(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
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.