Kurt & Albert's Excellent Adventure: Traveling back to 1946 to find a serious flaw in the U.S. Constitution

Originally Published In:

Fairfield County Weekly (6/11/09) Link, New Haven Advocate (6/11/09) Link, Hartford Advocate (6/11/09) Link

If you travel two hours southeast of Fairfield County and 70 years back in time, you may come upon two old scientists taking a leisurely walk home from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. You'd instantly recognize the one with the bushy mustache, suspenders and wild white hair — that's Albert Einstein. But who is that impeccably dressed, clean-shaven gentleman with the wire-rimmed glasses next to him?

That's mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel. In Einstein's later years, he once confided to a friend that his own research "no longer meant much" and that he came into work only "to have the privilege of walking home with Gödel."

Gödel, like Einstein, did his most famous work in his mid-20s — he published his two breakthrough incompleteness theorems at the age of 25 — but continued working throughout his life. For Einstein's 70th birthday, Gödel gave him this present: a new solution to Einstein's equations of general relativity, one that allowed time travel.

Most of their conversations were secret, so without a time machine, perhaps made possible using Gödel's solution to Einstein's equation, we'll never know what these two titans talked about on their walks home.

In the fall of 1947, Gödel took the U.S. citizenship exam. Gödel was a "very thorough man," in the words of Oskar Morgenstern, the same friend to whom Einstein confided his joy in walking with Gödel. In preparation for the exam, Gödel looked all through "the history of the settlement of North America by human beings," diving into matters of constitutional law and finally into ultra-local study about Princeton.

We know from Morgenstern's writings that in "looking at the Constitution," Gödel, "to his distress ... found some inner contradictions" that could show how, "in a perfectly legal manner, it would be possible for somebody to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime, never intended by those who drew up the Constitution."

No one knows exactly what the flaw was that Gödel uncovered, though speculation is that it had something to do with amendments or additions.

Let's put ourselves in Gödel's mind. His biggest contributions to logic were his incompleteness theorems. Mathematicians were searching for a set of axioms from which all truth would flow. Gödel proved this search was impossible. There would always be truths that the formal system could not prove, and there was no way to make the system large enough to make that problem go away. If you adjust that idea to apply to government, you might think Gödel was a libertarian.

Back in 1946, most of today's government agencies hadn't even been authorized or hadn't grown to any sizable power. The first permanent agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was created in 1887. It regulated trains and it was, of course, a failure (though Congress didn't abolish it until 1995).

We don't hear much about agencies but they pass laws, adjudicate violations, punish transgressors and have their own courts and enforcement arms. And the only real oversight on them is the Administrative Procedure Act, a bill passed in 1946, the same year we are snooping on Gödel and Einstein. The APA came about because of Franklin Roosevelt's unprecedentedly copious births of new agencies. He was the political octo-mom of the 20th century. More than half of the 51 agencies in existence at that time came from FDR in a few years.

How many U.S. government agencies do you think we have today? I just counted them from www.usa.gov. There are 557, each an ugly appendix trying to solve the problem du jour. And we know that there will always be problems the government cannot solve.

Perhaps Gödel recognized that the path leads to a country where big companies regulate themselves at our expense, when powerful agencies answer only to the president. Welcome to 2009.

During Gödel's citizenship exam, he brought Morgenstern and Einstein as witnesses. The examiner asked him about the form of government of his homeland, Austria, and Godel replied that it was a republic but "the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship." The examiner asserted that this could not happen in America. "Oh, yes," Gödel said. "I can prove it."

Fast forward 70 years and the proof is right there.