Saturday, September 14, 2013

"Progressives" and the Principles of the Founding



Re the Robert Kraynak lecture Jonathan Rowe links here, Dr. John Fea, eminent historian, author of the universally well-received "Was America Founded as a Christian Nation", friend of this groupblog, professor at Messiah College, and all-around good guy opines:
 "I am not so sure the founders, as products of a world that was very different from our own, should serve as such a definitive guide for so many of the modern problems we face today.  I am always a bit skeptical when someone tries to suggest how the founders would react to 21st- century developments that would have been foreign to their 18th- century world.
 I like his point that both conservatives and progressives appeal to the founders for support."
I don't know if John would be insulted to be identified as a gentleperson of the left, but I do think that this points up the contemporary contradiction of the left---modern progressives alternately 1) disavow the relevance of the Founders and then 2) turn around and claim them.

Modern liberalism is only 100-150 years old, and not atall the same thing as the "classical" liberalism of the Founders.

If we're going to dump the Founding principles, fine--the Constitution permits amending them. But let's start being more honest about what we're doing.  Modern leftism has a weak claim on the Founding, if any, and we need to start telling it like it is, or there's no point in studying our history atall.

21 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Kraynak said, more or less as I understand him, that the leftists "remix" the Founding. I'm putting it in modern technospeak that Kraynak didn't use.

It might have something to do with his East Coast Straussianism. But it plays into notion, now popular by Jack Balkin who I don't think cares or knows anything about the Straussians, posits of "Living Originalism."

Kraynak said on equality Jeffersonian ends plus Hamiltonian means = Progressivism.

Though I'm not so sure how concerned Jefferson was with economic redistribution via state and local governments, my recent study of Founding era Agrarian laws shows there was concern for economic redistribution that existed apart from the radical European en-lighteners like Rousseau.

Tom Van Dyke said...

my recent study of Founding era Agrarian laws shows there was concern for economic redistribution that existed apart from the radical European en-lighteners like Rousseau.

Some [Paine comes to mind], but it didn't nearly happen. Talk is cheap.

Egalitarianism is the progressive/European thing, but it's not synonymous with equality.

J. L. Bell said...

The claim of modern conservatives on America's Founders is also weak, and even more so when some try to bluster their way into an exclusive claim.

A clear-eyed view of the Founders would recongize that they had both conservative and reformist impulses.

Joe Winpisinger said...

Jefferson was actually quoted as supporting some sort of distribution. I will have to find the quote but he was writing to Madison from France lamenting about the poor. He supported a possible major inheritance tax, limiting some poor classes from taxes, and a graduated property tax.

I was shocked when this was presented to me.

jimmiraybob said...

Joe, is it this one?

"A power to dispose of estates for ever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural." Smith said: "There is no point more difficult to account for than the right we conceive men to have to dispose of their goods after death."(1)

or

"In the earlier times of the colony when lands were to be obtained for little or nothing, some provident individuals procured large grants, and, desirous of founding great families for themselves, settled them on their descendants in fee-tail. The transmission of this property from generation to generation in the same name raised up a distinct set of families who, being privileged by law in the perpetuation of their wealth were thus formed into a Patrician order, distinguished by the splendor and luxury of their establishments. From this order too the king habitually selected his Counsellors of State, the hope of which distinction devoted the whole corps to the interests & will of the crown. To annul this privilege, and instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger, than benefit, to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, & scattered with equal hand through all it's conditions, was deemed essential to a well ordered republic."(2)

See also Adam Smith (3) and Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice (4).

In general, it was seen as a violation of the natural law to sequester wealth in land intergeneratonally, thus depriving those of each new generation the opportunity of access to wealth. Many of the founders did not like aristocracy, or inherited privilege.
1)http://www.economist.com/blogs/lexington/2010/10/estate_tax_and_founding_fathers

and

http://books.google.com/books?id=5zUbAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA124&lpg=PA124&dq=%22A+power+to+dispose+of+estates+for+ever+is+manifestly+absurd.%22&source=bl&ots=vKbsH0jcxI&sig=3OY9mQAkuzw7NrzxIkZRDM4n5fU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Vls2Uv36NMLhrAGGjoCgAw&ved=0CEoQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=%22A%20power%20to%20dispose%20of%20estates%20for%20ever%20is%20manifestly%20absurd.%22&f=false

2) http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s20.html

3) http://www.salon.com/2001/02/15/estate_tax_2/

4) http://www.ssa.gov/history/tpaine3.html

jimmiraybob said...

"If we're going to dump the Founding principles,..."

Can you list the principles being dumped?

jimmiraybob said...

As Madison put it (1):

"In every political society, parties are unavoidable. A difference of interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of them. The great object should be to combat the evil: 1. By establishing a political equality among all. 2. By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 3. By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort. 4. By abstaining from measures which operate differently on different interests, and particularly such as favor one interest at the expence of another. 5. By making one party a check on the other, so far as the existence of parties cannot be prevented, nor their views accommodated. If this is not the language of reason, it is that of republicanism."

1) CHAPTER 15|Document 50

James Madison, Parties

23 Jan. 1792Papers 14:197--98

@

http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s50.html

Tom Van Dyke said...

Blogger J. L. Bell said...
The claim of modern conservatives on America's Founders is also weak, and even more so when some try to bluster their way into an exclusive claim.

A clear-eyed view of the Founders would recongize that they had both conservative and reformist impulses.


Not really, JL, that's the same happy gloss--simplistic "both houses" talk--I'm objecting to from John Fea. you gentlepersons of the left are going to have to start getting specific if you want to claim the Founding for Obamacare and the like.

Per Kraynak, the Founding principle is indeed one of "negative" liberty and the government being granted only limited and enumerated powers--not the power to be all things to all men.

As for Jefferson's musings, quite so. and Tom Paine circa 1795 if anyone's interested.

But again, talk is cheap, and the Two Toms were the biggest talkers of the revolution. [Neither did shit to actually win the Revolutionary War.] Their/the redistributionism--"positive liberty"---of contemporary progressivism has no claim on the Founding.

This isn't to say that welfare statism isn't the best course for us in the 21st century--that's a political discussion--but it is to say that opposition to such leviathan statism has a better claim on the Founding principles.

And Madison is ill-used here by "jimmiraybob", a vague philosophical comment unmoored from any relevant context. Relevant to the discussion is President Madison's 1817 veto of a public works act, that Congress has overstepped its powers.

http://constitution.org/jm/18170303_veto.htm

"To refer the power in question to the clause "to provide for common defense and general welfare" would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper. Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms "common defense and general welfare" embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust."

Yup.

jimmiraybob said...

"TVD", your tenacity in twisting and turning to defend your extremist rightwing(1) narrative is charming.

However, principle founders at the time of the founding and thereafter held what would be derided by your talk radio-programmed ilk(1) as evil progressive views.

Please feel free to now carry on your deluded ideological culture war(1).

1) resorting to TVDism sans the gutter scholarship terms such as "Neither did shit" etc., so on and so forth.

Tom Van Dyke said...

In other words, you have no principled reply so you need to resort to personal attacks.

Go in peace.

jimmiraybob said...

TVD - "In other words, you have no principled reply so you need to resort to personal attacks."

I had a bet with a friend that this would be your response. Thanks, I'm now a beer richer.

You're not much at recognizing or at least acknowledging sarcastic irony.

You are impervious to reasoned argument if it's not supporting your ideological narrative.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Personal attacks again. Go in peace, sir.

jimmiraybob said...

Woohoo! I appealed to my local Commission on Dubious Internet Wager Resolution and they voted unanimously that I was to be awarded a second beer based on their being so impressed with your doubling down.

I will now go in peace.

Tim Kowal said...

Here's my founding quote on "redistribution" for the potluck:

"The balance of power in a society, accompanies the balance of property in land. The only possible way, then, of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue, is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society; to make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may he possessed of landed estates. If the multitude is possessed of the balance of real estate, the multitude will take care of the liberty, virtue, and interest of the multitude, in all acts of government." --John Adams,1776 letter to James Sullivan.

Having paid the price of admission, my take is that it is quite true that many of our problems would be quite foreign to the founders, and any advice they might have for us would have to be translated through our new political and intellectual realities. The Adams quote, for example, reminds that America's abundance of land and its agrarian economy (the "virtuous farmer") was thought to provide the economic-cultural support necessary to sustain the republic. We're well beyond that now.

Blah blah blah. So what? We still know the kernel of the founders' thinking. That may not tell us how they would vote on any particular bill today chosen at random, but it does tell us generally that there was no legal or constitutional apparatus then to support much of what we're doing today. What would we say in response? That we in fact did develop such an apparatus? Not with a straight face. We print Supreme Court decisions much the same way we print money -- based on fiat. This is why CJ Roberts is reportedly so worried about the institutional integrity of the Court. Without popular opinion backing it, it's got nothing else. In terms of Constitutional integrity, it's out of gas. Like the dollar went off gold, the Court went off the Constitution Standard. The alternatives are to amend the Constitution, or to apply it, and the Founding provides the only real intellectual basis for doing the latter.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"The balance of power in a society, accompanies the balance of property in land. The only possible way, then, of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue, is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society; to make a division of land into small quantities, so that the multitude may he possessed of landed estates. If the multitude is possessed of the balance of real estate, the multitude will take care of the liberty, virtue, and interest of the multitude, in all acts of government." --John Adams,1776 letter to James Sullivan.


Good quote, Tim. In an agrarian society, land is necessary for the acquisition/creation of wealth.

Today, that role is held by education, and indeed, we do subsidize that. [In the California constitution, education is established as a right!]

FTR, "distributivism" isn't the same as "redistribution." The former is about equality of opportunity, that the community is charged with providing the individual the resources necessary to flourish. This is why John Adams mentions "virtue"--you still have to work the land.

Not the same as redistributionism/socialism atall, which merely divvies up the crops after someone else has grown and harvested them.

Tim Kowal said...

Land-to-work versus entitlements seems a sensible and intuitive distinction to me, too. But drawing distinctions is inherently a defensive activity. And they are almost certain to be utterly lost on anyone not already inclined to find them. The Left, already perfectly happy to carry on without a metaphysic, sees distinctions as merely a matter of taste, not injunctions of reason.

jimmiraybob said...

TK - "Land-to-work versus entitlements seems a sensible and intuitive distinction to me, too."

I actually like this sentiment. How do we implement it?

And welcome to the discussion.... having properly paid the admission price of course :)

Disclaimer: If the people of the world are divided into left and right, assuming that the professional bartender occupies the zero point, I am likely seen as a gentleperson of the left. This, at least would be a fair starting assumption.

Tim Kowal said...

Thanks for the disclaimer. I'll proceed with appropriate caution. ;-)

There is nothing to "implement" because of the drastic changes over the past two centuries. There may be an argument that the post-war highway programs could be grounded in the spirit of land-to-work. But that's a stretch. What we have to do is approach it from a higher level of abstraction, i.e., that the land-to-work idea is based in a principle of economic opportunity.

Then the trick becomes knowing when to stop taking the thing to still higher levels of abstraction. For the higher in the clouds we go, the further away we get from a roughly market-based economy to a centrally managed economy. The Left's tendency, for example, might be to say "we are for economic opportunity as well! This is what affirmative action is all about. This is what redistribution is all about. That is what pay caps is all about. Setting the 'playing field' aright," at so on. At which point we must revisit and recalibrate the other functions and limits of a republic. Even were all these appropriate goals, do the limits of government allow us to achieve them? If not, what is to be prioritized, governmental limits or some tolerable degree of inequality of economic opportunity? And so on. And that is after skipping the merits of whether and to what degree these problems exists, whether the cure is worse than the affliction, etc.

More than other conservatives, I think, I am ready to concede some discomfort with economic inequality to the extent it results from centralized banking. The bankers who get the first stab and newly printed money have a significant privilege over the rest of us. But I'm not willing to back to Jefferson's agrarian republic, nor am I willing to go the full distance to a wholly planned and government-managed economy (let's at least keep our fig leaf, please).

jimmiraybob said...

So far so good.

In the name of successful negotiating I'll concede that I am very sympathetic to the concern regarding building a dependent subculture. I hope that you will kindly not pass this around - I don't want to get thrown out of the leftist union. Say what you will but I like their annual spring picnics.

I have to meet some people at the pub but I hope you'll be around some more. But, before I go, I'll say that I think that on a moral and practical level it's imperative for a proper government to provide, as best as possible, a reasonably stable and secure polity. I don't know if this so far is left or right or liberal or conservative.

With that being said, what's the modern counterpoint to property ownership with respect to wealth and security (and enfranchisement)? And what's the translation from agrarian to the newer metric?

jimmiraybob said...

jrb - "...what's the modern counterpoint to property ownership with respect to wealth and security (and enfranchisement)?"

TK - "...a principle of economic opportunity."

I think that my question was answered before asked.

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