Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Human Nature and Justice

In Federalist Paper 51, Madison says that government (and the form and structure it takes) can be understood as “the greatest of all reflections on human nature.” This statement is not only a clever observation on how people behave, but a deep philosophical question on the meaning of justice. Notice that Madison never says that the purpose of government is to make people happy or prosperous. For Madison, the best outcome that any government can achieve is to preserve the liberty of its people and to ensure that justice prevails over injustice. As Madison himself noted, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” From this statement, we can infer that all government results from the observation that men are not virtuous.

Human beings may seek virtue, and they may even, from time to time, behave in a manner commensurate with goodness and mercy, but they cannot be relied upon to either know virtue when they see it, or to act upon it in all circumstances. Therefore, if men are to live together in social harmony, which (according to Hobbes) is preferable to living in a state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” then some form of government is required to ensure people’s natural rights. And what are these natural rights? As proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal insofar as they have certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, these rights, at the time Jefferson lived, were not actually enjoyed by all men in all parts of the world. Men in slavery certainly did not enjoy the benefits of liberty. But these statements of natural rights were the foundational principles upon which the new government in America was to be constructed. It would be necessary later to enshrine these principles in a constitution whose structure would, as far as humanly possible, ensure their survival and adoption in the new society which would emerge as a united republic.

The problem facing Madison and other proponents of a new constitution was how to persuade people that a stronger federal government, whose central powers were consolidated and superior to those of individual states, was a good thing. The theme of Federalist Paper 51 is to combine two ideas: human nature and justice, and demonstrate why justice is not possible when left to the tender mercies of human nature. Why is this? Is there really such a thing as “human nature”? In other words, is there any common value or belief or desire which all human beings have shared throughout history? Let’s start with the elementary idea that all people at all times have desired life. Then, add the observation that all people in all parts of the world have desired liberty. Finally, it isn’t just Epicureans who believe that it is better to be happy than to be miserable. The other belief which John Locke articulated is the near universal attachment to private property. People like to hold on to what belongs to them. This is why theft is despised and unlawful throughout the world, and for pretty much all of history.

Clearly, these ideas are common to almost all people on Earth. So it was appropriate for Jefferson to enshrine these principles into a document stating these values which all Americans cherish. So, right in the beginning we have a tension between the natural right (and desire) to be free, and the natural right (and desire) to preserve one’s life and property. It is Madison’s belief that the best means of preserving these rights is through a representational form of government backed by a constitution to which all (or a majority) of the people will give their consent. In other words, Madison believes that a constitutional republic is the best solution to the age old problem of how to combine liberty with justice, and by doing so, to obtain not only the consent, but the active participation of a majority of the people.

Madison’s argument depends, in part, on his conception of human nature. Is human nature the same throughout history, and does it apply to all generations of people living in all parts of the world? Well, this is the very premise of natural rights theory which lies at the core of our Declaration of Independence. The truth is that natural rights theory is an articulation of philosophical principles that run throughout recorded history, at least as far back as Genesis. It is based on the idea that human beings have certain characteristics in common which separates them from other creatures in nature. But the differences between men and other mammals goes far beyond biology. Aristotle, Epictetus, and Saint Augustine all believed that human beings have a special desire (and responsibility) for living a moral life. This desire is manifested through man’s aspiration to raise himself above the other creatures of nature and to live in social harmony in cities. The virtuous life is something greater than mere survival in the darkness of caves. To come out of the cave and live in harmony with other people requires that men control their emotions (their primal animal impulses) and make sacrifices for the greater good of the community. In other words, self-restraint, which is a mild form of self-denial, is the basis for civil society. Saint Augustine would say that man is subject to God’s law which is preserved in the Ten Commandments. Epictetus would say that we are always ruled by forces (fate) which we cannot control, so we ought to accept the limits that life imposes on us.

Madison, naturally, does not believe that individual self-control is up to the task of good social behavior. That is where government comes in. Thus, our own constitutional government acts as a kind of proxy for God. It rules over us with our consent just as all mortals live under the eye of God who will judge us according to our deeds. But the advantage of constitutional government over theology is that we feel like we have a voice in our own governments behavior. If we accept the benefits of civil society, then we all agree to be bound by its laws. This is the nature of the social contract. And as Madison would say, without the restraint of law, liberty and peace cannot endure.

That takes care of human nature. So what about justice? Throughout the history of philosophy (and the history of man), there has been a lot of talk about justice. Back in Homer’s day, when Greeks worshiped a pantheon of gods, the only justice worth talking about was the kind backed by the point of a sword or the bolts of lightning thrown by Zeus. Much of the Old Testament is filled with stories of God dealing a harsh kind of justice such as the great flood, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Either way, the idea of justice is always connected with the idea of law, for law is the primary way that people distinguish good behavior from bad behavior. What is referred to as natural law is simply the extension of God’s law to human behavior. Now, the secular version of natural law might be understood as the physical laws of nature, such as gravity or inertia. But the human equivalent to the laws which govern nature are the civil laws which govern human society. Every society has some version of a penal code which is nothing but a set of rules which describe what the appropriate punishment is for breaking the laws of society.

Justice, as a principle, is a hypothetical state in which the guilty are always punished, and the innocent are protected from harm. In this respect, justice is always a balancing act between chaos and authority. Thus, no society is perfectly just. Every society has its wrong doers and its criminals who ignore the rules which other people obey. On the extremes of society are law and order in which everyone obeys (a police state) and anarchy (no one obeys). The question for Madison and other proponents of the constitution, is which form of government will come closest to bringing about the ideal of a just society. He believes, as I do, that a constitutional republic is the best compromise we have available, given the moral limitations of humanity. By building into the structure of government some reasonable limits on power and authority, and making government officials accountable to voters, the extremes of bad government or anarchy can mostly be avoided. Whether he was right or wrong on this point is debatable. In the long run, only history and future generations can judge.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

FEDERALIST PAPER 51 (Government and Ecclesiastes)

Reading through the Great Books often reminds readers of the old saying: the more things change the more they stay the same. The book of Ecclesiastes (GB Series 5) phrases it very eloquently: “there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.” We could reply; of course there’s something new, how about computers? The author of Ecclesiastes obviously didn’t know about computers; or cars or microwave ovens or pacemakers. Ecclesiastes is just plain wrong. There are lots of new things. Besides, what does all that have to do with the Federalist Papers?
These essays were written nearly 250 years ago. But look at this claim James Madison makes in Federalist Paper 51: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights.” That statement could just as easily have been written in today’s newspaper (even in online computer format). Civil rights is a topic that’s been on the American radar screen for a very long time. And religious rights have moved back onto center stage in the context of faith-based “factions” (the phrase Madison used) and their relationship to national health care issues. Madison didn’t know about the Civil Rights Movement and he wasn’t aware of the fine print in modern health insurance policies. But he knew a lot about human nature.
So what, we ask? Is “human nature” all that important in an essay about the structure of government? Wouldn’t “human nature” be more appropriate for a philosophy class? Madison doesn’t think so. When it comes to the subject of government Madison thinks it matters a great deal that we take into account the kind of creatures we’re trying to govern. Which leads us right back to one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy: what is man? What is the nature of man? Or, to put it in a way that sounds a little odd, what is the nature of human nature? (This sounds like the Lion in the Wizard of Oz asking: What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the "ape" in ape-ricot?) What is the “nature” of human nature? What makes us human?
This question is very much on the mind of someone trying to figure out the best form of government; human government. So Madison asks the readers of Federalist Paper 51, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Our answer to the question “what is human nature” holds the key to answering the question “what is the best form of government.” What Madison is looking for is a government that will work for human nature as it really is, not as we wish it would be. And here we have to be honest. We can’t ask men to do more than they’re able to do. We can reasonably expect men to do the right thing most of the time, but we can’t expect them to act like angels all the time. Madison says “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Since men aren’t angels, what kind of government is best?
This is not a new question. When the curtain of history goes up on the world’s stage we already find civilized people living in towns and cities. They aren’t sitting around a campfire in a cave someone found by accident. They’re building cities and pondering the question: what kind of government is best? In the Federalist Papers people are building a new nation and pondering the question: what kind of government is best? In a way, there really is nothing new under the sun. Computers are new, communication is not. Cars are new, transportation is not. Microwave ovens are new, eating warm food is not. Pacemakers are new, medicine is not. The author of Ecclesiastes was apparently looking for an underlying principle of things. In that sense, there really is nothing new under the sun, not even new nations. In that sense, Madison agrees.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

FEDERALIST PAPERS 15 (Government and Justice)

The Great Books cover a wide range of subjects. But of all the subjects we’ve read about and discussed, Government is surely one of the most complicated in the whole series. Why? In Federalist Paper 10 Madison said “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man…” Madison makes the point that the subject of Government is complex because the nature of Man is complex. Factions are just one small problem in this much larger and broader idea we call Government. The over-arching question posed by the Federalist Papers (and by extension, the question of America itself) is whether ordinary people are capable of governing themselves.
Federalist Paper 15 tries to answer this question from several different perspectives. And these perspectives in turn raise counter-questions of their own. For example, Hamilton (the author of this essay) says, “If the road over which you will still have to pass should in some places appear to you tedious or irksome, you will recollect that you are in quest of information on a subject the most momentous which can engage the attention of a free people…” Remember, the over-arching question is: can ordinary people govern themselves? Here’s the counter-question: will ordinary people stay very long on a road that even Hamilton admits is “tedious and irksome”? Thinking about Government is hard work. Reading the Federalist Papers is hard work. Some people will actually take the time to read the Federalist Papers and study the Constitution. They understand what it takes to be a “free people.” Will ordinary people do that? Is it necessary for ordinary American citizens to read the Federalist Papers and know how the Constitution works?
It may not be necessary to fully understand the Constitution in order to know how the United States Government is supposed to work. Hamilton says we can also learn “lessons from that best oracle of wisdom, experience…” Most Americans have not read, and will not read, the Federalist Papers. But we’ve basically learned from experience what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do. We know if we get caught robbing a bank we’ll end up in jail. We know instinctively, without having read the Federalist Papers, the reason we have Government is to stop people from doing things like robbing banks. Hamilton puts it this way: “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.” Is it really a primary purpose of Government to restrain the passions of its citizens? Once again we find ourselves talking about the nature of Man. What are ordinary people like? Would we rob banks if there were no laws and police (Government) to stop us? Do we have to be forced to follow reason and justice?
We find ourselves moving from one complex idea (Government) to another one (Justice). We ask a simple question: what is the purpose of Government? Instead of a simple answer we get a complex question: what is Justice? We can’t understand the purpose of Government until we know what Justice is. Ok, then what is Justice? It’s not the purpose of Federalist Paper 15 to answer that question. However, Hamilton does point out how the idea of Government and the idea of Justice are closely related to one another. Government and Justice are not just vague philosophical ideas. They’re related down on the ground level of ordinary human experience. Hamilton knows ordinary Americans will ask “Why should we do more in proportion than those who are embarked with us in the same political voyage? Why should we consent to bear more than our proper share of the common burden?” Why should I pay more taxes than you? Why is my son going off to fight a foreign war while your son gets to stay safe at home? Federalist Paper 15 may not have all the right answers. But it does ask the right questions.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Idols of the Cave

Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world. (Francis Bacon, "Novum Organum")
After last night's discussion, I can't help wondering whether democracy is a failed experiment, or simply the worst form of government imaginable, especially if one judges our government by the quality (virtue) of the people who participate in its operation.  I am willing to admit, this may be an unfair judgment based on the rather biased impression created by mass media. Yet, when I hear people claim (as I did last night) that the proper role of a congressman is to satisfy the desires of the people who voted him (or her) into office, I begin to understand why both Plato and Aristotle had so little respect for democracy as a form of government.  I used to think that what people wanted in their representatives was a devotion to truth, morality and common sense. Now, I see that what people really want is someone who can influence legislation and public policy to benefit their own constituency. Forget about what is good for the country; just manipulate the system so that it benefits the people back in your own congressional district.
So, this is what democracy has become: the acquisition of power in order to exploit the federal government into giving as many tax breaks, jobs, welfare, porkbarrel or other concessions to local voters as one can force down the throats of the opposing party. In other words, democracy is just a political transaction in a zero-sum game of all-against-all. This sounds a lot like Darwin's model of natural selection. This is a model that describes how animals in nature thrive and multiply by adapting to the environment they live in, rather than by changing it.  So if people in Congress are thriving (i.e. getting re-elected over and over) by giving voters exactly what they want, then Congress is no longer an institution of government, but has devolved into a house of prostitution.  For it requires political courage to oppose the wishes of voters, especially when passions are inflamed over certain hot button issues like taxation, immigration, abortion, foreign aid, or environmental regulation. But if our representatives aren't willing to stand up to the pressures exerted by the media, lobbyists and various political action committees, then who will?
Most people are unwilling to serve in government because it takes a lot of time and money to run a political campaign in order to get elected. Then, before you've even had time to get comfortable in your new office, you have to start planning for the next election cycle, which means raising money for your campaign. That doesn't leave much time to become acquainted with all the issues concerning national policy. Most people don't have that kind of time to devote to all these issues concerning foreign policy, domestic policy, climate change, defense spending, same-sex marriages, capital punishment, drug enforcement, off-shore tax shelters, pollution, fracking, or consumer safety. Most people just want to go to their jobs, earn a pay check, then go home to their families and enjoy what little time they have before going back to work the next day. That doesn't leave much room for becoming politically informed about the issues of the day. This is why we elect other people to represent us in Washington. Yes, we have lots of opinons on things, but our opinions are often (all too often) based on half-truths, innuendo, rumors, and out-right lies which are given space on the pages of magzines and newspapers or web pages we glance at while drinking our morning coffee.
Democracy, to be effective, really needs a broad based constituency of people willing to get involved in the day to day issues. But as voting statistics show, fewer and fewer people even bother to vote. They either despair over the corruption in Washington or the sheer incompetence of the people they have elected. Either way, they have turned away from poltics to lose themselves in a relentless pursuit of pleasure. And who can blame them? People feel that the system is broken and they feel betrayed. They no longer believe that anyone in Washington is telling the truth, or is capable of making a difference. This is called disengagement. When people no longer care to even listen to what the pundits are saying, then the game is lost. Now, we can go back to our sitcoms, our sporting events, and our video games, and lose ourselves in a virtual fantasy realm in which everyone has enough to eat, and no one is going to bomb us or molest our children. We even have a word for it...malaise.  Malaise is the contagion of prosperity. It prevails when democracy has run its course. Then, when the truth becomes too uncomfortable, we buffer our pain with prozac, lithium, seconal or valium. Whatever it takes to get through the day.
Of course, this was all foreseen by our founding fathers who tried to build in a safety valve for our disenchantment. The balance of power in our consitutional system was supposed to innoculate us from our own worst tendencies-- our impatience and our tendency toward pessismism. Madison was well aware that people are easily led astray and become infatuated with prophets. These are the people who rise up in times of despair to promise deliverance from our troubles. But when these charletans are unable to bring us to the promised land, the people become jaded and think the whole system is rotten. This generally happens when the economic cycle goes around and the next wave of misery unfolds. Before you even know what happened, the stock market crashes, banks become insolvent, jobs disappear, factories close, people lose their homes. Then the crime rate goes up and our prisons fill to capacity. These are the times that try men's souls, the winter of our discontent. This is when democracy either survives through the integrity of its institutions, or succumbs to the next incarnation of political imposters pretending to have a cure for what ails us.  It doesn't matter if the prophet is named Huey Long, Dewey, Roosevelt or Reagan. There is no magic bullet or cure for what ails us. Even Moses could not restore prosperity when faced with an utter collapse of faith.
Our sytem of government rests on a delicate balance between fear and apathy.  This is probably why Jefferson believed that every 20 years or so, the people should start over and form a new government. Not because they are bored, but because the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots. You don't know (or appreciate) what you have until you lose it.
But do we really need a revolution every 20 years in order for democracy to survive? Not all calamities have a happy ending. Look at Germany in the 1930s when their currency became infected with runaway inflation. They ended up with Hitler. But there was no coup d'etat; they voted him into office.  The German people put Satan on the throne and worshiped him. So there is no guarantee that democracy will survive in the long run.
Our own government is a work in progress. It is not the government that Madison, Jay, and Hamilton envisioned for us. They could not possibly have imagined the bloated, buraucratic welfare state that we see today. They had something much smaller in mind, a modest conception of a republic that did not presume to world domination, much less become the savior for other backward economies and peoples who neither understand democracy or desire its effects. From our limited vantage, it is unclear whether we shall eventually triumph and overcome the temptations of pride, or fall from the world's stage and be remembered as an interesting but failed experiment in the history of freedom.

Monday, August 11, 2014

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS 10 (Special Interest Groups)

Americans hear a lot these days about “special interest groups” having too much power and influence over politicians. Who are these people anyway? And what do they want? In Federalist Paper 10 James Madison calls these people “factions” and tells us what it is they want. Madison’s definition of a faction is this: “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” This is superb English prose. But it’s not easy to understand; partly because of Madison’s elevated writing style, partly because of the complexity of the problem. Federalist Paper 10 is a good place to start if we want to understand the role of special interest groups in America.
First of all, Madison says factions are composed of citizens. In the United States these would be American citizens. Citizens of Canada or Mexico may have shrewd political insights, but they don’t vote. Special interest groups share a common goal and they want to turn American votes toward that goal. And the goal they want may be “adversed” (against) the interests of the rest of the community. Or, it could be that this group is more concerned with short-term or regional benefits instead of the “permanent and aggregate interests” of the whole country. But special interest groups (factions) generally believe passionately in what they’re doing. Otherwise, they’d be doing something else. The problem Madison is trying to solve in this essay is what to do when these factions come into conflict. How can we hold the country together if everybody is passionately pulling in different directions?
For example, I may think my own faction is good for the country. It may be true I’m making lots of money or gaining power because of certain national policies or regulations. But I would tell you that’s not the main reason I support my faction. I would say I just want what’s best for the country; like Henry Ford’s old saying: what’s good for Ford is good for America. But I may think your faction is driven purely by greed or its cousin, envy. You’re just trying to get special tax breaks or more tax dollars. Or you want things that aren’t yours. In short, my faction is patriotic and good, your faction is self-centered and bad.
This is only a slightly immature interpretation of a much deeper, and more serious, political problem. The United States fought a bloody Civil War because competing factions had competing visions of America; not just over what was good for the country, but a deep divide over the role of national government in our daily lives. Madison knew there would be a lot of money and a lot of power at stake under a federal government. Any time there are big changes there will be big winners and big losers. But Madison also knew factions contain many of the country’s best people, at least in the political sense. Factions are formed by citizens motivated enough to engage in public debate and they’re passionate enough to contribute personal time and money in the formation of public policy. Madison doesn’t think this is necessarily bad. In fact, he seems to think America should encourage this kind of participation in the political process. He says “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire…” The way to make factions go away in America is to take away the liberty of its citizens. But take away our liberty and America will suffocate. Madison doesn’t believe we’re just a random collection of individuals roaming the same geographical area. He wants a unified America. In that sense America is a big special interest group within itself.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014


Last night, we discussed the Federalist Paper no.2 written by John Jay. Before long, we became entangled in a conversation about natural rights and how the new constitution being proposed by Jay would require people to yield some of those rights to a new government. It sounded to me as though people assume we are born completely free and that our government (or any government) takes away part of that freedom in exchange for certain benefits. There is some truth to that view but, in my opinion, it is based on a misunderstanding of both history and political theory.

The language adopted by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence uses the expression “inalienable rights,” among which are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Now, we might ask where this notion of inalienable right comes from? Are we born with it already in our minds like one of Kant’s innate ideas? Hardly. It is a concept whose roots go back as far as Thomas Aquinas, and in its current manifestation is largely derived from John Locke, who enumerated one’s inalienable rights as being “life, liberty and  property.” Jefferson’s phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” is a more general application of our understanding of what freedom entails.
Now, the idea that people might have natural rights at birth is not new. It is an idea that became fashionable during the Enlightenment. Although, the idea that we are born free is popular today, we might very well ask ourselves, is it rational? what does it mean to say that we are born free? One obvious meaning is that we are not born into captivity; thus, we are slaves to no one. But this was certainly not true of everyone at the time that Jefferson was writing. Even today, if you are born in North Korea or Somalia, just how free are you? Until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, no one living behind the Iron Curtain had the option of leaving, so we could hardly have said that everyone was born free.

Jefferson was not naive. When he used the expression “inalienable rights” he meant in principle, not in day-to-day reality. Men everywhere want to be free and their various forms of government ought to acknowledge that freedom. In Jefferson’s opinion, any government that does not recognize our inalienable right to freedom is illegitimate and ought to be overthrown. The concept of inalienability, or rights that cannot be (lawfully) taken away from you, is derived from the theory of natural rights. Natural rights are simply rights that people have prior to the formation of governments. They are inalienable because they are part of the human condition. They are not articles of clothing which can be torn from an individual, leaving him naked and powerless to the mercy of strangers.
On the other hand, not everyone agrees on the existence of natural rights. Nietzsche and Hegel certainly didn’t. Neither did Plato, Aristotle, or any of the Stoic philosophers. In the old Roman Republic, only Cicero advocated the idea. To everyone else, the idea of having natural rights  would seem quite bizarre. The truth is only Roman citizens had rights; everyone else was at the mercy of fate or the will of the gods. I’m pretty sure the Taliban do not teach any theory of natural rights to the people under their control. But the truth of a theory is not contingent upon the number of people who embrace it. Whether or not natural rights were originally derived from God,  they are “natural” today because they do not depend on any particular government. As Hobbes noted, they precede the formation of government. So, even in a state of nature, you still have those rights, though not everyone will acknowledge them.

Rights vs. Obligations:

We Americans are in love with the idea of freedom. Libertarians, for example, seem to think of freedom as their unrestricted right to do whatever they please, without interference from any government. This is a very expansive view of freedom, hard to justify when not everyone obeys the law. But every right carries with it an implicit obligation. If you think about it, this only makes sense. I have a right to go wherever I choose to go until I run up against my neighbor’s fence. His right to privacy and his ownership of property is a limit on my personal freedom to roam wherever I choose to go. Likewise, every right I possess carries with it an obligation to respect the rights of other citizens. This is not just courtesy. These rights have the force of law behind them. Otherwise, they would not be obeyed by anyone at all (well, angels maybe; but as Madison pointed out, human beings are not angels.)

Politically speaking, the idea of freedom is a conditional proposition. No one is absolutely free because we are all subject to the laws of nature. Only a supernatural entity (such as God) could ever be described as unconstrained. The doctrine of natural rights originally grew out of a recognition of our own physical limitations. In theory, we may enumerate whatever rights we think are useful and appropriate to our happiness. However, in the real world (i.e. the political world) rights that are unenforceable are considered moot. Any belief in natural rights is contingent upon a belief that there is an all-powerful being, such as God, who is capable of enforcing those rights.

From a Christian or Jewish perspective, the calculus of rights and obligations comes directly out of the original contract established between man and God after the Great Flood when evil was purged from the face of the earth. Later, in Genesis, this contract was renewed through Abraham and Moses. Every appeal to natural law has roots in this theological story. The commandments inscribed on the stone tablets which Moses brought down from Mount Sinai are the first vestiges of law which define the nature of contract. These are the obligations that man agrees to in order to receive the protection and grace of his Creator. It is a one-sided contract because God has all the power. Yet, mankind either submits or is destroyed. For some people today, these laws also serve as divine instructions on how mankind ought to behave.

Ok, so we have laws engraved in stone. But where are the benefits? What do we expect to receive from God if we hold up our end of the bargain? Here is where we might begin to reflect upon the value of the social contract. Both Hobbes and Locke agreed that mankind behaves better in society than in a raw state of nature. But the benefits of society come with a price, and the most noticeable price we pay as individuals is a willing sacrifice of some portion of our natural liberty. The arguments over the Constitution and how much power to surrender to government reveal today how much or how little people are willing to trust in the behavior of their fellow citizens. For people whose welfare was not considered in the establishment of our republic (for example, slaves and women, neither of whom were given the right to vote), they had no other recourse than to appeal to the good conscience of their fellow man. Yet even then, one has to question the basis for having a good conscience.

Where, ultimately, do our ethical values come from? Is it from above or within? Because until a proper foundation is established for morality, it is fruitless to expect anything better from governments that are instituted by people who are unwilling or unable to govern themselves. This is why Plato was convinced that to have virtue in government, you first needed to cultivate virtue in the people. And this remains a central problem today: should we look to government to provide moral guidance, or should we ourselves strive to be guided by moral principles, and by doing so, create a fertile environment for the cultivation of public virtue? The balance between freedom and virtue is always tenuous. In the best of all possible worlds, we would not have to choose one over the other. A virtuous people should always give rise to a government that preserves our liberty and our fortunes. But experience is our guide, and we know that power and virtue seldom remain in one another’s company. So, advocates for the constitution like Hamilton, Jay, and Madison believed that this document would, in time, become our safeguard against the temptations of power and the inconstancy of men. Were they right?

Monday, August 04, 2014

THE FEDERALIST PAPERS #2 (Anti-Federalist Ideas)

In the first essay Alexander Hamilton admits all the Federalist Papers will be one-sided. They will all try to convince the reader to support a new Constitution for the United States. He says, “I affect not reserves which I do not feel. I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation when I have decided. I frankly acknowledge to you my convictions, and I well freely lay out before you the reasons on which they are founded.” This is a very polished way of saying: I won’t try to hide my feelings. I’ve already made up my mind that I’m FOR the new Constitution. But I didn’t decide to support it without looking at the facts first.
John Jay is the author of the second Federalist Paper. His mind is made up too. He’s also FOR the new Constitution. As Great Books readers we’re aware these writers will only show us the good side of the proposed Constitution. That’s fair enough (as long as we know beforehand). The other side of the argument we’ll just have to supply for ourselves. For example, Jay says, “Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers.” Well. That settles that. If “nothing is more certain” then there’s certainly nothing more to say. But how do we know Jay is right? Politics isn’t mathematics. Maybe there’s more than one solution. Only the most devoted anarchist would dispute Jay’s claim about the “indispensable necessity of government.” We need some form government. Almost everyone agrees Jay is right about that. But is it “equally undeniable” the people must give up “some of their natural rights” and form a large centralized federal government, as Jay is arguing here? That may not be the only choice. As Great Books readers we may want to ponder a few Anti-Federalist ideas. Is it really true that we all have “natural rights”? If so, then why is it necessary for us to give them up? Which ones do we have to give up? Could we keep our natural rights if we formed smaller local governments instead?
Jay and Hamilton shared the same vision of America. That’s why they wanted to unify the political power of thirteen separate states into one big federal United States of America. Jay expressed his vision of America this way, “…Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs…” Many Americans today don’t share that vision. An Anti-Federalist might say Jay’s vision of America is too narrow. A contrary vision is to celebrate the diversity of people and create a multi-cultural society. This wouldn’t necessarily mean dumping our Constitution but it’s certainly different from Jay’s view of our country.
Jay also poses his own question: “…why is it suggested that three or four confederacies would be better than one?” Good question. Why would breaking up into smaller separate countries be better than one big country? Here’s one possible answer. Take a look at any recent electoral map of the United States. It seems to divide up naturally into regions: New England (blue), the South (red), the Midwest (mostly red), and the West Coast (blue). These are distinct political regions with distinct social and cultural views and values. Here’s a second possible answer to Jay’s question. The United States covers a huge geographical area and governs people who don’t always share the same social and cultural values. How can we possibly be governed well from one centralized location? Wouldn’t smaller administrative areas be easier to run? Who knows? Questions like these show why all Americans should read The Federalist Papers.