TCS Daily

Iraq's Constitution of Liberty

By Ryan H. Sager - August 25, 2005 12:00 AM

"The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people just now are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. ... Here are two, not only different but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty."
--Abraham Lincoln

F.A. Hayek opened his meditation on the nature of human freedom, "The Constitution of Liberty," with the above quote from Abraham Lincoln, which the savior of our union made during a speech in Baltimore, in April of 1864.

Semantics, it seems, can mean quite a lot in the history of a nation. Did liberty mean freedom for all men? Or did it mean the freedom to own slaves? America paid dearly in blood and treasure to answer the question it deferred in its founding document.

Now, as the Iraqis set out to craft their own constitution, semantics are front and center once again. As Americans read various translations of the proposed document, they are asking themselves: Is this the constitution of a free Iraq? The answer may be that, in this case, words matter a lot less than Americans are used to.

America's founding fathers, and those who have understood the nature of stable democratic societies after them, realized the basic fact that a government is only as good as the people it governs and their understanding of what it means to live in a society of laws. As James Madison told the Virginia ratifying convention, "To suppose liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea."

In an age where conservatives are convinced that liberal judges in America have created a dictatorship in which they interpret the Constitution to mean anything they very well please, what hope can there be for the Iraqis? If America has been cursed with a "Living Constitution" -- one the meaning of which changes as society evolves -- Iraq seems doomed to endure a "Mutating Constitution," which will need to change, not just in its interpretation but in its contents, to keep up with the country's emerging political culture.

And perhaps that is for the best. Would we really want a constitution set in stone this early in Iraq's newly liberated life? Would any document so rigid long survive?

So, there is ambiguity.

Is Iraq an Islamic country? Yes. Will Islam be the only source of law? No, but it will be "a fundamental" source. What does that mean? The Iraqis haven't decided.

Is there religious freedom? The proposed constitution says, "Iraqis are free to abide in their personal lives according to their religion, sects, beliefs or choice." But it also says, "This should be organized by law."

Is there freedom of the press and freedom of political organization? Article 36 says, "The State guarantees: 1) Freedom of expression by all means. 2) Freedom of the press, printing, advertising and publishing." At the same time, the Baath Party and all of its symbols are outlawed.

How will the judiciary be set up? It isn't at all clear.

Too much can be made of comparisons between Revolutionary Era America and post-Saddam Iraq. But America's Constitution had its ambiguities as well. Slavery was safe, but only until 1808 -- a grace period of two decades. There was a judiciary, but its powers were largely undefined -- and its structure was to be determined by Congress. And the free exercise of religion -- well, we're still trying to figure that one out.

If the Iraqis are deferring a host of questions, still in the midst of winning their independence from the forces of chaos and terror, they can hardly be second guessed. That's not to say that Americans should be satisfied with any document the Iraqis cook up. American blood is being spilled in the Middle East to create a democracy, not the next Taliban.

But progress, however incremental, deserves to be recognized. Any government promising democracy, promising religious freedom, promising freedom of the press and promising freedom of political organization deserves the benefit of the doubt for now.

Even if Iraq doesn't start out where most Americans would like to see it -- and most Americans would like to see it become a mirror image of their own society, instantaneously if possible -- there's reason to hope and believe it will move in the right direction. An open society is likely to grow to be a liberal society. Women will vote, girls will be educated, the constitution and the law will evolve.

And hopefully, as in America, liberty will eventually mean liberty for everyone.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at



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