We have met the enemy, and he is us

Yesterday’s post was a look at the tension and strife afflicting present-day America. In a comment, reader ‘Magus’ said:

Obligatory libertarian quote: if the Constitution/US political framework set up by founders was unable to prevent the current state of affairs it was either complicit in it or failed to stop it.

Either way, it was faulty.

I’ll respond, for starters, with a less-than-obligatory pedantic nitpick: the conditional ‘if’ was unnecessary. Clearly the Constitution has been unable to prevent the current state of affairs, because here we are.

That aside, though, the question is a good one: why was the Constitution unable to prevent the current state of affairs? Is it reasonable for us to expect the Framers to have come up with a Constitution that could have done the job?

Having never tried my hand at writing a Constitution, let alone a Constitution that must be agreeable enough to all concerned as to be ratified by a diversity of States with widely varying economies and local cultures, I’ll say that the task might be trickier than it seems.

Take, for example, the question of amendments. If a Constitution is to serve for decades or centuries, it will surely be tested by circumstances wholly unforeseeable to its designers. Make it too inflexible, and it will become useless and obsolete, and will simply be ignored, or discarded. But if we make it too easily altered, then it ceases to be a Constitution at all: rather than being the bones of a nation, it is no more than a garment, subject to every passing fashion.

Consider also the question of the judiciary. Unelected and unaccountable, the Supreme Court has has taken unto itself a sovereign and absolute power, beyond the reach of any appeal by the people. Yes, this power is limited by the Court’s inability to rule proactively; it can only exert its authority when a case is brought before it. But it is precisely those questions of the deepest national import that do come before it, and its rulings depend, often, on the whim of a single Justice. Once rendered, those rulings are the absolute law of the land. In this way the Court can usurp, as capriciously as any tyrant, the legislative and executive power — and the people can do nothing about it, short of amending the Constitution, which in a nation riven by factional strife is a practical impossibility. But without a strong judiciary, what is there to prevent the other branches from ignoring the Constitution altogether? Without some means of validating legislative and executive action against the strictures of the “supreme law of the land”, why have a Constitution at all?

You begin to see, I hope, how difficult all of this is. The Constitution that the Framers created was, in my opinion, a work of genius, and it served the nation well for what was, in terms of the histories of republics, an impressively long time, under rapidly evolving conditions. (If you disagree with all of this, I’ll ask you to set aside an hour or two of your time, and write a better one.)

But a constitution is not a nation. It is only a plan for the structure of a nation: a blueprint, an architectural diagram that describes the contours and load-bearing members of an edifice that must ultimately stand up, or fall down, in the real world — and in engineering terms, the reliability of a structure depends upon the materials we build it with. If you are building a nation, those materials are its people, and their culture.

Here we come to the heart of the matter. The plain fact is that building a working system from nothing — and nothing, or perhaps just a lot of rubble, is what we would likely be starting with, if we were actually to get the chance to try our own hands at government-building — is almost certain to be far more difficult than we, in our armchairs, might imagine. Given the latter-day condition of the American people and culture, the likelihood is that should the gathering storm break upon us, and the cataclysm come to pass, our little plans and designs will be swept away in a far more untidy process than we would prefer, and elementary Power will find its way to the top. Even the startlingly original edifice we call the American Founding was built, not ex nihilo, but on a deep and unshaken foundation of British traditions, and raised by a broadly homogeneous people who, for all their regional variations, had a very great deal in common.

This, then, is what is essential for success, far more so than this or that political form: a basic commonality that can be a foundation for comity and cooperation; a sharing of culture, history, folkways, and heritage that is sufficient for the private life of the home to extend smoothly into the public square without the perceived infringements of social liberty that lead immediately to divisive resentments; and some broad agreement on those things that are to be held sacred, and that form the basis of civic virtue.

With those things in hand, there are all sorts of political systems that can work tolerably well, but without them there are none. It is the great tragedy of our time that we have squandered them all. Might a better Constitution have prevented that? I doubt it very much.

21 Comments

  1. Malcolm says

    P.S. I ought to have mentioned that the last few paragraphs paraphrase a comment that I left on this post over at Social Matter.

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  2. c matt says

    In short, diversity is our weakness.

    I agree that no particular form of government immune form deterioration can be erected. Because people. Politics and government are downstream from culture. If you pee in the culture, . . . .

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  3. Overall, your pessimism is warranted.

    The Founders did achieve something special and the task before them was of such a difficulty that no one today can fully appreciate.

    It is a shame that neoreactionaries, as of late, have done so little work on the founders. There is a distinct lack of interest. Perhaps, it has something to do with the high level of Catholics and Orthodox Christians. The founders were all Protestants….

    You write:

    “That aside, though, the question is a good one: why was the Constitution unable to prevent the current state of affairs? Is it reasonable for us to expect the Framers to have come up with a Constitution that could have done the job?

    We took a crack at this here:

    https://imperialenergyblog.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/a-steel-cameralist-manifesto-part-4b3-american-fascism-how-the-founders-fought-and-lost-against-the-minotaur/

    BTW the book recommendation (Crisis and Leviathan or something) is on our “to read” list. From what we can see, the thesis that war and economic depression lead to growth of state power is consistent with our own:

    https://imperialenergyblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/26/the-steel-cameralist-manifesto-part-5a-the-european-minotaur-of-war-i-the-origins-nature-and-development-of-the-minotaur/

    https://imperialenergyblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/03/the-steel-cameralist-manifesto-part-5b-the-european-minotaur-of-war-ii-war-made-the-state/

    You write:

    “The plain fact is that building a working system from nothing — and nothing, or perhaps just a lot of rubble, is what we would likely be starting with, if we were actually to get the chance to try our own hands at government-building — is almost certain to be far more difficult than we, in our armchairs, might imagine. Given the latter-day condition of the American people and culture, the likelihood is that should the gathering storm break upon us, and the cataclysm come to pass, our little plans and designs will be swept away in a far more untidy process than we would prefer, and elementary Power will find its way to the top. Even the startlingly original edifice we call the American Founding was built, not ex nihilo, but on a deep and unshaken foundation of British traditions, and raised by a broadly homogeneous people who, for all their regional variations, had a very great deal in common.”

    Very true. The likelihood that any “restructuring” will occur without any disruption is highly unlikely.

    This is why Moldbug’s “corporate” approach was so interesting and valuable. It can put to one side contentious issues of religion, culture and identity and treat the matter as if it were just a corporation and nearly everyone works or has worked in a corporation.

    “This, then, is what is essential for success, far more so than this or that political form: a basic commonality that can be a foundation for comity and cooperation; a sharing of culture, history, folkways, and heritage ”

    Yes. That is part of the tragedy. However, if there is to be hope, then keeping one’s metaphysical and moral commitments to a minimum is the best way to go. (Though, a negotiation strategy would advise a different approach.)


    Might a better Constitution have prevented that? I doubt it very much.”

    We would answer that yes, a different structure of government would have helped.

    However, your question is important and neoreactionaries should ask it of themselves more.

    For example, it is a good thought exercise to explore what one would have said to the founders. If you could travel back in time what would advise them to do differently and why?

    Sadly, there is too little thinking like this going on.

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    IE,

    We would answer that yes, a different structure of government would have helped.

    Monarchy, at least, takes the long view, and isn’t interested in importing voters to win elections. So there is that.

    But of course the Framers were trying something different. They understood the perils of democracy, and so they sought to keep it safely enclosed — but it is much clearer now, two centuries on, that democracy is a beast that does not tolerate captivity, no matter how strong the cage. It will escape into the wild, to complete its metamorphosis, or it will die.

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  5. JK says

    https://audioboom.com/posts/6639743-the-tragedy-of-outliving-peace-of-mind-james-madison-by-richard-brookhiser

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    IE,

    I’ve just read the first of your linked posts (though not, yet, all of the many links it contains).

    In general, I think we broadly agree. The United States as originally constituted did, however, enjoy a pretty good run. A question is whether the conditions that made that possible might have been preserved.

    I suspect not: chief among them were the vastness into which the United States and its people could expand, the relative homogeneity of the population, and the low level of communication and transportation technology (which effectively made the country orders of magnitude larger than it is today, and greatly limited the extent to which the government could intrude into all aspects of local life). Religiosity and civic virtue were important too (the critical distinction between religion then and our crypto-religion now being the transcendent object of the former).

    It’s hard to see, given all of that, how the thing was ever really going to have been sustainable in the face of such changes.

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  7. imnobody00 says

    This remembers me this quote by John Adams:”Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”.

    Sorry but I don’t buy that. Any system of go

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    You don’t say!

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  9. imnobody00 says

    “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” John Adams

    Sorry but I don’t buy that. Any system of government works with a moral people.

    Do you want something better than the First Ammendment? “The official religion of the United States is Christianity. Congress shall not make any Christian church official but they are all equal before the law. Any other religion will be tolerated as long it is practiced in the private realm and doesn’t interfere with the public expression and values of Christianity”. This clause would have avoided moral relativism, which is a consequence of the relativism of the First Ammendment. It would have prevented liberalism as a State religion

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 7:58 pm | Permalink
  10. imnobody00 says

    Trying to make a political statement from a cell phone in a Caribbean island is complicated

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 8:01 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    imnobody,

    Forgive me for teasing you. (I’m sure many of our readers will envy your situation, though.)

    “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” – John Adams

    Sorry but I don’t buy that. Any system of government works with a moral people.

    Having a moral and virtuous people to govern certainly gives you a lot more latitude, government-wise, but Adams’s statement isn’t false.

    Federalist #51:

    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.

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 8:13 pm | Permalink
  12. @Malcolm

    In the end, we will never know but we can speculate.

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 8:58 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Now that’s a pithy comment.

    Posted February 6, 2018 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  14. Whitewall says

    From a comment by “kzahlen” over on Malcolm’s link to Social Matter…

    “Perhaps the question shouldn’t be ‘how do we avoid another English Civil War?’ but rather: ‘How do we win when we have a our civil war?’”

    That is our immediate circumstance because we are into the early stages of a civil war right now. The extreme pressures currently destabilizing our culture and institutions are not going to dissipate with reasonable debate and searching for truth. Evidence, facts and truth will not carry the day at this stage of disruption. All power is at stake and who should be in charge along with it. Passion trumps reason.

    Posted February 7, 2018 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  15. Asher says

    The People *are* the Constitution. Any written statement is simply a description of that People. Change The People, change The Constitution. The originally stated constitution wasn’t a prescription for how things *ought to be* but, rather, a description of an existing state of affairs.

    Posted February 7, 2018 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  16. Asher says

    “Passion trumps reason.”

    This reminds me of Hume’s dictum that reason can never be anything more than a slave to the passions. I would replace “passion” with “instinct”, as I think the latter is a more robust and objective description but the notion generally remains the same.

    Most reasoning tends to be nothing more than a backward rationalization for instinct.

    Posted February 7, 2018 at 8:52 am | Permalink
  17. Asher says

    Last two comments were mine. Not sure why the *name* field defaulted to “whitewall”

    Posted February 7, 2018 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Asher,

    Sorry. I’ve changed the names. This is an ongoing problem with caching by my hosting service. I’m trying to get it fixed, but it’s proving to be very difficult this time around.

    I’m not sure that I agree with your characterization of the Constitution, but I will meet you halfway: different peoples will seek different ways of ordering their affairs. The American Constitution was very much a product of a particular people and their culture and history.

    I’ve argued that culture is best thought of as the “extended phenotype” of distinct human populations. This is an example.

    Posted February 7, 2018 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  19. Asher says

    Just to clarify, my reference to “The People” wasn’t intended to be reductively genetic. That said, if we truly adhere to the notion of “no free will” then all prescriptions are merely a manifestation of existing instinct/nature. “Ought”, then, is merely a devious manifestation of “is”.

    At any rate, the specific position I stated was one I’ve held for several years and is a product of many dozens of hours of concentrated thinking. It was not said off the cuff.

    Posted February 7, 2018 at 9:58 pm | Permalink
  20. Malcolm says

    Understood, Asher, and I agree that it’s very easy to carry genetic determinism much too far. I certainly wasn’t implying, say, that a division of government into three branches with a bicameral legislature, or a proscription against bills of attainder, could somehow be read off the DNA of Northwestern Europeans.

    Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  21. Asher says

    Several years ago Vox Day had a regular leftist commenter who was polite, reasonable and followed Vox’s rules. He was an old New Deal style leftist and was appalled by the post modern New Left. He wasn’t a rabid gun contol guy but he pointed out that if there was no private possession of guns Western countries would have significantly lower levels of violence. He pointed out that this was the case in Japan.

    My response was that a ton of what is considered completely normal and unobjectionable in Japan would be considered hideously authoritarian and fascistic in the West. Further, that obvious and stable pattern was a direct result of genetics and that the sorts of institutions that worked one way in japan would work completely differently in the West.

    It was a very short exchange but that simple observation changed his entire thinking about gun control in the West. Yes, I do not think Japan style gun control is even possible in the US and that the sole reason is genetic differences in the two populations.

    if that’s the case, then the Second Amendment is simply a manifestation of genetics.

    Posted February 8, 2018 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

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