Three simple rules to live by

Do not take what does not belong to you.

Keep your promises.

If you fail to abide by the first two, then you must make just compensation for what you took or what you failed to deliver.

Try to do some good in life.

Within two separate Free Thoughts podcasts on the topic of the philosophical underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution, Dr. Roger Pilon does as remarkable and scholarly of a job as anyone I have ever heard on the topic. He discusses in great depth the intellectual traditions embodied in the Constitution as well as how that has evolved from its originalist and natural law construct over time to something much more expansive and interpretative that has moved significantly away from the original guiding principles of a federal government that is a necessary evil that should be deliberately kept small. It was so small in fact, that in the move from Philadelphia to the new White House in Washington D.C. in 1800, all of the federal government files could be transferred in just 12 boxes. Imagine that! The most salient moment for me is when Dr. Pilon distills all of the Constitution and the philosophy behind it into four simple rules for us to live by, which are quoted above.

The first rule is the concept of property rights and rights to be free from physical harm and is embodied most visibly in the opening words to the Declaration of Independence. The second rule is the concept of rights of contract and enforceability of contracts that are freely entered into by citizens. The third rule is based upon the concept of remedies and justice and is essential in upholding the first two as general principles, allowing us to retain trust in the good of fellow man and of just redress if they happen not to be good. The fourth rule is something that Dr. Pilon indicates is entirely optional. If we are to retain our essential freedom and a true good and virtuous nature, we can’t be compelled to do good. However, a preponderance of people doing good seems to be the most secure way in which to uphold a free society and thus ensuring that government does not grow in scope inexorably. As Benjamin Franklin indicated – we have a Republic, if we can keep it. It increasingly seems to be appropriate, given how large and arbitrary our federal government has become, to say that we had a Republic, and we have the blueprint for how to get it back, if we want it bad enough.

 

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In defense of liberty and deliberative self-government

BenFranklinDuplessis

A Republic madam, if you can keep it

– Benjamin Franklin

Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses, and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?

Where is the standard of perfection to be found? Who will undertake to unite the discordant opinions of a whole community, in the same judgment of it; and to prevail upon one conceited projector to renounce his infallible criterion for the fallible criterion of his more conceited neighbor?

I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed… [A] common bond of amity and union, must as necessarily be a compromise of as many dissimilar interests and inclinations. How can perfection spring from such materials?

– Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper Number 6

The defining ideals of the American Republic, as expressed in the Federalist Papers through the pseudonym Publius, which was comprised of Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, was fundamentally an unprecedented quest to demonstrate the power and durability of a self-governing Republic built on a Constitution that above all valued deliberative process and based upon a moral foundation and virtuous society. These ideals were in marked contrast to other contemporary democratic philosophies then taking shape, notably in France, which favored the immediate supremacy and wisdom of the collective man through elections and plebiscite-based majority rule. In contrast, the American experiment was intimately crafted to be by design incrementalist and deliberative through the separation of powers and checks and balances inherent in the Constitution, as well as the diffusion of various powers across federal and state governments. This uniquely designed separation and diffusion is why Benjamin Franklin, during the closing days of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, gave the response in the first quote above to the question asked by a woman out in the street, “Doctor, what will it be, a monarchy or a republic?”

This methodical and deliberative process was above all meant to protect the rights of the governed and uphold individual liberties. If anything unified the Founding Fathers as a guiding principle, it was a fear and skepticism of immediate majority rule and mob mentality, a risk of democracy that French philosopher and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville would later coin as “the tyranny of the majority.” This ideology is markedly different that the origins of progressive ideology based on humanist rationalism and an idealistic belief that majority rule and decisions should reign supreme and democracy in action should be rapid and responsive, all in the efficient pursuit of achieving egalitarian equality.  It is this vain quest for individual equality in outcomes, this naive notion of human Utopia, and the endless government usurpation of individual rights that stem from it, that the Founding Fathers were greatly fearful of and undergird both the Hamilton and Franklin quotes above. Greater elaboration on these political and philosophical points are wonderfully discussed in a recent Imaginative Conservative article from which I was inspired to lift the Hamilton quote. One quick point to make is that the Founding Fathers preferred deliberation over even elections themselves. The author of the article contends that incessant focus on elections and score settling between sides leads to a breakdown in unity and social cohesion in ways that discussion and deliberation do not. I believe we have completely lost sight of the art of deliberation and consensus in American politics of today. We are constantly myopically focused on what election cycle we happen to be in and the scores that we are trying to settle and tearing down those who stand in our way. Meantime, government power and tramping of rights of the individual continue to grow apace.

My own personal observation and grievance is that the one deliberative and long-term focused institution that we had at the outset of the American Republic, the U.S. Senate, which was originally populated by individuals appointed by state legislatures, became much more captive to short-term whims of the majority when the 17th Amendment created direct election to the Senate. In other words, the indirect election method to the Senate enumerated in Constitution by the great sagacity of our Founding Fathers was replaced with direct election by the population. This in essence made the Senate really nothing more than a smaller extension of the House of Representatives. I believe the model in which there was both a relatively insulated deliberative body coupled with a directly elected body more responsive to the population served America quite well. Unfortunately, I don’t think repealing the 17th Amendment is going to become a rallying cry anytime soon.

Trump’s Erosion of the Legacy of Reagan and the Roots of Modern Authoritarianism

My dear friend Adam Goldman, who is an active member of many conservative and Republican organizations (you can see his impressive credentials below the article), has contributed the following article that I believe readers of The Gymnasium will appreciate. Adam is an astute political observer and defender of the Republican Party and its historic big-tent compromising approach that he defends as a natural and necessary component of Federalism and American values. While the libertarian-leaning purist in me personally wants to push the party into one of much more limited government and classical liberal directions, Adam makes excellent observations on the value of the party that exists today, of the two-party system, and illustrates that even the hero Reagan compromised and performed actions inimical to populists on the right. Further, he draws a remarkable contrast between the optimistic and moral approach of Reagan to the brash authoritarianism of Trump. I hope my readers will enjoy this article and comment on it and I hope you value and look forward to contributions from Adam and others for diverse viewpoints in the days to come.

Trump’s Erosion of the Legacy of Reagan and the Roots of Modern Authoritarianism 

Splinter movements from our twin political parties are nothing new in American history. While it is of utmost concern, considerable examination into Donald Trump’s highly questionable personal and business backgrounds have been undertaken elsewhere and need no further recitation herein. I examine and compare, rather, the rise of the Trump phenomenon to that of the Reagan revolution, through the lens of America’s late 20th century history political culture as well as its Constitutional and partisan framework.

The Republican and Democratic parties are by nature very large businesses that encompass a very diverse range of both the religious and the secular, including both labor and business, and other movements, spread across a continent.  For America to enjoy relative benefit of the stability of a two-party system, it must out of necessity subordinate the purist impulses of certain factions within these diverse coalitions. This simple logic of 2 + 0, and not 2+1 or 2+2, is not embraced by many who revile their “establishment” leadership within their respective parties. These rejectionists are imbued with an authoritarian impulse, and when its spokesman meets with a base of support that crescendos in a positive feedback loop, the results can be inherently destabilizing, as the GOP is witnessing this year with the rise of Trump.

Trump has very successfully redirected the Tea Party angst of 2010 from Obama against the Republican party as a whole. By comparison, in 1968 violent counter-cultural and student movements joined to force their way into Eugene McCarthy’s coronation, a moderate Democrat. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy earlier unglued the Democratic party, temporarily. It became unstable and dysfunctional. The result was the election of their arch-nemesis, Richard Nixon, a flight to stability and a symbol of strength for most voters. The uprising on the furthest flank from the center of the party led to a result in direct contradiction to its stated goals.

In 1996, Pat Buchanan led a similar, but much more orderly, rejectionist insurrection within the GOP. Frustrated with the dilution of Reagan’s supposedly pure vision of conservatism, millions flocked to his side. Memories fade quickly though: Reagan made numerous compromises with Tip O’Neill, his famous “six o’clock” friend, and Democratic Speaker of the House, in order to secure broad tax cuts and increased defense spending. Reagan in turn agreed to raise gas taxes, eliminated the IRS deduction for auto loan interest, raised the Social Security eligibility age, incurred massive deficits, barely made a dent to social welfare spending, lost 200 Marines in a terrorist bombing during a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, and signed the 1986 law granting amnesty to illegal aliens without guarantees regarding promised enhanced border security. Republicans under Newt Gingrich made corrective progress over the course of the decade following Reagan’s tenure by reforming welfare and reducing deficits dramatically. This is the essence of the process of America’s constitutional process, which always defies quick solutions, but if permitted its arc always bends toward limiting the Federal power. Nevertheless, President Clinton quickly dispatched his GOP rival Senator Bob Dole, whose campaign emerged gravely wounded from the purist Buchanan-led primary uprising.

The GOP benefited dramatically in 2010 from the Tea Party’s grassroots coalition, which turned out millions of voters only four years following the GOP’s huge losses in the 2006 Congressional elections. For all of the Tea Party’s purity of purpose toward resurrecting a second Reagan Revolution, it forgot its own history: the necessary compromises that Reagan strategically agreed to, and the failed insurgence of Buchanan, who prevailed in a tactical victory but lost the war. It is of no surprise that Pat Buchanan several years ago touted the effectiveness of the “Christian” Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin in turn, stated his recent admiration for Trump, whom the latter has not yet disavowed.

The roots of authoritarianism are neither peculiar to the right or the left. Trump may be its spokesman on the right today, however tomorrow it is all but certain that the tides of unwritten history will give rise to another on the left. The result is always certain in a two-party political environment, which is that the results of its efforts are always self-defeating.

The banality of Trump is a reflection of the temperament of his supporters, who have neither the disposition nor inclination to consider the long-arc of Constitutional lawmaking. In fact, the very words “Constitutional lawmaking” provoke disdain and anti-“establishment” mockery from his supporters. They view compromise as not only unnecessary but anathematic, despite all mathematical proofs regarding veto overrides, a bicameral legislature, and an independently elected executive (unlike European parliamentarian systems). Comparisons to the rise of Hitler in 1930s Germany are exaggerated, but the impulse to authoritarianism is by no means to be conveniently ignored, despite America being the oldest democracy. The renown historical philosopher Hanna Arendt examined the rise of the Third Reich closely and concluded that in spite of Germany’s position as the most highly technical and educated society in continental Europe, a motivated and large plurality of its citizens were drawn to Hitler’s crudity and demagoguery. How did this occur?

Hitler exploited four themes that motivated ordinary Germans: the loss of the German middle class’ purchasing power due to hyperinflation from post-war debt, the loss of international prestige and status (due to the Versailles Treaty’s disarmament clauses), and impatience with the new, inexperienced fledgling democracy in Berlin which could not produce a consensus regarding which policies ought to address these crises.  The fourth theme tied together the previous three, which blamed these crises squarely upon the “establishment”. Hitler further stoked fears of an establishment “conspiracy” against ordinary Germans by gradually amplifying xenophobic rhetoric of a Jewish fifth-column, which reflected old mythologies from the Middle Ages which still resonated.

The goodwill of the majority of America’s people and the strength of its community organizations, whose Protestant and Catholic spokesman have weighed in recently against Trump, all but guarantee that the horrors of the Reich will never be repeated here. However, for the Tea Party to successfully overcome its impulse to authoritarianism and regain its focus on continuing the Reagan revolution, it must re-embrace the Constitutional process, and unequivocally denounce demagoguery. It begins with an honest self-assessment of its own disregard for Reagan’s principles, which follow.

Reagan’s speech, manners, and civility always shamed his occasionally crude, low-minded opponents with a forceful appeal to moral reasoning. For Reagan, the goal was never “winning” at the expense of anyone. For Reagan, winning was a tide that lifted all boats, including those of the left. For Trump, personal wealth is the goal for not only himself but for his supporters. Reagan, on the other hand, felt the tide of rising wealth that lifted all boats was merely a means to an end. The end was not wealth, but security and a realization that God desires to bless those that are His. That financial security can then be used to bless the world and lift millions out of poverty and oppression. Reagan believed that America should lead in that effort. Trump has cast his vision for America as merely one of acquiring more goods and personal wealth and self-satisfaction, a shallow appeal at best to consumerism. By contrast, Jesus taught an entirely different paradigm of the reason for wealth, as a means to a different end altogether. At the risk of hyperbole, we can conclude that Reagan’s economic vision is consistent with that of Jesus of Nazareth, although I’m sure Reagan’s humility would most certainly preclude his agreement to such notions.

For the foregoing reasons, we can safely conclude that the character and values of Reaganism stand in diametric opposition to that of Trump. What is more, we can rest assured that Ronald Reagan himself would very likely have absolutely nothing to do with someone of the persona of Donald Trump.

Adam Goldman is current Board Member and former Vice President of Florida Right to Life, a founding member of the Center-Right Coalition of Central Florida,  serves on the Central Board of James Madison Institute, and served on the statewide Florida steering committee of the Mitt Romney campaign.