If only Barack Obama still functioned, we’d have someone in authority to tell us that George Will’s latest column on the need to choose, now – preferably by the time you’re done reading this post at the latest – between the nation’s greatest ever Princetonians (not counting Zoltan Newberry) is a ho lotta hooey presents a false choice.
Taking a predictable cue from Claremont Institute scholar and editor William Voegeli’s new book Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, Will describes the problem of Wilsonian Progressivism as the lack of an inherent “limiting principle.”
Lacking a limiting principle, progressivism cannot say how big the welfare state should be but must always say that it should be bigger than it currently is. Furthermore, by making a welfare state a fountain of rights requisite for democracy, progressives in effect declare that democratic deliberation about the legitimacy of the welfare state is illegitimate.
Now, let me quickly say that GW has a point, or at least a good solid half of a point, and that the Claremont Institute, which happens to be located just a hop, skip, and a jump from my own personal shanty, hosts some very fine people on an attractive campus in a picturesque little town where the cell-phone reception is terrible because they think the towers would upset the desired ambience. Perhaps because less distracted than some by iPods and Droids, the Claremonsters do thoughtful and rigorous work that tends to be more balanced than the uses it’s put to by pundits might make you think. Plus I haven’t read Voegeli’s book. So, these comments are directed strictly at GW’s column.
In Will’s rendition, the superiority of Madison’s approach lies in its adherence to an interpretation of natural rights. GW shortens that to “restraint [on government] rooted in respect for nature.” What he declines to note is that natural rights as a negative principle restraining government has a limit at 0, in contrast to Progressivism’s theoretical limit at ∞, and that neither ideal state has ever existed or can exist on Earth. For instance, crucial instance, during the immediate period following ratification, the role of Lockean natural rights, a doctrine that among other things tends to imply that any power or money appropriated by government must by definition be expropriated unjustly from someone else, remained uncertain. The new Congress wasn’t sure whether it had the right to help out refugees from San Domingo or victims of fire in Savannah, or protect New England Codfisheries. Responding to near-contemporaneous debate on Hamilton’s Bank of the United States, Thomas Jefferson had sounded a Willish note: “To take a single step beyond the boundaries… specially drawn around the powers of Congress… is to stake possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”
Yet, the spirit of protectionism – unjustly favoring the set of citizens in the protected industries over equal citizens forced to pay higher prices – had already been affirmed in one of the very first acts of Congress, the Tariff Act of 1789. Book-ending the early national debate with the decision in Calder v Bull (1798), the Supreme Court declared that “abstract principles of natural justice” could not be controlling, and that acts of legislatures could not be voided so long as they fall “within the general scope of their constitutional power.” Fearing irrevocable loss of the larger argument, Jefferson joined Madison in organizing a political party on behalf of their constitutional vision – in direct contradiction of Madison’s earlier warnings against political parties, as contrary to the spirit of the republic he was helping to frame.
Congress decided that it could act on humanitarian impulses, could favor one industry or section at the expense of others. As ever, the most radical constitutionalist libertarians all sooner or later found, in the best American tradition, that good intentions and practical expedients in the world of cabbages and presidents must sometimes take precedence over purity of essence – taking us all down the path to Hell… er, the path to global pre-eminence. Such compromises and contradictions among the Founders and Framers, in decisions as big and memorable as the Louisiana Territory or recalled today only by bleary-eyed scholars, never could be fit into absolute libertarianism.
That fact should also be kept in mind when we read statements like “Wilson, avatar of ‘progressivism,’ was the first president critical of the nation’s founding.” Will is usually such a careful writer that I wonder if he intended to imply, subtly, that Wilson was actually critical of the founding of the nation itself, rather than critical of the founders’ work product merely. But whatever Will meant to say, the statement – a commonplace verging on cliché among contemporary anti-Wilsonites – is at best a half-truth.
The first president critical of the nation’s founding – that is, of the Founders’ and Framers’ similar but not identical work – was George Washington. The second was John Adams. The third was Thomas Jefferson. The fourth was James Madison. And so on. In fact, from a certain perspective, the government framed by the Constitution and led by our first president was itself a (hotly debated) criticism-in-the-act of the Founders’ prior work. The Founders were a voluble, creative, and somewhat volatile bunch of sharp-tongued revolutionaries. They disagreed with each other, a lot – a fact that doesn’t exactly explain why John Quincey Adams called the later years between Founding and Framing the “Critical Period,” but could.
It’s undeniable that Wilson spent decades developing a critique of the Constitution and urging a non-religious fundamentalist view of the Founding, and insisted on behalf of every generation of Americans a right to tinker with the Constitution or, if they felt like it, re-found the whole shebang, but he was neither the first nor the last – president, almost-president, or regular Joe or Jane – to doubt the pluperfection of the Framers’ work, divinely inspired or not.
Then, then again, and now, for Madison, Wilson, and us, the only true restraint on Constitutionalism limit Zero and Progressivism limit Infinity is politics and really real reality – which one way or another end up somewhere between the extremes, whether we like it or not, as in the beginning, so today, synthesis without end, amen.