Timothy R. Clark: What grandma taught me about the Constitution

By Timothy R. Clark Apr 25, 2011, 7:23am MDT

When I was about 10 years old, I was rooting around at my grandmother’s house one day and found a cardboard box full of thick three-ring binders.

“What are these, Grandma?” I asked.

“Oh, those are from a class I took once,” she said.

“Wow, that looks like a lot of homework,” I said with horror.

She laughed.

“Those are constitutions,” she said. “Constitutions from other nations that have copied the American Constitution.”

“Why did they copy it?” I asked.

“Because our Constitution works,” she said.

“I’m glad they can use our Constitution.”

Then she fired back, “Timmy, those constitutions are worthless.”

“I thought you said they borrowed our constitution?”

“They did, but they don’t work,” she explained. “They’re not worth the paper they’re printed on!”

I gave her a blank look. So began my education in constitutional government.

The United States Constitution is perhaps America’s most important export. It has influenced the chartering documents of many nations, beginning with France and Poland in the 1780s. But the long-term results are not so good. Although a stack of constitutions has been erected after the American model, corrupt leaders almost always chew up and spit out the ink and paper of high ideals. Most attempts to imitate or reproduce the world’s most important charter, penned by the then 31-year-old James Madison, have been dead on arrival.

Why? Because most societies are endemically corrupt. Like a cancer, corruption influences, alters or stops basic processes such as commerce, capital flows, the expansion and delivery of education and the making of public policy. It shuts down civil society.

Let me jar you with the story of a broken society, a society brought to its knees by corruption: Afghanistan. Here are the facts from a recent United Nations study:

In 2009, Afghan citizens had to pay approximately U.S. $2.5 billion in bribes, which is equivalent to 23 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. “Drugs and bribes are the two largest income generators in Afghanistan,” said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa. One out of every two Afghans pays a kickback to a public official and the average bribe is $160, which is 40 percent of the average annual salary.

Fully half of the nation’s economic output is devoted to bribery and drugs. The entire nation has been sucked into a vortex of corruption. Is it possible to reform such a society? If so, how would you do it? Could you do it with more laws and law enforcement? Punishments and prisons? Could you do it with better policy, more muscular regulations, internal controls, checks and balances? Could you do it with accelerated economic development? Could you do it with the broad expansion of education?

At root, civil society is based on preconditions of ethical leadership and public virtue. We believe in the rule of law, but the rule of law is only enforceable through the unenforceable support of private citizens — a line of defense that is easily swept aside when corruption becomes endemic.

A constitution is nothing but a set of institutional arrangements. Yes, there is genius in the arrangements of the U.S. Constitution. But they don’t hold themselves up. We do. It’s the character of the citizens. It is the unapologetic support of Judeo-Christian values. It’s equal emphasis on both rights and responsibility.

In his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson said, “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?”

I’ve never forgotten my grandmother’s declaration that our Constitution works. It works because the ink and paper of high ideals must rely on men and women of high ideals. Otherwise, James Madison’s efforts are worth exactly as much as those thick binders I found that day.

Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., is an author, international management consultant, former two-time CEO, Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University and Academic all-American football player at BYU. His latest two books are “The Leadership Test” and “Epic Change.” E-mail: