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.

This entry was posted in philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.