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Was America well-founded?

How did we get where we are in America today? Was it in the cards from the beginning? Right-wingers sometimes argue about whether America was well-founded. It’s very awkward of course if it wasn’t, but the question must be considered soberly.

The strongest argument that it was not is that the supreme political power the Founders established was based on contract, with no real appeal to any law higher than human purposes. The problem with putting the federal government on that basis that is that whatever principle is authoritative in the highest political community eventually becomes authoritative in all things. The highest community has ultimate responsibility for ensuring peace and so must be able to demand a loyalty that overrides all others. Concretely, it runs the army and must be able to insist that men die for it. To do so it must claim that the principle it stands for is the highest principle.

What men do has consequences that don’t depend on what they intend. Even if the Founders didn’t mean to do so, when they based government on contract they made what men happen to want the measure of all things. But if what men want is the measure, then the purpose of government is giving men what they want, with all wants—since they are equally wants—considered equally. But then judgments of value become irrelevant, and government becomes a purely technical problem. So the outcome is what we have now, the amoral (“multicultural” and “inclusive”) managerial welfare state.

An argument against this view is that while the Founding had contractual elements it didn’t make contract (and thus human will) the measure in so unrestricted a sense. Certainly that wasn’t the intention. But the Founders failed to institutionalize or even explicitly recognize any principle of higher law that could balance the principle of contract. Instead, they explicitly disesablished such principles, for example by forbidding religious tests and establishments of religion. The only restrictions they placed on human will were procedural restrictions like division and limitation of powers. But how much can procedures do in the long run when they are at odds with what men take to be ultimately worthwhile? Procedures can help men balance goals, but if the sole ultimate goal officially recognized is human desire, then all the procedures in the world won’t keep political life from arranging itself entirely in line with that goal.

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