservative with libertarian leanings I must fall on the side of less is more on this issue. Don't have the law exclude what the voters wish to include.

The voters get what they deserve.

Posted by dan at November 19, 2004 11:16 AM