Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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Things to Think On

The spring 2012 issue of the Claremont Review of Books features an essay by the late James Q. Wilson entitled Tocqueville and America.   Wilson discusses what, in his view, the French philosopher got right, and what he got wrong.    In the course of the article he compares Tocqueville’s views with those of the Founders.

The following three questions occurred to this reader of Wilson’s essay:

1. The Difference Between Liberty and Equality

When Tocqueville approached the question of what the people want, he said the people will want equality.  when the framers asked this question, they concluded that they wanted liberty.  The struggle over the Constitution was not a struggle over equality, it was a struggle over guaranteeing freedom.  And the framers by and large succeeded.  There are pressures to use the national government to encourage equality, but those pressures have generally been resisted by people who think that the purpose of the Constitution is to preserve liberty. 

Equality is impossible to achieve without the coercion of the state, whereas freedom, while it doesn’t guarantee an equality of outcome, is a precondition for improving the standard of living.  It is no accident that even the poorest in the United States are far better off than most of the world’s population.  This is a much better situation than “equality” where everyone is forcibly adjusted to the lowest common denominator.

2. The Founders’ View of Human Nature and Its Effect on Governance

When Tocqueville asked the question: “How will people act politically,” he said the country will suffer from uniformity of opinion — they tyranny of the majority.  The framers didn’t think that; they believed that we would form factions.  Madison put it in his defense of the Constitution:  human nature will be unchanged, we must adapt the Constitution to the realities of human nature and design a system in which ambition will be made to counteract ambition.

It is interesting to contrast Madison’s view that human nature will be unchanged, with the historicist/progressive view that truth is relevant only in its own time.  John Dewey observed that “They [classical liberals like the founders] put forth their ideas as immutable truths good at all times and places; they had no idea of historic relativity, either in general or in its application to themselves.”

3. The Culture – To Rely Upon It or Not?

How will we deal with threats to liberty?  Tocqueville said that we must rely on the customs and mores of the people to defeat threats to liberty.  The framers had a different argument.  They said we must rely on institutional arrangements:  the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and the like.  These institutional arrangements will do more to preserve liberty from the threats of government than relying on the customs and mores of the people.

Wilson contrasts the framers with Tocqueville in saying that the framers did not want to rely the people’s virtue.  Certainly this corresponds with Greg Weiner’s assessment in Madison’s Metronome.   According Weiner’s thesis, patience was the only virtue that Madison said had to be relied upon in the new Constitution.  Judging from the construction of the Constitution, this appears to be the case.

However, we also have John Adams’ words to consider,

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

and Madison himself in Federalist 48.

A mere demarcation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands.

While Madison and the framers might not have wanted a Constitution that relied on the “customs and mores of the people,” they were forced to recognize that at some level it did.

Madison, Washington, Hamilton, and others all recognized that no system devised by man could be perfect, and that included the government outlined by the Constitution.  However, they thought about questions like these and constructed a system based on their conclusions.  It’s up to us to keep it running, or abandon it and all the benefits we continue enjoy because of it.


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