Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

Monday, August 31, 2015

The only enduring freedom is embodied freedom

"The only freedom which can last is a freedom embodied somewhere, rooted in a history, located in space, sanctioned by a genealogy, and blessed by a religious establishment.  The only equality which abstract rights, insisted upon outside the context of politics, are likely to provide is the equality of universal slavery. It is a lesson which Western man is only now beginning to learn. And at great cost."

- M.E. Bradford, A Better Guide Than Reason:  Federalists & Anti-Federalists (Transaction Publishers:  1994), pg. xviii.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Three qualities of Ronald Reagan that shaped his political success

Former Reagan domestic policy assistant T. Kenneth Cribb writes about three characteristics of Ronald Reagan that helped guide his work as a politician and leader:  Ronald Reagan and the Moral Imagination.  As Cribb begins his discussion of Reagan's traits:
On the occasion of the centennial of his birth, I am going to make three assertions about Ronald Reagan that will be considered novel in some quarters. I’m going to argue:
  • Ronald Reagan was an intellectual in the only important sense of that word.
  • Ronald Reagan was a man of orthodox Christian faith.
  • The victory over Soviet Communism was made possible by Ronald Reagan’s power of moral imagination.
Read the article for a fascinating glimpse into the personality of the man who was possibly the most successful conservative president of the last century.   I found Cribbs' discussion of Reagan's religious faith to be the most interesting -- his guiding belief in divine Providence is certainly echoed by other American presidents, including our two greatest, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  And Reagan had a firm grasp of the necessity of religious faith in preserving a culture of freedom here in the United States.  As Cribbs quotes Reagan saying:
Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience. Without God, we’re mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God, there is a coarsening of the society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Hillary, the Democrats and the Cannibal Vote

In reference to Donald Trump's evangelical vote—which doesn't really exist—a left-wing $25/hour college adjunct "professor" wrote at me [such types do not write "to," only "at"]:
I find it very interesting how a group of people that purport to have high moral values will be able to willingly vote for a man who does not share those moral values. 
How tiresome and judgmental. Better to have no values atall, then, like the Democrats defending organizations that tear out babies' faces and sell the bodies for spare parts? As they said of Franklin Roosevelt, if he "became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs, he would begin fattening up a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday."

Surely, Planned Parenthood's cannibalism is little different from the actual thing. And there's Hillary Clinton, calling the GOP "terrorists" for wanting to defund these monsters.

At long last, ma'am, have you left no sense of decency?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Two Constitutional Monologues Do Not Make a Dialogue

At some level, maybe Obama's onto something with all his executive orders and unilateral executive action. He claims -- disingenuously, I think -- he can't get a dialogue with Congress, so he just monologues into law. Despite the wail of constitutional conservatives, myself included, clearly the American people don't put much premium on it. Reminded of the three-branch model, the voting public clearly accepts some coloring outside the lines.

So why, then, do conservatives still expect to get return-on-investment by insisting the only way to challenge a Supreme Court decision is to amend the Constitution? This comes up in the debate over birthright citizenship. Frankly, I don't care much about the policy and would rather have this conversation over the Court's befuddling and tragic abortion precedent, but one must take civics lessons where one finds them. The precedent on the birthright citizenship question, based in the Fourteenth Amendment, is weak either way. (James Ho and John Eastman, both former Justice Thomas clerks, each vigorously represent the two opposing views.) Seems like a clear case where Congress could step in with its own independent take on the language in question: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

Yet most conservatives -- even many who desperately oppose illegal immigration and do not want the Fourteenth Amendment to support birthright citizenship -- assume this constitutional question must be settled by Court monologue. They take it as read that you have to send up a test case to the Supreme Court, and when it upholds birthright citizenship -- as it certainly will -- you're stuck with amending the Constitution. And on cue, they will cite hoary old Marbury to you, that "It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is." Then they will give you that self-satisfied look, as if to say, "I think I've made my point." For these "legends of our own time," as Hadley Arkes describes them, "Marbury v. Madison has come to mark the power of the Court to strike down an act of Congress as unconstitutional. More than that, it has been taken to establish this cardinal point: that the Supreme Court must stand as the sole authoritative interpreter of the Constitution."

"But," Arkes demurs, "that extravagant proposition is nowhere to be found in the text of Marshall's opinion in Marbury v. Madison." Arkes is right, as I will let him explain in a moment. But as a common-sense proposition, consider what it would mean if the Marbury hawks were right. The Constitution, they explain, makes the Court the sole expositor of the constitution, and we know that because the Court told us so, and it is the sole expositor of the Constitution. It is textbook circular reasoning.

Justice Marshall, to the contrary, argued it straight. "Marshall was able to show then why the law of the Constitution must take precedence, in any case, over a statute or an act of ordinary law. If judges confronted, in any case, a tension between the law of the Constitution and the law of a statute, Marshall showed that the Judges would be obliged to accord a logical primacy to the commands of the Constitution....Marshall had claimed nothing for the judges that could not have been claimed for any other officers of the government."

Over a century later in 1927, writing for the majority in Adkins v. Children's Hospital, Justice Sutherland confirmed the point:

"From the authority to ascertain and determine the law in a given case, there necessarily results, in case of conflict, the duty to declare and enforce the rule of the supreme law and reject that of an inferior act of legislation, which, transcending the Constitution, is of no effect and binding on no one. This is not the exercise of a substantive power to review and nullify acts of Congress, for no such substantive power exists. It is simply a necessary concomitant of the power to hear and dispose of a case or controversy properly before the court, to the determination of which must be brought the text and measure of the law."

Thus, the " say what the law is" is not the same as the authority to dictate what the Constitution says. It simply makes the point that one branch cannot dictate hermeneutics to another. The example Arkes likes to use is that the Court may -- must -- independently access natural reasoning to discern that a new law that overcomes an earlier statute yet must also accede to an earlier constitution. To take an even simpler example, consider that the word "unconstitutional" never appears in the Constitution, yet the Court routinely and (sometimes) rightly strikes down acts of the people's legislatures on the basis of this invisible concept. These are concepts that transcend the Constitution. Yet they are something quite different from deciphering what "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" means.

O'Connor's dissent in City of Boerne v. Flores completes the circle, inviting Congress to join the Court in dialogue over the Constitution's meaning:

"This recognition does not, of course, in any way diminish Congress’ obligation to draw its own conclusions regarding the Constitution’s meaning. Congress, no less than this Court, is called upon to consider the requirements of the Constitution and to act in accordance with its dictates."

Of course, this invitation to collaborate in interpretation is not an invitation for Congress to exceed its powers, whether under Art. I sec. 8 or Am. V sec. 5, as O'Connor goes on to explain: "But when it enacts legislation in furtherance of its delegated powers, Congress must make its judgments consistent with this Court’s exposition of the Constitution and with the limits placed on its legislative authority by provisions such as the Fourteenth Amendment."

The point is, we're on dangerous ground if we've set up the Court as the divine last word on all matters of interpreting the Constitution. It puts too many issues too far away from regular lawmaking, and puts our policies out of step with other civilized countries (for example, on birthright citizenship and abortion). And it is particularly dangerous when lawyers and jurists have demonstrated a willingness to find a fully formed positive law in the Constitution, just waiting for the right plaintiff to midwife it into existence. That seems not very conservative to me, and even less sensible. 

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Abraham Lincoln was not the father of big government

That's the point brought out in in this piece over from the Heritage Foundation:  Was Lincoln the Father of Big Government?   As author Julia Shaw notes, it was not Lincoln who developed the idea of big government, but later progressive leaders like John Dewey, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who crafted the modern idea of big government.  While the government did expand under the Lincoln administration, that was to deal with the emergency of the Civil War.  Lincoln had no desire or intention to craft a permanent expansion of the federal government once that crisis was over. 

Lincoln biographer Alan Guelzo comes to much the same conclusion as Shaw in this piece over at National Review Online here.  As Guelzo notes, federal spending and the reach of the federal government grew under the Lincoln administration, but only because of the pressures of the Civil War and inflation that the war inflicted on the economy.  Once the war was over, spending ratcheted down dramatically as the North returned to normalcy and the South was Reconstructed.  As Guelzo puts it:
Yes, the federal government grew enormously under Abraham Lincoln. But that was only in comparison to the bite-sized federal government that had prevailed in the 1850s, and it occurred only under the unprecedented circumstances of civil war. The real measure of Lincoln’s “big government” is how quickly it shrank back to more recognizable proportions once the wartime emergency was over. Rahm Emanuel might say that Lincoln wasted a good crisis. It would be better to say that Lincoln managed a crisis without making it worse.
Guelzo's post is a welcome reminder that our second-greatest president believed in natural law, a free economy, and a limited role for the federal government in fostering and nurturing that economy.  He was a conservative in the tradition of classical liberalism  -- which means to say that he was a Whig.  As was another notable conservative on the other side of the Atlantic, Edmund Burke. While classical liberalism is not without its flaws, it fits within the broad tent of modern conservatism.  Certainly Lincoln's emphasis on natural justice, on the idea of equality under the law while recognizing that human beings have inevitable inequalities in terms of ability, on the notion that the role of government is to foster human liberty rather than to dictate outcomes, fit into what anyone today would recognize as a conservative viewpoint.  When taken together Lincoln's views paint a picture of a prudential and conservative approach to political order.

Interestingly enough, the points made by Shaw and Guelzo are echoed by one of the current writers most hostile to Lincoln, Thomas E. Woods.  Woods describes the point at which the executive branch of our federal government became so powerful in his book 33 Questions About American History You're Not Supposed to Ask (Crown Forum:  2007), pg. 136:
Was there a turning point that brought us down this road?  Abraham Lincoln certainly exercised extraordinary executive powers during the Civil War, as his supporters and critics alike acknowledge, but the very fact that the sixteenth president acted during wartime limits his usefulness as a source of precedents for peacetime chief executives (although to this day the "even Lincoln did thus-and-so: argument is still to be heard during episodes of government mischief).
If we had to pinpoint a single individual as being responsible for the modern presidency, it would be a man who in word and deed, in theory and practice, brought unprecedented vigor and visibility to the presidential office.  It would be a figure loved and admired to this day by mainstream Left and Right alike. It would be Theodore Roosevelt.
Big government is the result not of Lincoln's presidency or his policies, it is the product of the progressive era in American politics, the late 19th and early 20th century period that nationally coincides with the administrations of TR, Taft and Wilson.  It is at their doorstep that credit for a dominating executive branch and an expansive federal government needs to be deposited.  Leave poor old Abe Lincoln alone.  He simply wanted to save the Union for constitutional government.  Big government was neither his intent nor his effect.

Lincoln was a prudential conservative, committed to the principles of natural law and a limited government that was active and robust within its sphere of legitimate authority.  His defense of the Union, his devotion to the Constitution, and his desire for careful and cautious reform (evident in his approach to the issue of slavery) denotes him as a conservative, not a radical or proto-modern liberal.  In both good and ill, Russell Kirk was right when he adjudged Lincoln a conservative statesman. While there is much that is imperfect in Lincoln's political thought, there is much more that is right and in accord with a conservative approach to government.  Efforts to cast him from the ranks of conservative thinkers & leaders are mistaken.

Related items:
  • Here are some more popular but incorrect ideas about Lincoln, debunked over at the Washington Post by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer:  Five myths about Abraham Lincoln.
  • University of St. Thomas law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen has a lecture posted on Vimeo and hosted by First Things on Lincoln's approach to the Constitution. Worth a watch

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The conservative vision of John Dos Passos

I first became aware of John Dos Passos thanks to an introductory course in American literature I took at my local community college in 1989 or so.  The University Bookman has published this overview of the thought of Dos Passos by the late Richard F. Hill: Dos Passos: A Reassessment.

Hill points out the considerable evolution that Dos Passos underwent over the course of his productive life, moving from communism to conservatism, eventually becoming enamored with the ideas and image of Thomas Jefferson.

The Jeffersonian mythos provides the key approach to politics and human flourishing that motivated Dos Passos in his shift from the totalitarian Left to a more traditionalist vision of community and order. As Hill explains:
It is the dream of the little man, the small farmer and worker who wants to be free from centralization and tyranny, whether it come from business or labor, the right or the left. It is represented by what are surely his most sympathetic characters throughout his fiction, early and late. They are the real keys to Dos Passos’ sympathies and the best evidence for his consistency.
The whole piece by Hill is much worth reading, and provides significant insight into the work of one of the most overlooked American writers of the 20th century.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

The bonds of unity in the young American republic

For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.  
- President George Washington (1732-1799), Farewell Address (1796).