Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Descartes, Woodrow Wilson and America's Future

The Heritage Foundation did a recent retrospective on Woodrow Wilson claiming he was  the first of the progressives/liberals.  Wilson is an interesting figure.  His scholarly work had two characteristics.  First, beginning with Congressional Government (1885) - he was one of the first practicing political scientists. He did what political scientists do today - that is to collect research and analyze it.   Second, throughout his work, he expresses skepticism about whether the Founder's notions were current (then or now).  For example he argues "The legal processes of constitutional change are so slow and cumbersome that we have been constrained to adopt a serviceable framework of fictions which enable us easily to preserve the forms without laboriously obeying the spirit of the Constitution, which will stretch as the nation grows."   Wilson was a product of his time and a good deal of his writing, as well as his political efforts, was based on a strong commitment to Descartesian thinking which argues that logic can conquer almost anything.   Even thinkers on the right believe in logic, but most also recognize that there are inherent human traits that may not be changeable.  The founders argued that a strong constitutional system would make provision for those issues as in "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. 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. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." (Federalist #51)  Wilson would reject those precautions.

About 20 years ago Vincent Ostrom started a controversy in Public Administration about who the appropriate forefathers were in the field.  Professor Ostrom argued that Madison not Weber should be the founding father of the field.  Weber was much more in the Wilsonian tradition or Wilson was in the Weberian tradition.   I think a lot of the dissents around that book's thesis (one  professor wrote a series of scathing attacks on the thesis in the Public Administration Review - to which Ostrom responded in kind) came back to the same confidence that Wilson exhibited in his writing.   It was a simple standard - "you cannot turn back the clock" and its close corollary "the Constitution is a living document."   The folly of the first is that time is not continuous.   The folly of the second, is that if you carry that idea to its logical conclusion then there is no need for a Constitution or as one conservative wag commented "some would like to have the Constitution written in pencil."

On August 7, John Kessler, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles did a piece called the Crisis of Liberalism which argues that if Obama loses the liberal side of the electorate will be moved to reasses and probably recofigure itself.  Kessler writes "Beyond its bureaucratic shortcomings, however, looms a deeper problem with liberalism's understanding of human nature and the purposes of government, which led it to presume to lead and administer a free society and concoct rights to health care, housing, and a job in the first place. Heightening the contradictions could soon produce a kind of revolution all right, but not the one Obama believes in and anticipates."

I am not sure I would go as far as Kessler but believe that if Obama loses, we might well see the redeployment of the Blue Dog democrats.   The American polity is horrible divided at this point and yet there seems to be an emerging consensus that neither party has recognized.   On the one hand most Americans are skeptical of the ability of government to solve all problems.   They are concerned about bureaucratic and regulatory excess.   On the other, most Americans would extend that principle to personal choices.   On both sets of issues - economic and social - they believe in a limited form of government - much less expansive than their counterparts in Europe or for that matter much less than the line of thinkers that began with Wilson.   Whichever group can put together a coherent vision of those combined notions will have a winning majority in elections for a long time.

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