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.

8 thoughts on “Was America well-founded?”

  1. George Will and Robert Bork

    George Will and Robert Bork aren’t Plato and Aristotle, but they write for a literate laity. Will argued in “Statecraft As Soulcraft” (1983)that our country was “ill-founded”; Bork wrote in “Slouching Towards Gommorah” that our combination of affluence and Enlightenment liberties might make a fatal form of social decadence inevitable.

    You rightly say that the “highest community . . . must be able to insist that men die for it.” Is the “freedom” which empowers Hefner and Flynt an adequate reason to make that ultimate sacrifice?

    About 30 years ago, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote and narrated a series of TV shows on a group of Xtian thinkers (“Third Testiment”). The final program was devoted to Bonhoeffer, who suffered a martyr’s death at the hands of the Nazis in the last days of WW II. In the final minutes Muggeridge rhetorically asked whether the Lutheran theologian died for “Freedom, or Democracy, or a Higher Standard of Living”? His point, I think, was that these weren’t reason enough.


  2. To Mr. Kalb’s remark that

    To Mr. Kalb’s remark that the American founding contains no principle higher than contract and consent, neocons and some liberals would reply that the self-evident truths of the Declaration embody a principle higher than any human desire. This was also Lincoln’s argument against Douglas in their debate over Popular Sovereignty. Lincoln insisted that some truths, such as the right of men not to be slaves, are higher than human will and cannot be subject to popular vote.

    The problem with the neocon view of the founding is that the “truths higher than human will,” on which the American system is based, only pertain to universal equal individual rights. A society in which “all men are created equal” is the highest defining idea, unmediated by any substantive moral truths or cultural traditions, must ultimately end up in the “naked public square,” with the relativism, the suicidal tolerance, and all the other ills from which we current suffer. Ultimately, such a society must abolish politics itself, since politics, as Aristotle put it, means free men discussing how they should order their common existence, which requires making assertions about moral truth, but tolerance (as embodied in pure form the Dutch constitution) means that any statement about moral truth is discriminatory and so cannot be allowed.

  3. In my view “freedom and

    In my view “freedom and equality” isn’t a separate higher standard but just a consequence of making human will the standard.

    All wills are equally wills. If will is the standard then each will is equally the standard. The best that can be done, therefore, is to arrange a system that allows each will equal free play to the greatest extent possible. That’s liberal freedom and equality.

    So then the question is whether a purely formal standard like freedom and equality can take the place of a higher standard. I don’t think so. You can’t define freedom as a practical matter without knowing what it is freedom for. Otherwise you won’t be able to resolve disputes between my freedom to bring about X and your freedom to bring about not-X. So a substantive conception of the good life always has to come first. Denying that it comes first (as liberalism does) makes political discussion impossible, as Mr. Auster points out.

  4. Mr. Kalb suggests that the

    Mr. Kalb suggests that the originating principle of liberalism was not the belief in freedom and equality per se, but rather the belief in making the human will the standard; the belief in freedom and equality was secondary, resulting from the belief in the will. This is very provocative but I don’t quite know what to make of it. Can he give any examples of this idea, perhaps from the classic writings of liberalism?

  5. It’s said – by modern

    It’s said — by modern academic liberals among others — that liberalism begins in reaction to the Wars of Religion. The problem then was how you settle conflicts when men disagree fundamentally about what things are good or bad, true or false, right or wrong. So liberalism starts with the reality of human wills in conflict and no way to say one is better than the other. Since none can be treated as better, any solution to conflict other than brute force must be based on common acceptance that pursuing one’s goals, whatever they are, is presumptively legitimate, equally so for all parties.

    That line of reasoning comes through quite clearly in Hobbes. Locke makes it seem somewhat less brutal — instead of men fighting to the death for survival and glory he has them mostly trying to raise their standard of living. I think though the basic outline is still there — he starts with human desires that fall into conflict, and is concerned with the conventions that if accepted will keep things peaceful.

  6. It sounds as though the

    It sounds as though the ur-impulse of liberalism was not the idea of treating all wills equally, but the idea of treating all religious beliefs equally, so as to avoid religious war. The idea of creating all individual wills equally seems to have been a secondary step. But I take Mr. Kalb’s point that the idea of the equality of wills, or rather of making the will the standard, is in Hobbes and Locke.

  7. But as philosophers they tried

    But as philosophers they tried to do more than declare that it would be a good idea to treat religious beliefs equally. They tried to describe man and the world in a way that made it irrational to do otherwise — in a way that made it seem there can be no goods transcending the human will.

    Hobbes starts off his Leviathan with a whole materialistic anthropology that puts appetite first and makes the natural state of man a constant struggle for power ending in death. So whatever ur-extrinsic motives he may have had for philosophizing, his ur-conception is men in conflict and subject to no standard other than their own desires.

  8. My answer to the question

    My answer to the question is no, generally speaking. Why is Congress the first article in the constitution? Because the regime was designed in the summer of 1787 to be a democratic republic, a concept that really isn’t right-wing or conservative, frankly speaking. A more authoritarian regime would have the executive as the first article; and a more aristocratic founding would have the judiciary as the first article. There are lots of little things I could mention, but I’ll not. At the same time, there are lots of little things that are perfectly acceptable and could exist in a non-democratic and non-republican system such as federal regulation of interstate commerce, and the power to declare war.

    Overall, a democratic republic should be opposed as insufficiently counterrevolutionary in its fundamental nature, not because it is a republic, but because it is democratic.

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