A time for not choosing

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 Newberryis 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.

5 comments on “A time for not choosing

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  1. “Then as now, for Madison, Wilson, and us, the only true restraint on the functions of 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.”

    The limit on the infinite side is the money to fund infinity. If we define money as printable sovereign currency,then we have proven that we cannot handle infinity,but we seem willing to try to get there. Any system to limit our powers to create money can be diverted by debasement of that same money. But with money,there is an affinity between zero and infinity,because as our money supply expands towards infinity,at some point it will collapse to Zero.

  2. I agree that there is a touch of fanaticism in Constutionalist fundamentalism. I would still like to see more, much more of it–first, our politics will improve if we speak a lot more about the Constitution; second, they might do a better job of fighting the fanatics on the other side than most Republicans do now.

  3. Rex, that is true, because as you know eventually the socialist – or progressive – will run out of other people’s money. I liked Hungary’s little announcement today – the Euro promptly broke 1.20

    I tend to give Will’s column more favorable marks just on the basis that you can never divine perfection, as CK notes even the founders had what I would call parochial concerns and took actions in what seemed like direct refutations of their handiwork, but Will’s reflection on where does the progressive stop and at what point does their remedy become the problem is a good one. Of course CK and I will always argue on where that line is, but what Wilson supported was making people happy by government action as opposed to utilizing govt power to enable people to find what makes them happy. I saw this recently which really helped focus it for me from a recent Harvard University president:

    “And so I think a government that tries, systematically, to relieve what causes lasting misery and emphasize what gives lasting happiness will eventually win the support of the people.”

    How does the govt determine what makes me happy? What if they do something that makes CK happy and me angry? The argument against progressivism is that who decides what is happiness and what is misery. Even CK’s favorite poster child for progressive politics – child labor laws – now actually work against young people getting work experience. So how much is too much. They don’t know how to stop and the present health care reform act is demonstrating, along with the BP spill, that govt has limits to what it can perform. We need to roll back and find that break even point.

  4. @JEM

    The argument against progressivism is that who decides what is happiness and what is misery.

    That’s the argument both for and against every ideology and every form of government.

    Implicit in your statement is the idea that there is some default or natural ideology and form of government, and they coincide with your opinions.

    The Divine Right of Kings is one of many examples that come to mind.

    My understanding of Madison is that the limiting principle is the checks and balances written into the Constitution.

    I mean, good lord, we have 3.5 branches of government structured to check and balance the House of Respresentatives, and to protect the interests of “the minority” ie those with substantial property.

    If it didn’t turn out that way it wasn’t from lack of trying.

  5. I must say that I’m quite happy to see yet another article that confronts the narrative of the left. Especially by someone as well known as George Will. Maybe we can get this country to realize the insidiousness of progressivism. Hopefully soon enough to get the health care “reform” bill overturned before it begins in earnest.

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