Saturday, July 9, 2011

Return to Founding Principles, 21st Century Style

Some have challenged the Recovering Bureaucrat to get off his anti-elitist rant and start talking about how we can reform government in ways that reintroduce our founding principles.

Fair enough, especially because the RB didn’t want to slap around David Brooks after just praising him for his insights on the culpability of the Washington establishment for the recent global financial meltdown.  Now Brooks has written a silly and shallow column entitled “The Mother of All No-Brainers” in which he, channeling Barack Obama and E. J. Dionne, charges that the Republican members of Congress have “been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative,” thus forfeiting their right to be considered by decent people to be members of an honest and viable political party. 

Feh.  Ann Althouse has an effective take-down of this Left Coast outburst, so the RB doesn’t need to respond.

And the truth is that taking potshots at our intellectually and morally bankrupt elites is an endless and fruitless task (although the RB doesn’t promise he will never do it again).  It is indeed much more difficult to offer ideas on better and more morally viable ways for our self-government experiment to be improved.

In this and the next post, the Recovery Bureaucrat takes on the challenge of how to apply our founding principles to the challenges presented by the Information Age into which we have been evolving for the past forty years or so.

So let us first review our founding principles and then let’s look at potential reforms and applications.

Citizen Sovereignty

First, all power proceeds from the people.  When Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” he clearly enunciated the basic philosophy of this new country.  Our inherent rights to our lives, our liberty, and to pursue happiness as we each see fit come directly from God and are therefore primary to all other human activity.

The Declaration is quite clear on this.  We free and equal people choose to—are not forced or required to—institute a government “to secure these rights”—a government that can only “derive[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  This consent is the result of each citizen—each sovereign—freely agreeing to lend a part of his God-given freedom to the good of the collective.

The Constitution of the state of California faithfully reflects the same principle: “We, the People of the State of California, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, in order to secure and perpetuate its blessings, do establish this Constitution.”

It is a challenge for us living in the opening years of the Information Age to appreciate what a radical and powerful slap in the face this proclamation of personal liberty was to the landed aristocracies and hidebound churches, temples, and mosques that dominated the global political economy at the time.  Until the American Revolution (and still throughout most of the world even today) humans assumed that the pyramidal hierarchy through which the privileged few ruled the subservient many was the natural order of things.

The seductive truth, the unpleasant fact, is that there is something in our humanity that craves the security of a rigid social order.  Risk almost always brings up fear—fear of loss, fear of bankruptcy, fear of death.  Our Western Abrahamic religions offer the antidote to these fears, but we are simply not evolved spiritually enough to actually believe and act upon their tenets, which include the promise that God always has everything under control.  And so even in America we are sometimes tempted to stray from our commitmet to the superiority of the principle of individual sovereignty.

Eternal Vigilance

So this leads us to the second founding principle, which can be succinctly stated as “freedom ain’t free.”

The assumption that personal liberty is superior to oligarchical tyranny as a governing principle has not yet been finally proven by human history.  As just noted, even we Americans are often tempted to take counsel of our fears.  From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 through the Homeland Security Act of 2002, we have periodically, if temporarily, promoted measures aimed to protect us from perceived threats to our national existence at the expense of curtailments on our personal liberty.

In fact, the Recovering Bureaucrat has argued that the progressive experiment has been a century-long attempt to exchange the promotion of security over the defense of liberty as our central governing principle.  Certainly the Baby Boomer mania for government regulation of everything stems from our irrational fears of the consequences of exercising too much freedom (aka we don’t really trust ourselves)!

Our founders knew this tendency better than we; they were more willing than we—despite the fact that neither Freud nor Jung were around yet—to appreciate the contours of human nature.  They were cold-blooded in their understanding of themselves and their fellow citizens.  “Why has government been instituted at all?” asked Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers, No. 15.  “Because the passions of man will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.

The young American nation was also surrounded by hostile aristocracies and empires that would dearly have loved to stamp out its radical attack on the natural order.  These two stark truths—the human desire for security and the radical challenge they made to the European oligarchs—made them blunt in their admonishments to their countrymen and their posterity that the hard-won triumph in the Revolution would have to be defended over and over again, and on these two fronts simultaneously.

From Franklin’s “we have given you a republic, if you can keep it,” to Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants,” our founders warned us that, as the abolitionist Wendell Phillips put it several decades later, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Franklin noted drily that “they that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”  “Against us,” Jefferson wrote, “are . . . all timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty . . . We are likely to preserve the liberty we have obtained only by unremitting labors and perils.”  Patrick Henry exhorted his fellow Virginians, “Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined.”  And, again, Jefferson on the necessity of right action to preserve the regime of liberty, wrote: "if we can but prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy."

Madison stated the challenge succinctly: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”  We are struggling with this exact trial still today.

Contra Marx, Property Is Key

The third, and in leftist circles for some reason very controversial, principle is that liberty and private property are inseparable.

The founders knew well that freedom without the means to exercise it was just a concept.  “The pursuit of happiness” requires control of the means of the pursuit. “The true foundation of republican government,” Jefferson wrote, “is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management.”

This principle was understood generally for the first century or so of American history.  In fact, it was the basis for the Civil War, since southerners argued—backed by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case—that since slaves were property, forced emancipation was a constitutional impossibility.  The Republican Party was founded in part to enshrine the distinction between human and property rights into the Constitution.

Lincoln, in his great speech in New Haven on the eve of the Civil War, laid it out starkly:
[T]here are but two policies in regard to Slavery that can be at all maintained. The first, based on the property view that Slavery is right, conforms to that idea throughout, and demands that we shall do everything for it that we ought to do if it were right. We must sweep away all opposition, for opposition to the right is wrong; we must agree that Slavery is right, and we must adopt the idea that property has persuaded the owner to believe -- that Slavery is morally right and socially elevating. This gives a philosophical basis for a permanent policy of encouragement.

The other policy is one that squares with the idea that Slavery is wrong, and it consists in doing everything that we ought to do if it is wrong.
This assertion proceeded from the logic that Lincoln, in line with the Founders, understood about the true relationship between freedom and property.  “Property is the fruit of labor—property is desirable—is a positive good in the world,” he wrote in 1864.  “That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”

But as the industrial revolution increasingly upset the old agrarian order, allowing the virus of socialism to seep into the body politic, the percentage of citizens holding significant amounts of property began to decline.  As Walter Russell Mead has pointed out, since from the time of the Revolution most Americans were farmers, most of us were also therefore property owners.

But as the industrial expansion increasingly mechanized agriculture and created new economic opportunities for our growing population, first thousands and then millions emigrated to our urban centers.  Thus, for the first time, increasing numbers of U. S. citizens did not have the experience of property ownership, causing a profound change in our collective appreciation of our founding principles.

As Mead explains,
A nation of family farms is a nation of family firms; suburban America was a land of employees.  America’s shift from a nation of entrepreneurs to a nation working for corporations and government was a profound change in national life that even today is not well or fully understood.

The ideal of the independent small farmer was at the heart of early American democratic ideology.  Critics of democracy had always asserted in the past that a mass of unpropertied and dependent voters would lack both the virtue and the experience necessary to make good decisions for the state.

Americans like Thomas Jefferson retorted that in the United States, things were different.  America, uniquely, was a country in which even the average citizen was a property owner and the master of an enterprise.
The mass of the people could be entrusted with government because the masses owned property.  They were not like the penniless rabble of antiquity that traded their votes to unscrupulous demagogues and dictators in ancient Rome in exchange for bread and circuses.
The chaotic and often grimy urban environment that prevailed in the first decades of the emerging industrial order helped dilute the allegiance of this new mass of unpropertied and dependent voters to the founding principles.  With nothing to defend against the exploitation of others (including government), they were open to the accusations by the socialist and Marxist political leadership emerging in Europe that they themselves were being ruthlessly exploited by a heartless and selfish bourgeoisie.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” thundered Karl Marx in 1875, thereby unleashing the philosophical assertions of the progressive initiative that still seeks to undermine our founding principles by replacing personal freedom and property rights with collectivitist/statist control over them.

In spite of the overwhelming explicit and bloody evidence presented by actual events in the last century that the Marxist program cannot create the world it claims it can, too many otherwise intelligent people—especially our Left Coast elites—continue their blind faith in the collectivist dream.  This requires the rest of us to maintain our vigilance lest this retro-Romantic insurrection against the idea of individual freedom embodied in our Declaration and Constitution succeed.

Matt Ridley, in his important book The Rational Optimist, which critically examines the evidence for the superiority of the American founding ideas, says,
Social and political liberation is far more effective, says the political scientist Ronald Ingleheart: the big gains in happiness come from living in a society that frees you to make choices about your lifestyle—about where to live, who to marry, how to express your sexuality, and so on.  It is the increase in free choice since 1981 that has been responsible for the increase in happiness recorded since then in forty-five out of fifty-two countries.  Ruut Veenhoven finds that “the more individualized the nation, the more citizens enjoy their life.”
The RB finds it ironic that the nation that showed the world the power and vibrancy of the “self-evident” principles of individual freedom as the foundation for human governance and progress should be so conflicted and, well, stupid, about its own achievements.

The good news is that, as the leaders of the Church of the All-Powerful State—which includes the hapless Obama administration—demonstrate daily, denial of these principles is doomed to failure.

In the next post, the Recovering Bureaucrat will take a look at how these three founding principles could be applied in our current situation to accelerate the drive inherent in the rules of the Information Age toward abundance and expansion of consciousness, both personal and civic.

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