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Thursday, October 21, 2004


the spirit of the law

nick gillespie at reason, in noting the passing of cold warrior paul nitze, makes reference to arthur ekirch's "decline of american liberalism", an analysis of the decay of republican values from the perspective of a classical liberal. gillespie's review is included.

as context for our times, ekirch's work can be enlightening, but it is limited in its scope, imo. he bemoans -- as he should -- the loss of federal minimalism that the constitution had intended, and his view of the civil war as the genesis of the united state (no plural) is seminal. (indeed, preserving the union meant, in many ways, killing the federalist constitution.)

but i think ekirch, like so many 20th c. american historians, perhaps incorrectly conflates the american revolt with the french revolution and its rousseauian values. the founders were Enlightened, yes -- but they were also readers of burke and at heart -- with the exception of jefferson -- english parliamentarians. the freedoms of the bill of rights are descended of the magna carta far more than "social contract".

ekirch, possibly from that false rousseauian starting point and viewing the increasing centralization of american government from 1865 onward, views individualism as declining:

"Since the time of the American Revolution, the major trend...has been in the direction of an ever- greater centralization and concentration of control--politically, economically, and socially....The liberal values associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment--and especially that of individual freedom--have slowly lost their primary importance in America life and thought."
this is true insofar as the encroachment of government into our daily lives -- americans today forget that new york had no police force prior to the 1880s, and indeed government policing was then considered by many incompatible with the preservation of freedom.

but the advance of emancipated individualism has progressed unchecked even as this encroachment has built up. why? much of government being given responsibilities (and, consequently, rights) once held by the people is in response to the demands of the individual to be free to do exactly what they want without any culpability. tasks that are the onerous duty of truly free men are given to the state in order to free the individual to pursue any wild dream that comes to them -- hence the rise of government savings programs for retirement, government-chartered mortgage facilitators and federal health insurance. this transfer of responsibility from individual to state has progressed so far as to make the state responsible for smoothing outcomes -- evening the differences that arise, by talent or luck, between the wealth of citizens through tax manipulation.

in short, while the independence of men from the state has declined, individualism has progressed unchecked and in fact underpinned the rise of the state.

such historically extreme, conflicted behavior -- proof of a pendulum swung to the apex -- is characteristic of a decadent society that has pursued the ideas of its founding beyond any reasonable limitation to an impasse and is bound to experience a reactionary response.

that reaction can be seen operating today in neoconservatism, which is at its core a jacobin revolt against the fear and frustrations of american decadence and decline; again, the example of michael ledeen is useful.

to gillespie's optimistic conclusion to his review, i responded:

"i submit that it isn't cynicism about the ideological purity of government that is the bulwark against tyranny. like the romans of the 1st c. bc, i think, we're appropriately jaded in this way.

it is the inevitable attempts to resolve such cynicism in the idealistic restoration of such past purity as may be mythologized that ultimately usher in tyranny.

to the extent that catastrophes befalling the republic galvanize cynical people to desperate ideological action and can be blamed on the weaknesses of what the republic has become, fear becomes the motive to act against the words of the constitution (ironically, in order to ostensibly save the mythologized "spirit" of the constitution, as well as diluted abstract notions like "freedom" and "liberty").

caesar and particularly augustus, after all, justified and defined their rulership as a *return* to the old, conservative, mythologized roman values that the later republic had lost (even though it wasn't and couldn't be anything of the sort).

and the people ate that shit up because it's exactly what people wanted to hear -- people are inherently idealistic and primitivist even in the face of evidence, and it puts the locus of control where you can do something to save yourself.

and THAT's just what we're seeing today in the aftermath of 9/11, imo, and what should inform our view of what is happening to our democracy."

our ardent desire to preserve the spirit of the law ironically leading us to destroy it -- shakespeare would cherish such irony.

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