Monday, December 31, 2012

George Will, Philosopher/Journalist, on the American Political Philosophy

What do Dwight Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Fleming West, James Madison, Oxford University, Princeton University, William F. Buckley, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, William Jennings Bryan, William Howard Taft, Niccolò Machiavelli, Immanual Kant, Martin Luther, and Rene Descartes all have in common?

Answer: They all appear (with correct citations) in the following George Will speech, December 4, at Washington University in St. Louis:

I'd encourage you to watch the whole speech. It runs about an hour and a half [There is a Q/A session afterward]. Here is a .pdf text of the speech.

If you don't have time, here's a selection:

To recapitulate: The ancients had asked what is the highest of which mankind is capable and how can we pursue this? Hobbes and subsequent modernists asked: What is the worst that can happen and how can we avoid it?

America's founders -- and particularly the wisest and most subtle of them, James Madison -- had a kind of political catechism, which went like this:

What is the worst political outcome?

The answer is: tyranny.

What form of tyranny can happen in a republic governed by majority rule?

The answer is: Tyranny of the majority.

How can this be prevented, or at least made unlikely?

The answer is: By not having majorities that can become tyrannical by being durable. By, that is, reducing the likelihood that a stable tyrannical majority can emerge and long endure.

How is this to be achieved?

By implementing Madison's revolution in democratic theory...

Madison's revolutionary theory, the core of which is distilled in Federalist Paper Number 10, was that a republic should not be small but extensive. Expand the scope of the polity in order to expand the number of factions. The more the merrier: A saving multiplicity of factions will make it more probable that majorities will be unstable, shifting, short-lived combinations of minority factions....

Madison related his clear-eyed and unsentimental view of human interestedness to the Constitution's structure of the separation of powers. In Federalist 51 he said: "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." That is, the self-interests of rival institutions will check one another. Madison continued:

It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

So, said Madison, we must have a policy of "supplying by opposite and rival interests the defect [to be remedied by application] of better motives."

But neither Madison nor the other Founders were saying that we should presuppose that America could prosper without their being good motives. Such motives are manifestations of good character. Our sober Founders were not so foolish as to suppose that freedom can thrive, or even survive, without appropriate education and other nourishments of character.

Of course, "religion" is one of these "nourishments of character", and that's the gist of the rest of this speech. Religion is reasonable because it secures the kind of "natural rights" that precede the existence of any government.

Will claims that Woodrow Wilson's aversion to "natural rights" [and that of all progressives since that time] "began there precisely because that doctrine [of "natural rights"] dictates limited government, which he considered a cramped, unscientific understanding of the new possibilities of politics". He criticized this "because this doctrine limited progressives' plans to make government more scientific in the service of a politics that is more ambitious".

As he sums up in the words of De Toqueville, "it is every day that [an expansive government] renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of free will from each citizen...[it] reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd."

Here is a .pdf text of the speech.

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