Friday, October 7, 2011

Brief Musings

I am not too shy to claim wisdom, at least of a kind. The passing of the last few years has lead through a thorough reading of some of the foundational texts for western political and religious thought. In the course of these readings, I have taken the beliefs and givens which I held as a child and I have filled in beneath them a concrete ground. I can now draw my arguments from church fathers, the ancients, and the great thinkers across history. I am also able to draw from history examples of the consequences of ideas, and also a clearer picture of human nature and interaction.

I am wise, like Socrates is wise, but with a separate final conclusion. I know myself. I know that I am not an individual, untouched and sacrosanct in my inviolate sovereignty. I know myself as I fit into the place of human history; where the society I see around me has come from. I know myself in who I am to my family and friends. And, most importantly, I also have theological perspective, which informs my political perspective. We are all frail, human, and our time on this earth is brief, even as our empires and culture will be brief.

However, the fact that all of this is passing does not mean that it does not matter. We are given the earth, a life to live, and the society of our fellow man. These things are all good; they are gifts of surpassing value and should be cherished and cared for as such. Thus, politics matter. There is no more important earthly concern than that we should live justly, in peace, love, and charity with our fellow men.

Virtue amongst men is not only necessary for earthly peace, but as a curb on the vices that may prove damaging to faith. Politics, from the ancient perspective, should engage the attentions of the citizens outside the self, and interest them more in the good of their fellow men and society as a whole. Government is a terror to hold men away from evil, but in participating in government, the rulers are looking after and caring for the bodies and souls of their fellow men. Even if evil is only held off by terror, still, it habituates the person to the rejection of that evil.

Republican government, where all have a share in ruling and being ruled, but without the danger of mobocracy, is, I would opine, the most noble of the forms of earthly government; where all have the obligation to serve and are served in turn. If engaging in politics and looking after the good of your fellow men is rightly said to promote virtue of thought and action, then a system which encourages the greatest part of the populace to participate is likely to promote virtue and wisdom amongst men.

The constitution is bad.


You so did not see that coming.

I argue that the constitution was the wrong choice to promote and maintain the virtue of the American people, and I got this out of extensive reading and a few hours of staring blankly into space. I think, however, that some of the best arguments are to be found in De Tocqueville and the anti-federalist.

"Liberty is to faction as air is to fire." The federalists knew that the great republics of history all destroyed themselves from within, by internal conflict. They had three answers to this question, as laid out in the Federalist 10-12.

First: A representative republic, not a democratic republic.
Second: Large territory.
Third: A bloodless war of commerce.

The first part is probably a good idea, regardless of the size of the territory. It is no good to have everyone governing at the same time. Even Aristotle's best democracy laid out in his politics is one where not everyone is able to attend all the time; one where the farmers are to busy to go into most of the time, and the day to day work is done by a few from amongst them and the more aristocratic contingent that lives in the city. In both cases, Aristotle and Federalist, the government is still answerable to the populace.

The Second part is where the federalist departs from all those who came before. No republican philosopher, ancient or modern, believed that a republic could be an empire. A republic requires an equal share in ruling and being ruled. How can one rule justly over those of whom one knows little or nothing? The ideal of ruling for a common, shared, good or interest flies out the window. That which is common becomes impossibly vague and damn near unknowable to the vast majority. The federalists praise this attribute as a means of holding down faction, but it equally discourages participation, and dissipates one of the most beautiful aspects of republican government.

The third means, the internal tension that will keep the government and society going, and keep faction from gaining sway, is avarice. Hamilton says it point blank. The way to make a strong union is to increase the means of gratification and "by promoting the introduction and circulation of the precious metals, those darling objects of human avarice." Greed is to be encouraged, because there is nothing so destructive to faction as radical self interest. But, notes Hamilton, this is the best way of increasing the overall wealth of the people, and it is here assumed that the common good is nothing more than the sum of individual interests.

I find the last means to be repugnant and destructive to the republican ideal. I wholeheartedly support the freedom to advance one's property and position without unjust restraint; that is, so far as your expansion does not transgress against the property or person of another. However, that this expansion of property should be the highest goal of man--or at least promoted as such--is unfathomable to me. I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, but I found it depressing, unsettling, and perhaps slightly evil. Man is to love God and man; amen. End of discussion. So it is unarguably a perversion to base the form of your government on the encouragement of avarice.

I think the anti-federalists had it right, and I might be a bad pragmatic for saying so, but I think it would have been better to take the risk of functioning as many federated states, each with it's own involved populace, then as a gigantic national entity, with very little commonality. The primary power being concentrated at the state level allows for greater, more meaningful, participation among the populace. Tension and competition among the states, though it leaves them more open to foreign threats, would similarly lend to a feeling of belonging in the state, as a part of a whole more than an individual.

Also, the ties of the confederation proposed by the anti-federalists were something more akin to those in the original Articles of Confederation; those being, a firm league of friendship and brotherhood; each state functioning as a part of a whole for the common good.

Once again, this is all highly idealistic, and perhaps a touch naive. If empire is the goal, then a gigantic national conglomeration, driven by the limitless energy of human avarice, is almost certainly the best vehicle. But look at the problems we are having now. We are the worlds sole super-power, but for how long. We have lost the civic virtue that we once had, we are spiraling deeper into debt, and the public interest in government is how it can benefit their station. This is not sustainable, and it is not good.

The republican ideal is that individuals and culture should be intrinsically tied with government, but now the government has become so far removed from the people, that few would even count themselves as a meaningful part of the process. And for all of this removal, still it has managed to become more democratic the whole while, with popular votes deciding everything, and a populace that refuses to think about or take responsibility for the consequences of their votes.

Americans have become like those dangerous boy kings who lock themselves in with their harems, appoint rulers in their stead, and behead them when their blundering has brought the nation to a crisis point. We hold the power, but we have divorced ourselves from it's proper use. We have our individual interests, our precious objects of avarice, do not bother us with the common: it does not exist. Let us pursue our freedoms as we wish, and do not dare to curb our vices.

We made a mistake all those years ago. Clever men claimed that empire and republic were compatible, and we chose empire. The republican ideal was lost and now, as De Tocqueville said we would, we careen further into mobocracy and away from the things which made us great in the first place.

I suppose I am a true conservative; a better conservative than I am a liberal. I ache for an idea of the common good, something that might rekindle the idea in our society, but it is too far gone. I cannot reconcile my theology or my principles with the central goal of government being the promotion of individual interest rather than the common good. But the reality is, those who think they have in idea of the common good in modern times do not. They have totalitarian ideas about forcing the individual interest to bow to the common good. None of them is looking for a government structure which habituates men to virtue and care for their fellow men, but one that forces them to it.

So our constitution is the best that I can ever hope to find. At least it preserves men from tyranny and allows for some to escape their license in favour of liberty; ours is perhaps one of the few constitutions on earth where true liberty is yet to be found, but it is not found in the majority, and nor would they probably be interested. Serving one's own desires is a lot less work than serving your fellow man.

Perhaps I'm overthinking it....oh, by the way, I ask only one thing: in the future, if I'm staring off into space, just realize, that blank look is not really a blank; I am writing, foo.