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Forces of History

At the primal level, life is about competition and selection. This truism in the world of commerce makes some men rich and others poor. This is not by chance. Some people are more able than others. They seize opportunities others do not see, and they marry and associate to reinforce their advantages. They are almost always a small segment of the total population.  Yet, the people in this segment move in and out of it, depending on the quality of decisions they make.  This segment invites envy, but the competition it instills benefits everyone.


The result of this competition is inequality. The poor man wants equality. The successful man wants freedom because it gave him what he has. He is sometimes called a conservative because he wants to preserve what he has. He is sometimes called a conservative because he wants to conserve freedom in order to give all persons, rich or poor, an opportunity to compete and seize available opportunities. By this definition, both the rich and the poor can be conservatives.


Yet, there are people who need more than they have and are unable to help themselves.  We all want to help them, and there are many ways to do this.  There are many reasons why one could be in this group, but one thing is clear:  As the size of this group grows, it becomes a strong political class supporting politicians who promise more and more help.  When government promises become the best hope for a better life, the character of these persons diminishes, and the futility of caring for themselves increases.


Men, whether rich or poor, do share a common nature. They want the same things but possess different skills, use them differently, and see opportunities differently. As a group, they also share a common morality reinforced in most cases by religion and a reverence for a larger order of things over which they have no control.  Our elected leaders fail Americans to the extent they ignore these commonalities in favor of appealing to a particular group to increase their potential power at the expense of our freedoms.


However, neither human nature, morality, religion, nor reverence can subdue a poor man’s impulse for a better life. Thus begins the perennial cycle of all civilizations, which is continuing selection and revision of methods of government to level the playing field without subduing the freedom that produces the wealth needed by all of us and without creating an environment of despair that militates against general happiness.


These methods result in different kinds of government, each having conflicting factions. Political parties arise, each representing a base supporting a different method, sometimes radically and sometimes by degree. Further, these political parties are largely ignorant of the obstacles described, which are fated in all civilizations. Those in favor of leveling the playing field to generate equality falsely assume that the productive engines of a free people will continue unabated. Those in favor of freedom falsely assume that the poor will not get so large as to rebel successfully.


The Founding Fathers selected a republican form of government — a compromise between a democracy and an oligarchy. It has endured but has reached a precipice because efforts to appease the poor have overreached our ability to produce the wealth required. Globalization has denied Congress the ability to influence the economic force of our country.  Education has been  unable to catch up with the growing complexity of our economy. Will and Ariel Durant, in The Lessons of History (1968), had this to say:


It was such men who made Jefferson president — Jefferson who was as skeptical as Voltaire and as revolutionary as Rousseau. A government that governed least was admirably suited to liberate those individualistic energies that transformed America from a wilderness to a material Utopia, and from the child and ward to the rival and guardian of Western Europe. And while rural isolation enhanced the freedom of the individual, national isolation provided liberty and security within protective seas. These and a hundred other conditions gave to America a democracy more basic and universal than history had ever seen.


Many of these formative conditions have disappeared. Personal isolation is gone through the growth of cities. Personal independence is gone through the dependence of the worker upon tools and capital that he does not own, and upon conditions that he cannot control. War becomes more consuming, and the individual is helpless to understand its causes or to escape its effects. Free land is gone, though home ownership spreads — with a minimum of land. The once self-employed shopkeeper is in the toils of the big distributor, and may echo Marx's complaint that everything is in chains. Economic freedom, even in the middle classes, becomes more and more exceptional, making political freedom a consolatory pretense. And all this has come about not (as we thought in our hot youth) through the perversity of the rich, but through the impersonal fatality of economic development, and through the nature of man. Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an added premium upon superior ability, and intensifies the concentration of wealth, responsibility, and political power.


As a result of the forces of history, our poor are increasing, the quality of education is declining, and the passions of our leaders proceed without reason or compromise or attention to history.


The intensity of the rhetoric has awakened the masses of Americans who care more about their country than they do about themselves. As Sidney Hook, The Hero in History, (1945), put it:


So long as they are permitted to grumble, most people are gratefully relieved to find someone to do their chores, whether they are household chores or political chores. Politics is a messy business, and life is short. We put up with a great many evils in order to avoid the trouble of abolishing them.


Yet it is an old story that when we refuse to upset our “normal life” by plunging into the maelstrom, and entrust power to others, we awake someday to find that those to whom we entrusted it are well on their way to destroying “the normal life” we feared to interrupt. This is not only an old story but an ever-recurrent one. It will repeat itself until it is widely realized that political decisions must be made in any event; that responsibilities cannot be avoided by inaction or escape, for these have consequences; and that, considered even in its lowest terms, political effort and its attendant risks and troubles are a form of social insurance.


Concerned citizens will readily and rightly observe that our political leaders are largely chosen (elected) by chance, for it is a rare day that there are many votes separating one candidate from another at election time. They will observe that candidates say one thing and then do another when elected. They will observe corruption in office and the abuse of power. They will observe that candidates will make any promise to get elected.  They will observe that many elected persons leave office with substantially more money than they had when elected.  They will observe that too many voters assign credibility to political promises if they are corroborated by an uninformed media staffed by people just like them and easily as biased as anyone else. They will observe a stubborn reluctance to compromise, an unwillingness to put the country first when that is required, a bulk of arrogance, and a lack of statesmanship, reverence, and harmony.


If they read Cicero’s On the Republic, they will read comments on which among democracy, oligarchy, or monarchy is the best form of government.  They will learn that a free people intend to entrust their fortunes to the best men because of their wisdom and superiority of virtue and spirit. The problem is that the best men are soon seen as the:


…rich, prosperous, or born of famous families. For when, on account of this mistaken notion of the common people, the State begins to be ruled by the riches, instead of the virtue, of a few men, these rulers tenaciously retain the title, though they do not possess the character, of the "best"….  


But what can be nobler than the government of the State by virtue? For then the man who rules others is not himself a slave to any passion, but has already acquired for himself all those qualities …. Such a man imposes no law upon the people that he does not obey himself but puts his own life before his fellow-citizens as their law.


Cicero, The Republic (Loeb’s Classical Library ed., 2006).[1]


If they read further, they will find the following words of Cicero as inspiration to do something about the unhealthy balance that our Constitution in actual operation has bestowed upon us in this changing world:


Thus, before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and imminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But though the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines….  They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but already unknown. And what shall I say of the men? For the loss of our customs is due to the lack of men…. For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the form of the commonwealth, but have long since lost its substance….


They may also read further and remark with interest the comments of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 33.


If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.


These concerned citizens will rightly ask “what is wrong with our country?” and “What can we do about it?” To the first question, their study will cause them to conclude that most of our leaders are without virtue, that they are embedded in money and power and have lost that passion to do the right thing. Sharon Krause, in Liberalism With Honor (2002), said:


Contemporary liberalism [referring to democratic liberalism and not the philosophy of a liberal] needs a richer treatment of the motivations that drive political action. The current categories of self-interest and obligations to others are too limited to capture the full complexity of political agency. Honor offers an account of motivations that bridges the gap between self-interest and self-sacrifice, and that has both natural and historical connections to the defense of individual liberties .... ***A strong sense of agency is crucial to liberal government, and as long as political power is of an encroaching nature liberalism will have need of honor. Until the day when democracy is no longer vulnerable to overreaching majorities and the abuse of power, Americans occasionally will rely on the honor of the few who stand up to resist encroaching power, men and women willing to risk their necks to defend their liberties.


Paul Woodruff in Reverence, Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (2001) said:


Leadership (as opposed to tyranny) happens only where there is virtue, and reverence is the virtue on which leadership most depends….


Reverence is the mainstay of a leader’s good judgment.  Good judgment is the intellectual virtue that guides deliberation in the absence of the relevant knowledge.  Leaders in real life must make decisions without knowing for certain how those decisions will turn out.


To the second question — “What can we do about it?” — our concerned citizens may find an answer from Niccolo Machiavelli who wrote in The Discourses of necessity:


After seeing that they would have to perish or cut their way out with the sword, Messius ordered his soldiers with the following words:  “Follow me! You have no walls nor ditches to encounter, but only men armed like yourselves.  Equals in valor, you have the advantage of necessity, the last and most powerful of weapons!”


Another question is whether Campaign Constitution has a reasonable chance of changing the character of our leaders to inspire a change in the character of our nation. You have to be the judge of that. If you are willing to take the chance that Campaign Constitution can be successful, we solicit whatever support you can provide.


[1] Cicero was trying to save the Roman Republic, but he lost.  He was murdered on December 7, 43 B.C.  His tongue was cut off and nailed to a post in the Roman forum.  A few years thereafter, the Republic ended and the Empire began.