Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Published in The Founding

Political Philosophy

Leon Kass on the Real War on Poverty

At the AEI annual dinner Dr. Leon Kass explains life--work, love, service, and truth. He concludes with the need for hope:

In this most fundamental sense, hope is not a hope for change, but an affirmation of permanence, of the permanent possibility of a meaningful life in a hospitable world. Hope in this sense is not only a Judeo-Christian virtue. It is not only the most essential--and abundant--American virtue. It is the condition of the possibility of all human endeavor and all human fulfillment. Yes, there is still much spiritual poverty in America. But we go forward with confidence that our spiritual hungers can yet be nurtured in this almost promised land, provided that we have the courage to insist that the well-being of the spirit is central to our notion of national success and personal flourishing. This war on poverty--on our spiritual poverty--will not add a cent to the deficit. It can enrich our lives beyond measure.

Today, poverty, like pollution, needs a deeper understanding.


A Primer on Middle East Democracy (Update)

Bob Reilly takes on neo-conservative Middle East expert Reuel Marc Gerecht in today's Wall Street Journal. Reilly points out that a presupposition of democracy is solution of the religious issue--that is, freedom of conscience. That is, the American model remains the most reasonable means of establishing democratic self-government.

UPDATE: The Reilly letter in op-ed form.

Categories > Religion

The Founding

Federalism (and Limited Government) Reaffirmed

Many contemporary friends of limited government adopt erroneous theories ("states' rights," secession) that actually increase the possibility of tyrannical government, as American history bears out.

Often the case for secession as a device of limited government resorts to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. But Villanova University professor (and MAHG instructor) Colleen Sheehan argues that James Madison, author of the Virginia Resolutions, had a much profounder view of not only federalism but the nature of popular government than his friend Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Kentucky Resolutions.

Whereas Jefferson sought to implement modes outside of the ordinary processes of law, in the form of constitutional conventions or negations of contractual/compact agreements, Madison sought to establish a political practice in which, whenever possible, the settled decisions of the people would control and direct government. Madison's cure was not to pit the extraordinary authority of the people against the ordinary deliberative processes of majority decision-making, but to hold the government dependent on and answerable to the deliberate, sovereign public.

Her essay appears in a series on the provocative Library of Law and Liberty website of the Liberty Fund.

Categories > The Founding


A Largely Forgotten Man

A hero to many contemporary conservatives and libertarians, William Graham Sumner (who penned the phrase "the forgotten man," which was then misappropriated by FDR), takes a beating from Steve Hayward. Sumner joined the attack on Progressive Darwinists who, along with this Social Darwinist, renounced the Declaration of Independence.

Categories > Conservatism

The Founding

Your Constitutional Authority

The Heritage Foundation has put on-line its Guide to the Constitution, co-edited by David Forte and Matthew Spalding. This is a line-by-line commentary with major essays by significant legal scholars. Heritage does terrific work with its instant digests on contemporary policy issues, but this is something different, yet relevant to policy debates.

Take this analysis of the first line of Article II of the Constitution, on the nature and scope of executive power, "the vesting clause." There's even a teacher's companion guide, besides the essay by UVA law professor Sai Prakash and a brief (and diverse) bibliography of legal scholarship.

Or consider co-editor Forte's thoughts on the commerce clause, now at the heart of the Obamacare case, to be decided by the Court this term. Are you clear on the meaning of "to ... regulate commerce ... among the several states"? And so it goes, line by line, through the whole Constitution.

The achievement deserves favorable comparison with the best encyclopaedias of legal thought, such as the grand project of the late Leonard Levy. And besides Heritage's is on-line, will be constantly updated (not a living Constitution, but a lively commentary) and free.

Categories > The Founding

The Founding

If you shoot at a King...

Dr. King then applied for a gun permit. Ann Coulter on a brief history of blacks and gun control. Gun control remains a good litmus test of liberty--whom do you trust, yourself and your law-abiding friends, or lawless people and an arbitrary law? A WSJ op-ed puts Florida's "stand your ground" law in perspective and finds it moderate, and no license to shoot at will, or even when attacked.
Categories > The Founding


Mourning Tocqueville

Yesterday marked the 153rd anniversary of the death of Alexis de Tocqueville, the extraordinary biographer of America, in all its splendor and its deficiencies. His principal virtue was his insight that liberty-smothering bureaucracy--what he termed "centralized administration"--was at the core of contemporary ills, and it would worsen, as this scandal  (more serious than the GSA) reminds us.

This Tocqueville anniversary coincides with the 100th anniversary of Woodrow Wilson's bold attack on the American founders and his celebration of the administrative state, "What is Progress?" The presidential campaign address also proclaimed the need for Darwinian science to form the basis of our political science. The contrast between Wilson--who equated democracy and socialism--and Tocqueville, who denied such equivalence is most instructive.

Obama's ill-informed attribution of "Darwinism" to Paul Ryan, et al. flies in the face of his own Progressive, Darwinian assumptions, which repudiate constitutional government and justify tyranny.

A few years ago Diana Schaub penned a typically elegant essay on the anniversary of Tocqueville's death.

Categories > Conservatism


Founding Documents Bill Signed into Law

I went down to Columbus on Monday for the Governor's ceremonial signing of Senate Bill 165, the "Founding Documents Bill."  I testified on behalf of this bill a few months ago.  State Senator Larry Obhof (R-Montville Township) led the charge on behalf of the bill that is now law. The state's model curricula will now include the Declaration of Independence; the United States Constitution, with an emphasis on the Bill of Rights; the Northwest Ordinance; and the Ohio Constitution.  The curricula will include reading the primary documents in their historical context.  As Sen. Obhof said, this law will help "ensure that all Ohioans are adequately prepared for their role in democratic self-governance."

Categories > Education


The Logic of Birthright

Instapundit point us to this incident, in which a citizen was denied the right to travel because he damaged the chip in his passport: "The claim has been made that breaking the chip in the passport shows that you disrespect the privilege of owning a passport, and that the airport was justified in denying this child from using the passport."

But is holding a passport a "privilege" or a "right"?  Interestingly the dissenters in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (Fuller, joined by Harlan) noted that "birthright" or the notion that soil determines citizenship, was associated with subjecthood--under common law, anyone born on soil belonging to the king could only leave the country with his explicit consent.  That's why that argued that in 1776 the U.S. broke from not just allegiance to the crown, but also from the idea of birthright.  They argued that American citizenship was based upon the principles of 1776--mutual consent between current citizens and any new would-be citizen.  It seems some of our bureaucrats are following the logic of "birthright citizenship" all too well.

Categories > Politics

The Founding

Founders: Historians versus Politicians

This WaPo account of how various Republicans (why only them, one might ask) use/ransack the founding fathers pits the politicians against historians who criticize this alleged naievete.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology history professor Pauline Maier, author of several books about the period from the 1760s to the writing of the Constitution, says: "It is interesting why so many politicians and even judges today want to show that their ideas had firm foundations among the founders. In some ways, I suppose that defines a new phase in the culture wars over 'who is most American.' "

But, she adds, "that can also be very regressive: No founder ever embraced abortion or endorsed affirmative action. Eight­eenth-century Americans did take rights seriously, but their rank list of rights was probably different than those of rights-conscious people today. They lived, after all, over two centuries ago and on the rights front can seem pretty dated."

Like another fine historian of the Declaration, Carl Becker, Maier falls prey to historicism, the notion that one's historical circumstances poses an absolute barrier to finding transcendent truth. Evidently, to judge just from the professors cited in this article (Jack Rakove, among others), it's the scholars versus divisive Republican politicians.

But the contrast shows how much the defense of the Constitution resides in ordinary citizens and the politicians who reflect their concern. As the Progressives predicted and urged they would, intellectuals take the side of progress and history against the people's pride in their country as founded. Of course, not all thinkers agree with those consumed by Progressivism. Here's a shorter piece.

Categories > The Founding