In an opinion piece on Thursday, David Brooks, “conservative” columnist for the New York Times, opened with sentences of such remarkable wrongness that it is imperative to call them out.

Brooks’s thesis is that the selfish nature of man, in spite of “checks” placed on democratic government, has created the monstrous public debt in the West.  The wrongness starts with this opening volley:

The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties.

Unfortunately, the very first words require correction.  We don’t have democracy in either Europe or the United States.  The reasons for that are different in each place, and they matter to the discussion that follows in the Brooks piece.

Democracy and the West

The ancient Greeks endowed us with the word “democracy,” which they pioneered more than 2400 years ago, before the main influences on the modern West had had their day: the Roman Republic and Empire, the rise of Christianity, the ascendancy of Old Testament Law as our common idea of law and the right; the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the rise of the nation-state.

In the period between the Golden Age of Athens and the founding of the United States, the West’s ideas had been refined considerably.  “Democracy” was about participation in government.  Philosophers might debate the proper scope, purpose, methodology, and outcome of government (see Plato and Aristotle), but the ancient Greeks did not have a comprehensive ideology (like socialism) to define and insist on those elements.

Their practical contribution to the Western idea of man and the state was a concept of responsible participation in one’s government.  They were unusually willing (to their peril) to let government’s effects be whatever the participants came up with.  Regarding the nature of man and why he needs government, their legacy to us is theory and debate.  It has been the work of succeeding centuries to institutionalize “answers” on that head.

To call what the Western peoples have today “democracy” is to fatally elide 24 centuries of transformation in our ideas.  Granted, this is done all the time in public dialogue, where “democracy” is used as a shorthand for various other concepts.  But if we’re going to discuss how our perceptions of human nature relate to our arrangements for government, as Brooks does, it is essential to use the right terminology.

The American philosophy of government

Brooks gets it exactly wrong as regards the Framers of the US Constitution.  They didn’t see democracy as desirable, if requiring a check on people’s tendency to vote benefits for themselves.  Using the example of ancient Athens, they argued that democracy was itself the problem: it was a unique accelerator for this evil tendency, and was unsustainable precisely for that reason.

Their priority in any case was liberty; it was not endowing as many of the people as possible with the maximum possible influence over their government.  That’s why the Framers gave us – in the famous words of Benjamin Franklin – a republic: a government that was participatory, but representative and constitutional.

The power they intended to check was the power of government.  The American philosophy of government combines constitutional limitations with separation of powers; checks and balances among the elements of government, including the people as well as the three branches; and the division of government into levels of authority – federal, state, and local.

The kind of republican government the Framers gave us is properly described as limited, constitutional, and federal.  If you remember these three foundational words, you have memorized everything important about the American theory of government.

“Limited” government derives, first and foremost, from the Framers’ idea that our individual rights are endowed by the Creator, that government’s purpose is to respect and secure them, and that government’s scope must not be enlarged to interfere with them.  But the Framers also explicitly saw limited government as government that would not become, in today’s metaphor, a 24-hour ATM for those who like to vote themselves benefits.

The Framers’ precaution against benefits-voting was a limited federal government – government that had no charter to perform the highly corruptible function.  Remember that.  The Framers’ precaution against benefits-voting was limited government.  This concept is the opposite of Brooks’s thesis, so repeat as necessary.

That is why constitutional government is so important.  What the government is not chartered to do, it may not do.  It has to stick to the Constitution.  The Constitution can be amended by the people, but it is intended to be a bulwark against the dangerous enlargement of government’s scope by benefits-voters and other invidious interests.  Our Constitution was written to make it harder to achieve what the Framers called “transient majorities,” which ram things through – like entitlements, ObamaCare, and the EPA – that the nation will come to regret.  The separation of powers and checks and balances are intended to discourage incessant lawmaking, government-enlarging, and benefits-voting.

Federalism is the third and coequal characteristic of American government.  The Framers’ concept was that lawmaking intended to cultivate morality in the people and produce specified social outcomes belonged at the lowest possible level of government.  If the people are going to vote money out of their fellow citizens’ pockets, for things other than national defense and a few federal salaries, they should do face to face with both the beneficiaries and the taxed.  The Framers recognized that government typically ends up doing more than the US federal government is empowered to do by the Constitution; their concept was that state and local governments, with their inherently limited scope, would be the ones doing such things.

Ultimately, the American idea of both man and the state is directly antithetical to Brooks’s formulation.  The Framers’ philosophy was that men and women of character and education would do well with a limited government, which would minimize the temptations of big government for the evil aspects of our nature.  The Framers didn’t despair at all of men’s ability to be responsible and accountable in their lives – they attributed the capacity to having, in the words of John Adams, a “religious and moral” character.  They didn’t frame government to repress a tide of selfish irresponsibility in the people; they framed it to refrain from creating one.

The Framers knew it was a risk to make government as if men could prosper with very little of it – but they regarded it as a lesson of history that more government did not make men or their society better, but typically made them worse.  Contra Brooks, government was seen not as the warden of an incontinent species, but as the servant of a responsible, self-motivating, and self-restraining one.

The European difference

Over in Europe, meanwhile, the Western idea developed along a separate and distinct path.  The very English ideas of restraining government, respecting rights in the people, and dissociating government from apocalypticism were not the main shapers of the continent.  As the Enlightenment began to arm itself and burrow into the culture, divine-right monarchy collided with the rise of comprehensive secular ideologies, from the eerily modern Napoleonic Code to Marxism, communism, Soviet socialism, Fascism, National Socialism (or Nazism), and today’s “democratic socialism.”

Treading a centrist path meant putting new names on old practices.  Where once a king had provided for his people in the name of Jesus Christ, now the modern welfare state provided for the people in the name of enlightened national interest, “fairness,” or “economic justice.”  The governments operating on this premise have run the gamut from Bismarck’s Germany to the Scandinavian monarchies, the French Fifth Republic, and the disaster of present-day socialist Greece.  Europe has fielded parties named “Christian Socialist” as well as “Communist”; the modern continent has governed itself with a mishmash of legacy paternalism and bureaucratic radicalism, an approach that until the past three years was alien to the political consciousness of the United States.

The adjective “democratic” was added to signify that the people were to vote – a refinement adopted partly on the understanding that voting was a way to decide how much would come to a citizen from the state.  It is laughably wrong to suggest, as Brooks does, that modern European governments were set up to restrain the people from voting themselves benefits.  Voting benefits for the people has been the governmental zeitgeist of Europe for the last 150 years.

Classical liberals believing in smaller government and more liberty for the people were always a minority in continental European politics.  There is much to admire and be grateful for in the legacy of Europe, such as the idea of the independent yeoman – a free and responsible actor who has not existed in any other culture – and the idea of government that does not oppress the people, but has an obligation to prioritize their welfare.  The concepts of social mobility, and “capital” that anyone can amass and wield, arose there.  Europe gave the world the enduring model of “middle class man”: man who was neither a serf-lord nor a serf: man who could make of himself what he would, rather than being condemned for life to a single social stratum.

But Europe did not start its modern political run from the same place as the United States.  The essential difference between the continents boils down to the importance to each of dictated outcomes.  The modern, post-Napoleonic European approach to government was social-outcomes-oriented from the beginning and has become steadily more so.  The American mindset is skeptical of government’s efficacy for producing desired social outcomes.  In the distinctively American mindset, the danger of giving government more power to shape and trim the people far outweighs the potential benefit.

It is essential to understand these things.  In America, we still have not bought into the premise of the European welfare-state concept – and the political force of our trademark libertarianism remains powerful.  In his thesis, Brooks posits an ahistorical amalgam of diverse and even opposing political ideas, implying that the US and Europe have been sort of intending and doing the same thing all along – when in fact, that has not been the case.  The reasons matter, and they influence how we vote today.  There is a significant portion of the US voting population that rejects the idea of man and the state on which the welfare state is predicated, and in doing so, traces its roots to America’s unique founding idea.

The American idea and today

Man can govern himself.  He has to do it it carefully and sparingly.  It is outside of the ministrations of government that he develops character and self-discipline.  The less he is governed from without, the better he does in terms of work, saving, providing for himself and his family, using ingenuity, showing compassion to those in distress, and uniting with his fellows in the community to make it better.

Will everyone do exactly this, and in exactly the way each and every one of us would like, if the burden of government is light?  Of course not.  But the great majority of people will perform admirably, and will be free to help those who don’t.  The Framers believed that, and so do I.  And if America’s history demonstrates anything, it is that we are right.

The Framers’ pessimism about human nature was different from that posited by David Brooks.  It affirmed that containing the scope of men’s selfishness is best accomplished with less government, not more.  It did not fear to limit the charter of government on that principle.

The Framers’ solution is the correct one:  have less government.  Walk back from it step by step, if necessary.  Protect the vulnerable who would be hurt if it were done carelessly (e.g., seniors relying on the entitlement programs).  But get it done.  This, right here, is the argument we need to be having.  The answer is right before the noses of the American people.  But we do need “conservatives” who know how to frame the question.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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