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August 27, 2003

the 18th century comments on Campaign '04

(Written while stuck in the Manchester, NH, airport, and posted on Thursday): Imagine that some of the major political philosophers of the eighteenth century are observing modern politics from their permanent perches in Limbo. What would they say?

Edmund Burke: We should normally maintain the status quo (whatever it may be), since people have learned to adjust to it and it embodies the accumulated wishes and experiences of generations. I am especially skeptical of efforts to reform societies quickly by imposing ideas that came from other cultures or from the exercise of "universal reason" (as if there were such a thing). Good conservatives are hard to find today. This Newt Gingrich person represents the polar opposite of my views. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was sensible throughout his career, from his days opposing Great Society programs to his battles to preserve welfare (always in the interests of maintaining an existing social structure). Some modern leftists are Burkeans, in their efforts to conserve indigenous cultures against markets. The IMF and the World Bank remind me of the British Raj—they are arrogant purveyors of a rationalist philosophy that will backfire in distant lands. I'd vote Green, just to shock people.

Edward Gibbon: The Roman Republic exemplified the main civic virtues: patriotism, military discipline, sobriety, love of the common good, and worldly reason. These virtues were undermined by Christianity, which was other-worldly, pacifistic, superstitious, and hostile to national pride. I have a soft spot for your deist Founding Fathers, but I can't find anyone to like these days. Conservatives share my list of virtues, but they're revoltingly pious. Things continue to decline and fall.

Thomas Jefferson: The New Dealers used to like me because I was a civil libertarian and a political populist. They built me a nice monument. Now conservatives love to quote statements of mine like "That government is best which governs least." But I've given up on politics. I don't know what to make of a society in which independent family farmers represent much less than one percent of the population. I was surprised when governments started enacting expensive programs with the intention of benefiting ordinary people; that never happened before 1850. Did the programs of the Progressive Era and the New Deal represent popular will, or did they interfere excessively in private life? I can't decide. In any case, my own dead hand should not weigh heavily on the living, so I advise you to ignore any advice I gave in my own lifetime. I now spend my whole time working on labor-saving gadgets.

James Madison: I sought to construct a political system that would tame the ruling class (to which I admit that I belonged) and align our interests with those of the broad public. The ruling elite in my day included Southern planters and Northern traders, manufacturers, and bankers. They had reasons to care about their own families' reputations (especially locally), and thus could be induced to play constructive roles. Also, they had conflicting interests: planters stood on the opposite side of many issues from manufacturers and shippers. Thus each group could be persuaded to check the worst ambitions of the others. I expected men of my class to hold all the offices in an elaborate system of mutually competitive institutions. They would seize opportunities to feather their own nests, but they would also care about the long-term prospects of their home communities, the institutions within which they served, and the United States. Therefore, they would act in reasonably public-spirited ways. In contrast, today's ruling class consists of large, publicly traded corporations. They have no concern with their political reputations, and no loyalty to communities or the nation. You moderns need to look for a different mechanism for inducing today's ruling class to serve public purposes. I do not view the system that I created as adequate for that purpose.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: All patriotic, decent people have the same interests and goals. Disagreements arise because people chatter together privately in little groups or factions, and also because some people mislead others with their clever rhetoric. A perfect democracy would have no factions and no debate. I am heartened to read in a book by Hibbing and Morse that millions of Americans are Rousseauians. They hate political debate, parties, legislatures, and professional politicians, for they realize that all decent people have the same interests. I like this Schwartzenegger fellow; he seems so natural.

Tom Paine: Most Americans still agree with me, and yet the aristocrats run things. I'm going to endorse Dean.

Adam Smith: Everyone realizes now that international trade creates wealth, that markets encourage specialization (and thus efficiency), and that official monopolies and trade barriers are bad for the economy. Fewer people pay attention to my moral philosophy and my account of civil society. I get plenty of praise, but some of it from embarrassing quarters.

August 27, 2003 12:07 PM | category: philosophy | Comments

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