25 April 2014

The few, the proud and the Founders

George Will is not a Progressive. I suppose that goes without saying, since Will is a conservative, but he found it necessary to clarify the distinction in a recent column. Progressives, he writes -- referring back basically a century to the movement identified, fairly or not, with Theodore Roosevelt -- believe in perfecting democracy, in making sure that "the people" rule. The Constitution, however -- in Will's understanding, exists to limit democracy in defense of the inherent rights of individuals. In his words:

The fundamental division in U.S. politics is between those who take their bearings from the individual’s right to a capacious, indeed indefinite, realm of freedom, and those whose fundamental value is the right of the majority to have its way in making rules about which specified liberties shall be respected. 

I think he got somewhat irrationally exuberant in describing the "realm of freedom," since laws obviously define its limit. But he isn't entirely inaccurate to say that the Constitution sets limits to the scope of law; the Bill of Rights makes clear that majorities simply can't decree anything they wish. Whether you believe in "natural rights" or not (Will does), the Constitution and its amendments established individual rights while making them very hard to take away.  In any event, the dichotomy Will defines creates an inaccurate impression of Progressives hostile to the concept of individual rights. This inaccuracy can be traced to a blind spot in Will's analysis that's more telling than his own definitions. You'll notice it in this paragraph:

Government, the framers said, is instituted to improve upon the state of nature, in which the individual is at the mercy of the strong. But when democracy, meaning the process of majority rule, is the supreme value — when it is elevated to the status of what the Constitution is “basically about” — the individual is again at the mercy of the strong, the strength of mere numbers. 

This isn't so much wrong as incomplete. The first sentence, especially, is not false. But Will forgets (or, more likely, ignores) that the Founders did not think exclusively in terms of individuals. I don't think you get a complete picture of the Founders' minds unless you can also writes that in the state of nature, the many or the majority are at the mercy of the strong. The Founders, generally speaking, aimed at balanced government. While many took seriously the threat of a "tyranny of the majority," they were obviously well aware of the danger of tyranny over the majority by a few, or a one. The world of kings and nobles outside America made this danger more obvious than the theoretical danger of a tyrannical majority. Will's blind spot is his failure to recognize that the "strong" can be the "few" and not always the many -- that the tyranny of the majority is not the only tyranny possible. The Progressives, meanwhile, believed they were continuing the Founders' work. Their reforms were meant to shore up the republic's defenses against a kind of tyranny of the few -- a plutocratic oligarchy of wealth beyond the Founders' imaginings. For the last century, Progressives' opponents have accused them of warring on liberty, since wealth, from this opposing perspective, is only the product of liberty. If anything, however, the Progressives were more willing than the Founders to concede to the robber barons the fruits of their industry. They didn't want to confiscate that wealth, but they wanted to limit its power to influence politics -- and now we're told that doing so is yet another offense against individual liberty. To believe that the Constitution is concerned only, or even primarily with individual liberty really is to define "a capacious, indeed indefinite, realm of freedom" for certain individuals. That sounds like a good thing to George Will, but I wonder whether many Founders would agree. To some of them, it might sound like tyranny.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Constitution is nothing more than a scrap of overaged parchment. A military coup would end our "guaranteed" freedom pretty quickly. Anyone who believes that freedom stems from a piece of paper or the barrel of a gun has no clue what "freedom" is.