Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Summary of My Report at a Libertarian Conference

The U.S. Founding Fathers faced a task of enormous proportions - to create “a government of laws, and not of men”, and to make it permanent and stable. “The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages,” James Madison said then. The Founders’ work was the ultimate result and culmination of thousands of years of profound research in political philosophy. Such simplistic and primitive notions as “power to the people” and “democracy” (so popular in our age of rapid intellectual decline) were rejected by them outright because they had been proven wrong and pernicious by centuries of theory and practice. Simply giving power to numerical majorities, without further thought and ado, may be the easiest way to construct a government but the easiest ways are often the worst. A majority of numbers entails neither the rulers’ intellectual superiority nor their moral integrity nor their right to subdue the minority nor a triumph of liberty.
James Madison famously said that “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” John Adams was of the same opinion: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” And so was Alexander Hamilton: “Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”
The extreme of democracy is the ominous prospect that America faced in the wake of the Declaration of Independence. In U.S. historiography and political discourse, both leftist and rightist, there’s a tendency to turn a blind eye to the excesses and atrocities perpetrated by some democratic Radicals in this era, to excessively praise and glorify the Patriots and to demonize the British. It cannot be denied that many of the Patriots’ grievances were justified and that they had a right to fight against tyranny. But it is not that simple.
For one thing, the British constitution was then the freest in the world and the American colonists owed most of their rights and liberties to the English model. Moreover, for all his atrocities, George III may have been the most “liberal” tyrant in the history of the world. As Lord Acton put it, “no other Revolution ever proceeded from so slight a cause.” It is also interesting that many British politicians supported the American Revolution and that Britain agreed to separation pretty quickly. Besides, many American supporters of Britain demonstrated remarkable wit and wisdom - such as Byles Mather, who said: "Which is better - to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?”
To boot, there was the imminent danger of British monarchical despotism being replaced by American mob tyranny. People suspected of British sympathies (“Tories,” “loyalists,”) were being routinely lynched and their property was confiscated.
Democracy is guided by the spirit of passion and is often impervious to the dictates of reason. The following case is illustrative: in 1770 British soldiers fired into a crowd in Boston. The mob, driven by anti-British sentiment, had a verdict of its own before any fact-finding could take place. It was one of the Founding Fathers, John Adams, who defended the soldiers and demonstrated that they had been attacked by the crowd. Adams was perhaps one of the best guardians of the rule of law - he refused to either become a “king’s man” or submit to the whims of the democratic crowd. Law is blind to the wishes of any faction, royal or popular. Below is a quote from his speech, as shown in the HBO miniseries John Adams (surprisingly, some of the overtones sound almost Objectivist):

When people are taxed without representation, they are sometimes to feel abused. And sometimes they may even rebel. But we must take care, lest borne away by a torrent of passion we make shipwreck of conscience. The prisoners must be judged solely upon the evidence produced against them in court and by nothing else. (…) Facts are stubborn things. See, whatever our wishes, our inclinations or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. You see, the law on the one hand is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners. But on the other hand, it is deaf as an adder to the clamors of the populace.

The democratic trend resulted in proto-socialist debt relief laws passed by state governments, as well as paper money issued to alleviate the plight of poor farmers. Paper money led to inflation, which in turn led to price controls. “The rights of individuals are infringed by many of the State laws - such as issuing paper money, and instituting a mode to discharge debts differing from the form of the contract,” Madison said at the Philadelphia Convention.
The onslaught of democracy culminated in post-Independence Pennsylvania, where the local Radicals sought to bring about something very similar to the French Revolution. Events resembling the Jacobin Reign of Terror and proto-socialist efforts to “spread the wealth around” are characteristic of this period.
The state governments of the pre-Constitution era entrenched radical democracy by concentrating almost unlimited power in the lower houses of their legislatures - governors and upper houses were extremely weak, while the judiciary was heavily dependent on the whims of the majority. Some states even had unicameral legislatures with gubernatorial figureheads and absolutely impotent courts. Edmund Randolph (governor of Virginia in 1786-1788) stated at the Philadelphia Convention:

Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitutions. It is a maxim which I hold incontrovertible, that the powers of government exercised by the people swallows up the other branches. None of the constitutions have provided sufficient checks against the democracy. The feeble Senate of Virginia is a phantom. Maryland has a more powerful senate, but the late distractions in that State, have discovered that it is not powerful enough. The check established in the constitution of New York and Massachusetts is yet a stronger barrier against democracy, but they all seem insufficient.

These developments greatly troubled those who were subsequently called the Federalists, and they held the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 to put an end to the excesses of democracy. This was perceived by the Anti-Federalists as a design to impose aristocratic despotism. What they failed to grasp is that,. though the new federal government created as a result of the convention did infringe on individual rights in some cases, such infringements were no more severe than those perpetrated by the more “democratic” state governments and the mobs that stood behind them.
Indeed, many Anti-Federalists and their heirs, Democratic Republicans, supported such an abomination as the French Revolution well into the Reign of Terror. Moreover, French ambassador to the U.S., Citizen Genet, took part in the creation of Democratic Republican societies. It is noteworthy that the U.S. Founding Fathers sought to replace democratic chaos with the rule of law at about the same time as the French plunged into the hell of a democracy more extreme than ever seen before.
Some American radicals, Anti-Federalists and Democratic Republicans also exhibited a proto-socialist tendency characteristic of democracy. Thomas Paine advocated progressive taxation, state pensions and public works, while Thomas Jefferson supported state education and state-funded poor relief. Below is a famous (or infamous) Jefferson quote that sounds pretty leftist:

I hope we shall take warning from the example [of England] and crush in it's [sic] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws our country.

Many modern libertarians eulogize the Anti-Federalists and hail them as the foremost defenders of liberty, while the Federalists, especially Alexander Hamilton, are generally demonized and presented as forerunners of the total state. This fallacy stems from the fact that both the Anti-Federalists and modern (non-Objectivist) libertarians are not so much pro-liberty as anti-state. Driven by anti-government sentiments, they often ignore the real problem - the promotion of liberty - and focus on non-essentials. Even moderate governments that protect individual rights are presented by them as devils incarnate, while any society where there is no state, regardless of mind-boggling genocide perpetrated there, is seen as an idyllic libertarian utopia. In this bizarre worldview, only the state can violate individual rights, while private individuals are seen as incapable of such violations - no doubt a relic of the naive noble savage myth. That is why they embrace either pure democracy or “democracy gone wild” - i.e. anarchy (many modern anarcho-capitalists hate democracy but there is still a fundamental affinity between these doctrines - they’re both “pro-people” and “anti-government”). Hence their support for the lifestyle of primitive tribes with dismal living standards and their extremely misguided foreign policy agenda - since they hate governments in general and the US government especially, its foreign policy is presented as imperialistic and evil. Since they loathe the state, many libertarians have supported tactical alliances with communists, the New Left and Arab terrorists (they’re also state-haters!) and supported Marxist-Leninist and Islamist uprisings against U.S.-backed regimes. It is interesting that Murray Rothbard rejoiced when South Vietnam was occupied by the communists.
That is why such thinkers fail to comprehend the gigantic significance of the U.S. Constitution. For them, it’s as evil as the constitution of any government. But that is not the case. For the first time in history, a nation escaped both the dangers of anarchy-cum-democracy and despotism. Luther Martin stated at the Philadelphia Convention:

This general government, I believe, is the first upon earth which gives checks against democracies or aristocracies.

A system of popular elections at every level of government is a safeguard against despotism but the extreme of democracy is prevented by a carefully constructed array of checks and balances, including a strong presidency, a powerful Senate, an independent judiciary, the Electoral College etc. Though I disagree with Lord Acton’s “democracy” definition, I agree with the idea:

It was democracy in its highest perfection, armed and vigilant, less against aristocracy and monarchy than against its own weakness and excess. Whilst England was admired for the safeguards with which, in the course of many centuries, it had fortified liberty against the power of the crown, America appeared still more worthy of admiration for the safeguards which, in the deliberations of a single memorable year, it had set up against the power of its own sovereign people. It resembled no other known democracy, for it respected freedom, authority, and law.

To sum up, the U.S. Constitution safeguards individual rights both from the government (arche) and the people (demos). It established neither a “governors’ republic” nor a “people’s republic” but a republic of laws.

P.S. You can find the full version of the report (in Russian) here and here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely brilliant. One of the best modern essays on political philosophy I've read (and I've read quite a few). Stylistically, it could use a few touch-ups (sentences edited for length), but in terms of content, very thought-provoking. I enjoyed the Russian presentation as well - thanks for uploading it.