Subtitle: “Why I am a lower case “r” republican.”
“Bacon, Locke, and Hobbes”–actually, not a bad name for a law firm, because each of these philosophers found law to be a primary ingredient in any recipe for a system of liberty contributing to human progress.
Bacon, Locke, and Hobbes: not lawyers, but these “enlightenment,” “rationalist” and “liberal” thinkers took a look at a world tightly controlled by Church and State, and made the case that the progress and happiness of the individual was the highest order “good.” The community existed for the good of the individual. [Compare Eastern thought, where the individual existed for the good of the community].
Hobbes’s basic premise of government is the assumption that human beings left unrestrained will destroy one another, and create an environment in which the individual cannot flourish. Thus Hobbes emphasized law and the police force to restrain the human vices that would overcome human virtues.
The advancement of democracy, entrepreneurship, science, and freedom of choice, all issue forth from this idea of individual rights secured by a protective government. This matter of government is a tricky balance of securing individual freedom to prosper without undue restraint or interference of the state.
Libertarians, Republicans, and Democrats all answer this “individual–government” balance differently. Drilling down into the core principle, all three share this goal: the greatest good and happiness of the individual.
This common ground is an important point because it reveals the “American” view of community, politics, religion, and business. America is essentially “liberal” in its focus on individual opportunity and freedom; it is essentially “conservative” in its distrust of big government to know what is best for the individual, and it is essentially “libertarian” in its belief that the individual should be given broad latitude to make great mistakes or achieve huge successes, without government interference.
Of the three political views, current “libertarian” thought is most clearly focused on the idea of limiting government to its most basic functions of protecting the individual from the “me-first” destructiveness of other individuals. [The essential idea is that self-destruction is a matter of personal freedom, but social destruction is not.] The other two parties speak often of their philosophical differences, but continue to vote as two factions of one party most of the time. Can anyone really say the end of the last Bush administration produced significantly different economic outcomes than a Democratic Administration would have produced?
Much theoretical political thinking of the last three centuries has been heavily influenced by Christian Ideas. Primary among those ideas is that human nature is broken, and will tend toward destruction, greed, avarice, and abuse of power unless restrained. At the same time, there is this continuing idea that humankind is in the original Image of God (Imago Dei) and is capable of great virtue and redemption. Systems of law, government, economics, religion, of community norms, all contribute toward finding the “balance” of these coexistent truths. How do we create restraints on the individual as a society without so restraining him that any creative, enterprising, free, and unique contributions are squelched?
This battle of vice and virtue was the essential premise of Madison, Jay, and Hamilton in the Federalist papers: The government they proposed was one that placed the “natural” tendency of men to accumulate and abuse power in some degree of check. They assumed power plays, and set up a Constitution by which each branch could survive attack by the other two branches. The important point is that government is perceived by these men to have an essential role [and so they are “liberal” in view], but that it is ever at risk of usurping individual freedoms [and so they are “conservative” in view].
The paralyzing accusations between the Congress and the Presidency are foremost the result of a lack of leadership. That is, the parties pander to their “clients” and financial contributors. They “buy” votes in by asking first what is the block of votes I can secure by voting as “they” please. The “leadership” question does not get asked: “What is the best and highest good for the greatest number over the long term?” There is no lobby, PAC, or voting block associated with the “greatest good of the greatest number over the long term.” Polls and constituencies replace judgment, courage, and duty. Both parties indulge crony corporations with big tax breaks and bail outs. Both parties cater to older workers claiming they are “entitled” to “promised” benefits tied to cost of living. The list is long, and it is dismal. Current circumstances and future generations be damned.
So, the polarizing debate in Congress among the “right,” the “left” and “libertarian” is conducted in virtual ignorance of the common premises the political factions share. The wise political theorists of the past tell us not only to keep a watchful eye on government, but also to beware of the unbridled individual, who after all, would, with other corrupt individuals, form the government. This strategy is what one pastor I know aptly calls the business of “sin management.”
My own view is that without a strong moral tradition, the people, and particularly the politicians, become lazy, self-centered, short-sighted, and cowardly, and cynical. The result is that the government, and the nation, are taken “hostage” by vested interest groups, comprised of both the “poor” as well as the “rich.” Government is then in the business of pandering for votes with welfare benefits, subsidies and bailout.
A government that “bails out” its citizens and businesses in this way produces laxity, indifference, entitlement, and lack of production. The nation weakens. The common good is lost in my preoccupation of “my good” as a 65 year old Medicare recipient, or a 20 year old College student, or a 100 year old automobile manufacturer.
Thus, every government historically has seen the value of a “religion” for the people. As a lawyer I know there are not enough laws or enforcement mechanisms to regulate human behavior. Our entire society collapses if people do not “self-govern” by a set on internalized moral principles. Religion provides those. If it is the “individual” in which republican government places its trust, let’s hope this hypothetical individual is not rotten at the core, or at least that something like religion can bring “virtue” into the balance.
Is there a set of principles that comport with nature, and even more specifically, the “nature of man?” It is quite clear that human beings generally function best in societies, and that in most situations, feel a deep need to connect, socialize, and combine for their common good. Is this a “natural law?” Well, the argument could also be made that it is “natural” for a human being to dominate and use his neighbor for his unlimited selfish purposes. Thus, calling law “natural” tends to beg the question. As a practical matter, as individuals combine to disperse power among them in the interest of their maximum self-interest, “under the rule of law,” we then see the growth of republican governments over monarchies, oligarchies and dictators.
A “republican” (not the Party, but the form of government) view is that government has a limited role, expressed through laws, that check the excesses of any one person, institution or group in the quest for power and domination. If we pursued and promoted a true “republican” government, we would seek to break the domination now held by monied interest groups that seek their own agendas, and the country be damned. These include pharmaceutical companies, giant software and consumer tech companies, oil companies, telecommunication companies, teacher unions and government worker unions, and the military-industrial complex to name only some.
As I write this, the “Republican” convention is about to start in Tampa Florida. No one will take this theatrical production too seriously. All the battles will have been settled by private negotiations among the delegate holders in order to present a united front. No, I propose a true “republican” [small “r”] convention of citizens that would ask the basic question of all republican governments: how do we redistribute concentrations of power in the market place of influence to advance individual dreams of prosperity and happiness?
The answer is not found in “no government” but in the “right balance” between government and the individual’s freedom from government. Not an easy equation to solve, but one that should be the focus of the public debate in this landmark 2012 election year.
(c) 2012 FXP.