By Charlie Johnston
Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore
To effectively analyze where we are – as a nation, world or culture – the first thing one must firmly be clear on is the difference between a principle and a policy. A principle is a defining statement of what you believe and what you seek to accomplish. A policy is simply the means you choose to get there. Thus, if you live in Chicago and intend to move to San Antonio, getting to San Antonio is your principle. How you get there and what route you take are your policies. You can refine it further. Why do you want to move to San Antonio? If it is to achieve a better life, economically, culturally or religiously, then THAT is your principle and moving to San Antonio is your policy to achieve it. These things can be refined until you reach a point where you can refine no further. That is a first thing, or first principle.
However vigorous a policy dispute may be, when men are largely agreed on foundational principles, there is little danger the dispute will degenerate into serious conflict and strife. Even if you lose the debate, men agreed on foundational principles will revisit the issue if the policies chosen prove ill-suited to accomplish the principle. On the other hand, disputes over fundamental principles, however mild they start, carry within them the seeds of serious conflict, even up to armed conflict. Since the disputes look largely the same in early stages, it is critical to discriminate well between policy and principle disputes – for the consequences of each are vastly different. The ill-informed may look at a significant dispute over principles and say, ah, I have seen plenty of disputes in my life and this is no different. That is why things such as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the rise of German fascism take so many otherwise sophisticated observers by surprise. Since a foundational dispute looks similar to a mere policy dispute, they think it is all the same thing. It is not.
The most foundational statements of American principles are found in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution. The bulk of the Declaration is devoted to an explanation of why this drastic step was necessary. The bulk of the Constitution is devoted to setting up foundational rules of what was permitted and what forbidden in the pursuit of the foundational goals. It is the load-bearing framework set on top of the foundation.
The founders focused intensely on the question of systems of government. Most were disgusted with European models. European societies were largely stratified, offering little hope of advancement to those who were not born into the upper strata, so they were stagnant societies. They were oppressive, sometimes to many classes, but almost always to those at the lowest levels. They were corrupt. Bureaucracies were formed to administer all manner of public welfare – but had become self-serving cesspools that did little for the public welfare but much to protect their own privileged sinecures. They were subject to periodic bouts of significant unrest – because that was largely the only way lower classes could get any consideration for the redress of grievances.
The founders were determined to set up a system based on the consent of the governed, where the people themselves would be sovereign. While there was some genius involved, the founders were NOT phenomenal geniuses. Rather, they were men of above average intelligence who were entirely focused on the problem of self-governance. Their true genius lay in their absolute refusal to abide cant or sloganeering. They confronted all problems directly and honestly. A system based on the consent of the governed meant a democracy of some sort. Yet the history of democracy was a bleak, violent and forbidding one. Few democracies survived more than a few decades before succumbing violently to their inherent instability. Democracies were prone to factionalism run amok, degenerating into the “war of all against all,” in Thomas Hobbes’ memorable phrase. Simply establishing the right to vote did not secure liberty. In fact, it almost guaranteed a ruthless “tyranny of the majority,” a problem with democracy first acknowledged by the ancient Greeks but never solved until the American colonists grappled honestly with it. A common thought (though its origin is obscure) was that “democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.”
In the recurring modern debate over gun rights, advocates of strict gun control always couch their arguments in saving lives – without ever examining the actual effects their proposed policies actually have. It is a deadly form of virtue signaling. Similarly, in the Obamacare debate, their argument was that “everyone deserves health care,” without a serious examination of the declines in quality, access and innovation that plagued all centrally run systems (not to mention the implicit – and sometimes explicit – rationing that took place in these second-rate systems). The American founders were having none of that. They confronted the problems inherent to democracies and self-government rigorously, developing approaches that did not just sound good to weepy sentimentalists (“every man deserves to be free!”), but actually had a chance of working. There were no pathological altruists among the founders, determined to show they cared regardless of results, but only hard-eyed realists determined to acknowledge and solve the real problems inherent in developing a workable system of liberty, opportunity, and self-governance for all.
Working from the framework of natural law, primarily as expressed by John Locke, which posits that men are endowed by their creator with certain rights that pre-exist the formation of the state, the founders sought, first, to secure those rights. (One does not have to believe in God to believe in natural law: one can substitute the word ‘nature’ for the word ‘creator.’ But even the deist and agnostic founders believed that a devotion to religion and traditional morality were the firmest foundation on which to secure these rights.) Rights were not just any good a people could come up with that they thought all should be guaranteed. A right had to be possessed by the very nature of a man, whether or not there was a state to secure it. In fact, in the founders’ formulation, the very legitimacy of a state was largely dependent on its vigorous defense of those rights that all men have by nature. Since government was not author of any right, it could neither grant nor revoke them; only secure them to justify its own existence. A state might decide some good it wanted to grant should be guaranteed to all, but that could never be a right – only an entitlement. Entitlements were dangerous things, for government can only grant us a good by taking some coercive power over us. The founders, well acquainted with human nature, knew that what started with the necessary taking of coercive power to grant some good soon saw the good become an afterthought and the seizure of power the animating principle. They did not want a government that did “good” for us, but a government that stuck to the most minimally necessary things while keeping out of our way as we did good for ourselves – and in concert through voluntary associations with each other.
The first thing they did was establish a minimalist government. Rather than laying out restraints on what the federal government could do, they allowed it to do nothing without specific authorization from the Constitution. The states were where most governmental action would take place – and this would both prevent dangerous centralization of power and provide “laboratories of democracy,” where different states could try different approaches to problems in which other states – and the whole nation – would learn from their successes and failures. Beyond that, they divided executive, legislative and judicial authority in three different co-equal branches that, it was hoped, would police each other and prevent power from centralizing. Thomas Jefferson feared they had failed to build sufficient accountability into the judiciary, giving unreviewable lifetime appointments. Knowing that people who have power tend to work restlessly to grasp more to themselves, he feared the judiciary would eventually become an oligarchic council claiming supremacy over the other branches. Defenders said that the legislature had the power both of impeachment and to remove specific items from the jurisdiction of the courts to counter such abuse – but Jefferson thought these were not sufficient safeguards.
Many delegates to the Constitutional Convention – and later the states – were not satisfied that allowing the federal government only specifically enumerated powers was sufficient to protect liberty. They feared that governmental authorities would eventually pervert the clear language of the Constitution to mean something else, even the exact opposite, of what was written. This led to the adoption of the Bill of Rights, which specifically enumerated some rights which the federal government was forbidden from transgressing. Since it was the Supreme law of the land, it allowed the federal government to protect citizens against any encroachment by the states against actual rights. Some of the key rights, and why they were considered foundational include:
1) Freedom of Speech – The founders were rigorists on this. In societies that constrained freedom of conscience, revolutionary pressures would build until there was an explosion of violence. If free speech was guaranteed, no matter how hateful or offensive, it could be countered with more effective and persuasive speech, without the danger of letting violent pressures build to a point of explosion. This was key to preventing the periodic violent strife that afflicted oppressive societies. The founders knew all too well, from painful experience, what the banning of “hate speech” would do to society – so they protected both it – and their society – from the violence that grows around suppressing conscience.
2) Freedom of Religion – At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, three states had established churches that people were taxed to support. (Several others had such laws on the books, but did not enforce taxes for them). This amendment had the support of those states – in fact, they insisted on it. The reason was that the First Amendment was not to create a wall of separation between church and state, but to forever remove such matters from the jurisdiction of the federal government. It was a matter for the states, alone. The only requirement the federal government was allowed was to ban any religious test as a qualification to hold public office. Obviously, this amendment has been completely turned on its head. The reality is that when you hear about a First Amendment religious case, it does not turn on the First Amendment at all, but on the Fourteenth Amendment, which banned slavery. The language of that amendment was used by crafty federal jurists to assert regulatory power over religious matters that the First Amendment forbids. You often hear about Jefferson’s private letter to Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut in 1802 which he says the First Amendment was designed to build a “wall of separation between church and state.” Now for context and the rest of the story: by state, he meant the federal government, as was clearly understood at that time. In his second Inaugural Address three years later, he said, “In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.”
3) The Right to Bear Arms – This amendment was not adopted so people could go hunting. It was adopted to prevent the rise of an oppressive government. The founders knew that all governments tend to amass power and become increasingly oppressive. It is the historical nature of the beast. They were, by no means, convinced that they had definitively solved the problem, so they embedded this to make sure that the people had recourse if the government sought to run and ruin their daily lives. Jefferson was so fearful of incipient tyranny that he thought there would need to be a revolution every generation or two to correct course. The right to bear arms was adopted to facilitate that and discourage hungry officials and bureaucrats.
The founders embedded many principles, based on their suspicion of the irredeemable ambitions of government to impose its will on citizens rather than secure their liberty. They banned ex post facto laws, knowing these are only a partisan tool. (Ex post facto laws are used to prosecute people for things that were NOT a crime when they were done). Their response to corruption was to acknowledge that wherever there was money or power, corruption would follow. So rather than prescribe carefully crafted rules which would centralize prosecutorial power, they depended on competing levels of government in which it would be to the advantage of the ambitious to ferret out the corruption of a rival agency. By simultaneously keeping the central government small, they figured corruption could never be massive or centralized.
They injected non-democratic elements of stability into the process, so that a mobocracy didn’t tear itself apart. There was no traditional reason for a bicameral legislature, as in many European countries, because there was not the division between commoners and nobility. BUT, the founders underlined the importance and sovereignty of the states with the creation of the Senate, in which each state, regardless of how populous, would have two senators – to be chosen by the states rather than directly. The House was to be the people’s populist chamber, the Senate to represent the interest of the individual states. When, in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment was adopted mandating direct election of Senators, it diminished the importance of the states while eroding one of the protections against instablility embedded in the Constitution. The Electoral College was a master stroke, emphasizing the sovereign authority of the states while preventing the “tyranny of the majority” by offering resistance to regional urban coalitions that could overwhelm rural areas AND suppressing electoral mischief by forcing conspirators to fight in as many elections as there were states rather than a single, national election. I absolutely loathe the ignorance of moderns who, without bothering to find why it was set up in the first place, reject the Electoral College as an anachronism, rather than a bulwark of liberty. When I was doing radio, I once set aside an entire day where people could call in and say whatever they wanted about the electoral college…BUT…they must first give me a short synopsis of why the founders adopted it. I have little patience for loud voices who haven’t taken the time to find out what they are talking about. Sadly, no caller cleared that simple hurdle that day. A decade ago, in response to an initiative in Illinois, I wrote this somewhat humorous piece explaining a few things.
I mentioned earlier Jefferson’s belief that a new revolution would be needed every generation or two to refresh the tree of liberty. Few of the founders were confident they had solved the problems of governments, generally, and self-government, specifically. In a letter to a military brigade in 1798, John Adams wrote that, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” When asked near the end of the Constitutional Convention what sort of government they had come up with, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A Republic – if you can keep it.” Knowing what an unprecedented effort they had made, what uncharted waters they were navigating, the founders did, indeed, give us a “living” Constitution – but not in the way leftists maintain. They gave us the amendment process, in which we could make any changes we wanted, provided we could rally sufficient support to overcome the procedural hurdles. They did this to prevent individuals from re-interpreting it to mean whatever they want over transient and ephemeral fads.
Europeans smugly expected the United States to collapse quickly – for self-governing democracies had ever been volatile machines of self-immolation – high ideal quickly succumbing to the factional war of all against all or the tyranny of the majority, then degenerating into chaos, and finally being re-stabilized by a dictatorship. In 1831, a young Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, came to America to find why this society had not already collapsed. His observations astounded him. Though the Americans made almost no government provisions for public welfare, it was handled more effectively, comprehensively, and cheaply than the most regimented European systems – all through the power of voluntary associations. Americans mainly required that government leave them alone and stay out of their way. It was astonishing, and yet it worked. In 1835 he published the first of his two-volume “Democracy in America.” It is a clear, easy read, bursting with the vitality of an author who has had a world-shifting epiphany. It is still the best, simplest, yet comprehensive exploration of the philosophical underpinnings and practical application of American democracy ever written. I have avoided extensive notes and links here, to avoid all but the necessary pedantry to establish what we were supposed to be. To check my accuracy, read de Tocqueville, the Federalist Papers, and the transcripts of the debates at the Constitutional Convention.
The point is that the dividing points are now matters of principle, not of policy. This is not a debate over whether to finance an initiative with excise or consumption taxes, after which, even the most impassioned opponents can kick back, regroup and fight the good fight the next time. A substantial minority (God help us if it were actually a majority) has decided that free speech, freedom of religion, and the right of self-defense are actually the problems. They want to fine, jail and shut down any who disagree with them, thinking if they can just muscle everyone, peace and love will follow. God is enemy number one; conservatives merely a distant second. The rule of law is just an arcane language whose proper use is to impose your will on others, not a system by which all live and are judged by the same rules. Thus, accusations of Republican jaywalking are investigated with hot pokers and the rack while accusations of Democratic sedition, murder, rape and robbery are investigated with the comfy chair and the fluffy pillow. Secretary of State nominees are judged by their commitment to LGBT and transgender fantasies – right-think as opposed to wrong-think. A religious test for holding office IS established: if you are a traditional Christian or Jew, prepare for the hot pokers and the rack. California has already functionally seceded from the union, thumbing its nose at legitimate federal law, while eagerly seeking to pass legislation to ban the sale of religious books and punishing expressions of wrong-think. (It is morbidly amusing to me to see California eagerly adopting these clearly fascist policies while simultaneously denouncing fascism).
It is a form of identity politics. The founders believed America would thrive by making rational decisions, prudently considered. The anti-God left does not believe in prudence: they believe that the consequences of prudence are actually immutable, innate characteristics. Thus, a leftist does not consider himself smart because he studies hard, uses rigorous logic, and is prudent in his conclusions; he is ‘smart’ for the same reasons he has blond hair or brown eyes – he was born that way and no work is required. This type of thinking is as deadly to institutions as it is to individuals. Few remember that Detroit was once one of the wealthiest, most well-run cities in America. For those over 55 years old, Detroit had that reputation in your lifetime. Back in the early 60s Detroit took a hard, left turn. By 1968, the city was looking pretty shaky – but Detroiters scoffed. After all, they were Detroit, the wealthiest, best-run city in the country. Nothing could go wrong. By the mid-70s, Detroit was clearly tanking – and large-scale flight from the city by people who lived by prudence and consequences was well underway. Now, the only thing that prevents Detroit from being Venezuela is that it is in the United States and is surrounded by a large safety net. California today is 1968 Detroit. Arrogantly doing self-destructive things and arguing that it can never catch up to them because they are California, they have got five years before they make Detroit look like a paradise.
As bad as all these things are, they are not the cause of our troubles, they are merely symptoms of it – the inflamed pustules that are the visible signs of the sickness within. They are the consequences of neglecting first things, foundational principles. The anti-God left neither understands nor cares why we adopted those principles in the first place – and now oppose them in their mad rush for a regimented society to relieve their never-ending, grinding misery and self-imposed victimhood. Their joyless formula for a just society is as miscast as prescribing arsenic for a headache: it will hasten their own demise. But our defenses are battered. The officials on the right are not up to the challenge. Not one in 50 understands what we were designed to be or, more importantly, why. Rather than relegate government to its rightful minimalist status, they think to better manage the unmanageable leviathan we have created. Massive bureaucracies never help (except occasionally in the very short-term) to alleviate problems. They become self-perpetuating bloated monstrosities, focused on protecting their own interests by regulating the little fellows. Officials do not tackle real problems or real criminals: that is dangerous. Instead, they make a thousand irrelevant rules on what size soft drink you can have and what pronouns you can legally use in talking of others – and ruthlessly enforce these rules to give the illusion that they are doing something without having to grapple with the sort of people that might be dangerous to them. It is why officials fight so hard to regulate the gun rights of law abiding citizens while defending actual dangerous criminals.
In Europe, leaders no longer have the wit to even take their own side in a fight. British authorities cover up large-scale systematic Muslim child sexual exploitation in the name of tolerance. Germany opens the floodgates to non-vetted immigrants from terrorist countries – and then tells women where not to go to avoid being raped by some of those immigrants. The Jihadists didn’t even have to build their own Trojan Horse: Angela Merkel and the European Union built it for them, then pulled it into the continent for them. England not only refuses to treat sick children, but invokes laws to prevent the parents of such children from taking them out of a hospital to get treatment elsewhere – so a newly barbaric Great Britain has made hospitals under the National Health Service into death camps for some of its most vulnerable citizens. Only Hungary and Poland seem determined to defend their own culture.
You want to see a preview of the times we are in? Read the history of the Russian revolution and the first few decades following it. To take a shorter road, read Boris Pasternak’s marvelous, but jarring novel, “Dr. Zhivago.” It traces, in little scenes brought together in herky-jerky fashion like an old-time kinetoscope, the transition from early idealism, to deep suffering and starvation, to murderous coercion, to a full-time artificiality in every waking moment that made the Soviet Union so grey and joyless – and where even the most thoughtful men had to pretend to the joyless grey fanaticism lest they be denounced to the gulag or death. My Lord, even as Russia recovers erratically from its errors of a century ago, the rest of the western world has been fully infected with the disease – and the fever reaches crisis.
I was still in high school when I began seriously studying societies on the border of catastrophic collapse. How to tell when a society is just going through normal conflicts that afflict all nations from when it faces existential, foundational failures? The early symptoms of both are usually very similar. It is a subject that has fascinated me my whole life. I noticed that in almost all such societies, there was a notable decline in the work ethic, focus and morality of elite classes, sometimes as early as a century and a half before catastrophe. As intellectual rigor and concepts of duty and honor gave way to intellectual pretensions and slovenliness, elites got more abusive towards their “subjects.” Elite classes became more preening about their “obvious” superiority to the unwashed masses. Self-examination and humility were replaced by triumphalist self-congratulation and frivolity. Collapse inevitably came with the degeneration of the elite, surprising near all it came to. In the 80s I realized that, in America anyway, we had a trump card that no other society I had studied did – and it was due to the original principles of self-government we adopted. We had a great middle class that, though cowed by elite pretensions, had not and was not abandoning foundational principles of faith, family, and freedom. In no other society had there been such a large, consequential class. There were the elites – and then the subjects who either went down with them or burned their own society down in affronted revolutionary rage at decades or centuries of insult and oppression. I realized that, in America, at least, though it would take massive and sustained outrages to set the fuse of the ordinary man off, once it was lit, we had a real chance of quenching the fires of revolutionary rage because of the traditional, residual, perhaps even vestigial, virtue of the ordinary man which could come roaring back to life under the right provocation. The key would be to exhort people to hold fast to those verities while re-asserting their rights rather than to burn everything down in rage.
Now we are at the precipice. Those on the left who say there is no compromise to be had this time, that one side must win and the other lose, are right. We cannot depend on officials. Too many still think they can manage the dysfunction that has beset our society – and try to talk themselves out of a mugging by leftists who have become a street gang of brownshirts. The hour of the ordinary man has come round. If our society is to be resurrected, it will come once again firmly planted in God, devoted to faith, family and freedom – resolutely refusing to participate, enable, or be cowed by the lunatic rantings of the violent oppressive left, but will act without malice towards those who will once more respect the principles of Western Civilization. Government of the people, for the people and by the people shall not perish from the earth, but will return to its proper role of leaving us alone except to safeguard our rights under God – and tolerance will be extended to all who extend real tolerance. We will once again laugh together, argue together, and love together without trying to leverage ourselves into victimhood.
We are not strangers in a strange land: we are natives in a land that has become estranged from us. It is the hour of the ordinary man – and we are called to restore our native land to its just place under God.
Ave Maria, Stella Maris!
(Part II, not as technical, will be on “The Fellowship of True Believers.”)