The Constitution is Like a Computer Program
The Constitution is in many ways analogous to a computer program. Like a program, it specifies a set of procedures for carrying out a task. In the case of the Constitution, the task is the governance of the United States of America.
The Constitution has variables, just like a computer program. The variables in a computer program are numbers, which can be interpreted as numbers, letters, pictures, sounds, movies, or other things. The variables in the Constitution are officers of the government. Like a computer variable, the Constitution’s variables are permanent but contain different values at different times. Thus, the variable “President” contained “Lincoln” from 1861 to 1865, and “Eisenhower” from 1953 to 1961.The array “Senator” has contained many different values over the years, and the array “Representative” has contained thousands of different members over the years.
The Constitution is mostly comprised of algorithms: algorithms for deciding who occupies what offices; algorithms for how a law is passed; algorithms specifying the powers of the different branches; algorithms preventing certain actions from being taken by the government.
Like most computer programs, the Constitution was written before the programmers had a clear idea of how it would work; they were just guessing based on their understanding of history. They knew that their program would probably have some bugs, so they built in an internal debugging system called “Constitutional amendments”. Theoretically, this made the Constitution infinitely flexible, capable of dealing with just about any new developments. Nevertheless, they knew that it was a first stab at a very difficult problem and they fully expected that, in a few decades, they’d have to start over and write a new Constitution. That never happened; we’re still stuck with V1.0.
Well, actually, it’s not V1.0; we’ve made a lot of amendments along the way. So, to be honest, we’re really on V27.0. But then there are all sorts of little kinks that had to be worked out along the way. For example, we had to formalize an old tradition that said that, if two laws contradicted each other, the court would declare the newer law “unconstitutional” and nullify it. That was just common sense. And we really blew it with slavery; that was a bug in the Constitution that cost about 600,000 lives to correct. Oops.
Yet there remain all sorts of flaws in the Constitution that the original authors could not possibly have anticipated. For example, the Constitution protects freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, but it does not protect freedom of radio, television, or the Internet. We sorta winked and nudged and finessed our way past that one, but don’t rule out the possibility that Mr. Trump will try to use that technicality to extend his power.
On the other hand, the Second Amendment is utterly obsolete. It made perfect sense when ‘bearing arms’ meant having a musket and a sword, and there were plenty of hostile Indians on the frontier. But nowadays, we’ve pretty much exterminated the Indians and ‘arms’ include weapons capable of killing scores of people in a few minutes. And by the way, don’t I have a Second Amendment right to possess my very own A-bomb? That’ll sure keep the burglars at bay!
Over the years, we’ve struggled with the task of keeping the Constitution up to date, but we’ve fallen hopelessly behind the problems. This happens with computer programs, too. For example, the Macintosh operating system was first introduced in 1984, and it was a great OS at the time. Over the years, they improved it with System 2.0, 3.0, and so forth, all the way up to System 9.0. But by that time, the operating system was an ugly mess of patches, hacks, and new features piled on top of a rickety and primitive foundation. Apple bit the bullet and started all over with System 10.0. They threw out everything from the old operating system and wrote a completely new operating system from scratch. It was the only way to keep up with the much improved computer technology.
By contrast, Microsoft put a high priority on what is called “backwards compatibility”. Every new version of the Microsoft operating system had to work with all the old software that was built for the old Microsoft operating systems. The poor programmers at Microsoft sweated blood adding patches on top of patches, hacks of hacks, and multiple versions of everything. Every now and then they’d summon the courage to clean house, but they never had the verve and elan that Apple showed in its jump to OS 10. That’s one reason why Microsoft Windows is the messiest and most easily hacked OS on the planet.
So here we are with Constitution 27.0, and it’s such a huge mess that appointing a single Supreme Court justice who interprets a comma differently than another justice (see the Second Amendment) can dramatically change the law.
Folks, it’s time to clean up this mess. We need a new Constitutional Convention to write a new Constitution that recognizes the existence of the 21st Century.
Of course, that won’t happen. We’ll keep muddling along until another bug in the Constitution comes along. Just like Boeing did with its 737 Max 8. Oops.