Commentary Magazine


Topic: founders

Celebrating American Governance

It is an odd experience to be abroad on the Fourth of July–especially in a place as remote as Nepal. No fireworks, no barbecues (except at the U.S. embassy, presumably), in fact no notice at all of what is to Americans one of the most important holidays on our calendar. It does, however, offer a good chance for some perspective on America, and in particular on the great mystery of American history: How did thirteen tiny colonies on the eastern seaboard expand in less than two centuries to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world?

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It is an odd experience to be abroad on the Fourth of July–especially in a place as remote as Nepal. No fireworks, no barbecues (except at the U.S. embassy, presumably), in fact no notice at all of what is to Americans one of the most important holidays on our calendar. It does, however, offer a good chance for some perspective on America, and in particular on the great mystery of American history: How did thirteen tiny colonies on the eastern seaboard expand in less than two centuries to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world?

There is, it must be admitted, an element of serendipity involved: the (primarily) British immigrants who created the United States of America had the good fortune to arrive in a land of abundant natural resources and little in the way of organized military opposition from other nation-states. As Indian tribes were defeated, the road to the West was opened and America could stretch from sea to shining sea. 

But geography is not destiny. Russia, after all, experienced a similar expansion, in its case to the Wild Wild East, taking control of Central Asia and Siberia. Today Russia has more land and arguably greater natural resources than the U.S., yet it is a nation in inexorable decline, its anemic economy propped up by oil prices, its population in long-term decline.

What made the difference in America’s case? Quite simply, good government. The relatively minimalist government created by the Founders unleashed the animal energies of newly arrived immigrants and set them free to build a mighty economic behemoth in ways that no central planner could possibly have envisioned much less brought into being. The reason other large countries have not enjoyed similar good fortune comes down to governance.

This was a point that was brought home to me during a week of travel in India prior to my arrival in Nepal. India is blessed with a large land area and a massive population of 1.2 billion. Its people are in no way intrinsically inferior to those of the United States–in fact Indian immigrants are some of the most successful people in America. 

And during a journey from Mumbai to New Delhi, most of it overland, I was constantly impressed by how hard Indians work for meager wages. Whether it was newspaper vendors getting up at the crack of dawn in Mumbai or a friendly taxi driver shuttling me all day in his beaten-up Ambassador sedan, the industriousness and intelligence of Indians was never in dispute. So why is it that India’s GDP per capita is $1,500 and America’s is $53,000?

Indians are free to blame the legacy of British colonial rule, yet the United States too was a progeny of the British Empire. Granted, Americans were able to rebel much earlier but that is in large part because of the American colonists’ greater unity as opposed to the divisions of India when the British arrived. Indeed British imperialists created the very concept of “India” which had never existed before, and left it with many valuable legacies from railroads to a civil service and a functioning democracy. You can still see the British legacy in cities such as Mumbai in crumbling buildings built in the early 20th century.

In any case India has been free of British rule for nearly 67 years—long enough for other once-impoverished nations such as South Korea to catapult into the ranks of the world’s wealthiest democracies. It is no secret why India has lagged behind: It has been the victim of terrible governance. For decades it adhered to fashionable socialist nostrums. More recently a succession of governments has tried to implement free-market reforms, only to be stymied by the inexorable bureaucracy. 

Not long ago, the Hong Kong-based Political and Risk Consultancy came out with a survey of bureaucracies in Asia. India ranked as by far the worst of the bunch. Worse than Vietnam. Worse than China. Worse than Indonesia. To say nothing of the top performers, Singapore and Hong Kong—both, coincidentally, also former British colonies. As the Wall Street Journal noted: “The report, which was based on over 2,000 surveys of employed residents and expatriates across Asia, blamed India’s poor infrastructure, widespread corruption and ‘fickle’ regulations for making business a ‘frustrating and expensive’ affair.”

I got a small taste for myself of what Indians have to endure when I applied for a visa at the Indian consulate in New York. The visa officer promised to have everything ready in four or five business days but those days came and went with no way to find out where matters stood—and my flight time drawing near. Only by talking to someone who knew someone was I able to get the visa in time. This is, I imagine, a universal experience in India where the bureaucracy functions so poorly that many people find themselves resorting to favoritism or corruption to get what they are legally entitled to get.

Goodness knows, American government bureaucracy is far from ideal. I get pretty frustrated when I deal with the Post Office. I can only imagine what people are going through trying to enroll in ObamaCare. But for all of the U.S. government’s myriad faults, it is considerably more responsive and accountable and less corrupt and inefficient than most other governments around the world.

So ultimately the story of America’s success comes down to the very thing we celebrate on July 4 but should more properly celebrate on September 17 (September 17, 1787, was the date the Constitution was signed): the genius of our Founding Fathers. They created a government which has made it possible for the people of the United States to prosper. Other countries around the world are starting to figure out our formula and in some case to better it, but no other nation has been as well ruled for so long. That is why the United States is still perched, however precariously, as the No. 1 power in the world.

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Citizenship and Obama’s Opposition

In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.

At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.

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In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.

At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.

Here’s the key passage from the president’s address:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

We have never been a people who place all of our faith in government to solve our problems; we shouldn’t want to. But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. And as citizens, we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us; it’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government. And, Class of 2013, you have to be involved in that process.

The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too. Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.

That’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want. That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things — like rebuild a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.

Class of 2013, only you can ultimately break that cycle. Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be. But it requires your dedicated, and informed, and engaged citizenship. And that citizenship is a harder, higher road to take, but it leads to a better place. It’s how we built this country — together.

There are two big problems here.

One is the attempt to characterize opponents as people who are exploiting or fomenting cynicism about government in order to thwart majority rule for the sake of the privileged. This is the same old class warfare argument that flies in the face of claims that the president is the adult in the room while those on the other side are extremists who have debased our national discourse with attacks on his legitimacy.

More important is the notion that there is something illegitimate about fear of growing the power of government.

After all, contrary to the myth cherished by liberals that the Tea Party was a top-down affair in which a few extremist protesters were manipulated by a small group of wealthy conservatives, it was in fact a broad-based grass roots movement. Though its moment of greatest popularity may have passed, it is not the “the well connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business,” but ordinary Americans who worry about higher taxes and the creation of programs like ObamaCare that expand the scope and power of government.

Just as crucial, it is the crony capitalists who donated vast sums to the president’s campaigns that we find can count on being able to “whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.” A president that gave us the Solyndra boondoggle and whose Cabinet is increasingly populated with billionaire bundlers like Penny Pritzker is in no position to assert that it is his opponents that are unrepresentative.

After all, the fear of tyranny Obama cited isn’t an invention of the Koch brothers or the Tea Party, it can be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and most of the founders. They worried that our “experiment in self-rule” would fail specifically because of over-reaching on the part of the government or a blind obedience to the vagaries of public opinion. Our Constitution was written by men who understood that the key principle of American democracy must be a system of checks and balances that was designed to frustrate people like Obama who want to shove their big ideas about re-engineering our society and government down the throats of the voters. They placed obstacles in the path of such leaders in the form of representative government institutions that are supposed to go slow and invariably give voice to those who are more interested in holding government accountable than in growing it. Supporting this instinct isn’t cynical, nor is it a function of special interests. It is democracy in its purest and most American form.

What is most ironic about casting opponents of Obama’s agenda as seeking to thwart the will of the people is that such efforts are themselves only possible via grass roots action. The president’s message seems to be one that posits that participatory democracy is only proper if it produces results he likes, and not those—like the election of two successive Republican majorities in the House of Representatives—he doesn’t like.

What Barack Obama needs to come to terms with is that his opposition is not just a cabal of right-wing capitalists. Distrust of government is part of the DNA of American democracy. Those who are against Obama’s big government agenda constitute a significant portion of the American people and can look to the founders and the Constitution as their guide. The president can certainly seek to argue against their beliefs, but he should not do so by questioning their sincerity or dedication to the betterment of the nation any more than they should personally abuse him in this manner. If what he wants is a more involved citizenry, we applaud and concur in this appeal. But what the president must understand is that many of those who answer that call will do so in opposition to his program and can look to the original sources of American democratic principles for their inspiration.

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Political Moderation and the Conservative Disposition

Peter Berkowitz has written an outstanding book, Constitutional Conservatism, whose central aim is to “recover the constitutional connection between liberty, self-government, and political moderation.”

In discussing political moderation, Berkowitz does not mean lack of principle or expedience. Rather, what he has in mind is a conservative disposition that accommodates and balances competing principles. “The Constitution weaves political moderation well understood into the very structure of self-government,” he says. Berkowitz writes that constitutional conservatism “stresses that balancing worthy but conflicting political principles depends on cultivating the spirit of political moderation institutionalized by the Constitution.” It understands that liberty is sometimes in tension with tradition. It places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments. And the Constitution, Berkowitz points out, promotes a spirit of balance, weaves together diverse human elements and political principles, and is itself a complex institutional arrangement that was the result of extraordinary political compromises.

This might all seem quite obvious, except that there is a current of opinion within conservatism that believes political moderation is a vice, a safe harbor for the unprincipled. That is what makes Berkowitz’s reclamation project an important one.

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Peter Berkowitz has written an outstanding book, Constitutional Conservatism, whose central aim is to “recover the constitutional connection between liberty, self-government, and political moderation.”

In discussing political moderation, Berkowitz does not mean lack of principle or expedience. Rather, what he has in mind is a conservative disposition that accommodates and balances competing principles. “The Constitution weaves political moderation well understood into the very structure of self-government,” he says. Berkowitz writes that constitutional conservatism “stresses that balancing worthy but conflicting political principles depends on cultivating the spirit of political moderation institutionalized by the Constitution.” It understands that liberty is sometimes in tension with tradition. It places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments. And the Constitution, Berkowitz points out, promotes a spirit of balance, weaves together diverse human elements and political principles, and is itself a complex institutional arrangement that was the result of extraordinary political compromises.

This might all seem quite obvious, except that there is a current of opinion within conservatism that believes political moderation is a vice, a safe harbor for the unprincipled. That is what makes Berkowitz’s reclamation project an important one.

An oddity in our time is that some on the right who very nearly deify the founders and the Constitution fail to understand what Berkowitz calls “the unceasing need in the politics of a free society to adjust and readjust, balance and rebalance, calibrate and recalibrate… The Federalist reinforces the lesson of moderation inscribed in the Constitution it expounds and defends.”

There have always been those in politics who are animated by the auto-da-fe. They thrive on relentless confrontation and want to (in the words of Ronald Reagan) go over the cliff with all flags flying. To be sure, such individuals can be a source of energy in a political party. They can also serve the purpose of stiffening spines when that is needed. And they may even be on the correct side of many public policy issues.

Yet it strikes me that in a deep sense, they do not possess a conservative disposition or even a particularly conservative outlook on the world. Rather, they have reinterpreted conservatism in order to fit their own temperament, which seems to be in a near-constant state of agitation, ever alert to identify and excommunicate from the ranks those they perceive as apostates. One day it is Chris Christie; the next day it is Bob McDonnell, or Jeb Bush, or Mitch Daniels, or Eric Cantor, or Lindsay Graham, or Mitch McConnell, or someone somewhere who has gone crosswise of those who view themselves as prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

There is a different conservative disposition to which we can look, one which was embodied in Michael Oakeshott, one of the most respected intellectual spokesmen for British conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century. In her 1975 essay on Oakeshott (which is reprinted here), the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb said the key word describing the conservative disposition was “enjoyment.” Unlike the rationalist, who is “always lusting after something that is not,” the conservative tends to find delight in the gifts and blessings we have. Conservatives do not grow angry when the world refuses to conform to their ideals, nor do they see the present only as, in Oakeshott’s phrase, “a residue of inoppportunities.” He did not view the human situation as dark or dreary. 

At the end of her essay, Himmelfarb writes about the Oakeshott she knew, “with whom conversation, even controversy, was a sheer delight.” She continues:

He did not avoid disagreement; there was nothing wimpish about him. But he confronted it with such good nature and good humor that he always won the argument (he would never, of course, have called it that) by default, so to speak. It is not often that the person and the philosopher are so totally congruent. The “conservative disposition” – the disposition to enjoy what is rather than pining for what might be, to appreciate the givens and the goods of life without wanting to subject them to social or political validation – that is a perfect description of his own temperament… Oakeshott’s conservatism, like his temperament, is something of a rarity these days. 

It is still a rarity these days – rarer at least than it should be. Because while passion in politics is a fine, even admirable, thing, so too is winsomeness, a certain generosity of spirit, and even a touch of grace. 

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