Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Principles of the Past

In celebrating Independence Day, E.J. Dionne questions the desire of many to base their policy choices on some notion of the "'original' intentions of the Founders." Writing in the Washington Post, he argues that too many people (presumably conservatives) rely upon their modern understanding of history, as a snapshot, to argue for certain policies, rather than acting as "we the people" best see fit today. He criticizes American historicism by writing:
[I]t is dangerous to turn the Founders into quasi-religious prophets who produced a text more like the Bible or the Talmud. It’s neither. It is a governing document that was the product of compromises and arguments....

We do a disservice to ourselves and the Founders alike if we take them out of history and demand that they settle arguments that we ought to settle on our own.

The Founders, after all, were not timid men bound by the past. They did something bold and adventurous. In creating a novel form of government, they were thinking and acting anew.

While Dionne eventually goes too far by essentially stripping the Constitution of any real meaning and advocating for an expansive government than can do anything the people (one can only assume he means a crude mass of majoritarian democracy) want, he does raise a valid point about the Right's overemphasis of a historical moment and the great men that shaped the country at that time. Indeed, while it is necessary to learn from history, it is not the past but the principles of the proper role of government that we must rely upon to shape policy.

The problems with an overly heavy reliance on the Founders' "vision" are manifold. First, it is unthinking. On a basic level, it ignores the nuances of policy debates and circumstances during the founding of our country. As any basic reading of the founding of the United States will reveal, many of the Founders had different beliefs. However, on a deeper level, such backward-looking reliance creates a situation where blanket ideas are deified without any understanding of why they are appropriate or how they properly function. This leaves proponents of constitutionalism stultified, unable to defend their perspectives with anything but the simplistic, "This is what the Founders established for us."

A related problem, is that this perspective handicaps the propagation of a constitutionalist ideology. There is minimal debate in public circles about the proper role of government. The Left has defined, as Dionne unquestionably advocates, a activist model of government as the solution-finder extraordinaire. Many on the Right have an enfeebled response of "small government because the Founders said so"—an argument that, as popular discourse shows, carries little sway.

Furthermore, the reliance on the historical argument for limited government has crowded-out the intellectual and philosophical one. Not only does a historical justification fly against the impetus behind the founding of this country, which was forward looking, but it severely encumbers the more proper, strong, and justifiable arguments. This often prevents the Right from meaningfully presenting solutions to very modern problems (whether in the government or within other, often waning, institutions), a situation that diminishes the force of the Right's arguments.

This can lead to a number of dead ends for proponents of limited government. In one regard it can devolve into a fight, relegated to the historians and irrelevant to most Americans, over history. Worse it can create a perception of a divide between the "thinking intellectuals" who are forward-looking and the reactionaries who do not want to address modern problems. Whether this classification is fair or not is irrelevant—it is unfortunately a powerful mainstream belief. (Why are the halls of higher learning, media, and many youth so pulled by the progressive ideology?) By de-intellectualizing the founding principles of the United States, the Right has allowed the progressive ideology, with its concomitant view of an expansive role of government, to dominate the realm of solutions.

Such an argument does mean dismissing the past. There are many lessons to be learned from history. The Founders clearly designed a great system and helped elucidate a number of profound principles that form the basis of our government. But they, knowingly, were unable to foresee everything that the future could hold. Instead, as the Founders themselves did, the Right must guide its policies on principles. It must reinvigorate the intellectual arguments that underpin classical liberalism (eg. the political philosophy of modern conservatives). While these principles may have historical roots, they are not themselves history but are timeless. The forward-looking application of the principles of limited constitutional government can serve as a worthy challenge to the progressive ideology that has become dominant, thus not only helping to shape the form and nature of our government but winning support from swathes of society that have been deemed lost.

No comments:

Post a Comment

"Reading makes a full man, meditation a profound man, discourse a clear man." - Benjamin Franklin

Please leave comments!