A return to first principles: the test

I believe the US stands in need of a return to its founding principles.

The need for national renewal, Machiavelli observed, is often driven home by a great catastrophe.  This is the case with us today:  over the last decade, a series of traumatic blows have left Americans in shock and demoralized.

They include, in rough chronological order, the impeachment of President Clinton, the bizarre aftermath of the 2000 elections, 9/11, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the pre-surge horrors in that country, the governmental incompetence exposed by Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis and steep recession, the nationalization of banks and automakers, the assumption of a debt measured in trillions of dollars.

Throw in the muddled framing of these public dramas – the ideological incoherence of the Bush administration, the self-loathing which pervades our political, media, and artistic elites, the belief of the Obama administration that we require a radical break from the past – and we arrive at the present moment of doubt and discontent.

We are being tested by events, and we should know what is in play.  Since the defeat of the Federalists in 1800, we have been a Jeffersonian nation.  For 210 years, we have upheld the primacy of the free citizen who expects to solve most of his problems by freely associating with his neighbors.  Government exists to preserve and protect this arrangement.

In economics, despite occasional qualms, we have embraced the free market.  In foreign affairs, we have sought a balance between defending our interests and propagating the American ideology – bottom-up liberal democracy.

Every one of these propositions is in doubt today.

It was never clear to me whether President Obama’s frequent rejection of “worn-out  dogmas” referred to his predecessor’s policies or the Jeffersonian ideal of limited  government.  I have come to the conclusion that the two things are essentially the same in the president’s mind.

In this, our time of testing, President Obama presents us with an alternative.  He believes that the severity of the crisis demonstrates the need for a change of national direction.  When he asked Americans to “set aside childish things,” he was, I believe, speaking of individualism – what he has called “that old individualistic bootstrap myth” – which he holds to be an illusion and a cover for the rule of “narrow interests.”

The president proposes to move the American people from the outmoded Jeffersonian ideal to a European model of nationhood.  In this model, the government is benign but dominant.  Public action is invariably top-down.  Citizens are treated like minors, to be protected against their own behavior by a battery of prohibitions and regulations.  Businesses are viewed with a suspicion that borders on hostility:  they are the epitome of the narrow interest, and must be tightly leashed for the general good.  In foreign policy, multinationalism and realism are in, while exceptionalism and idealism are out.

This is a serious program, which deserves serious consideration.  Unlike the last occupant of the White House, President Obama is ideologically coherent:  his words and policies are of one piece.  He is saying that we are rightly demoralized by our failures, and will so remain if we cling to our old principles.  And, with his legislative and regulatory proposals, he is leading the country in a new path.

We, the people, now have a choice.  We can decide that our old ways have failed the test of history, and follow the president, and become a jumbo-sized version of Sweden or Germany; or we can say that our old ways are who we are, that they are the backbone that holds us up in hardship, and that our failure has been a forgetfulness and a falling away.

I opt without qualification for the latter choice, but will save my reasons for another post.  Here I wish to reflect, briefly, on the nature of the test before us.

The word can be used in both a moral and a Darwinian sense.  The moral test concerns, first of all, the relation between our founding principles and our recent problems.  If we fell because of who and what we are, then the president is correct – we should give up our childish ways and grow into Euro-maturity.  If, however, we fell away from what we are, then we must recover the American character, and advance on the flow of events as on an open frontier.

Because the more profound moral test concerns the place of freedom in citizenship.  In our way of life freedom is inalienable.  We can’t give or take it away, regardless of circumstances.  Moral adulthood on the American standard is the ability to make choices.   The Europeans who serve as the president’s model have traded much of their freedom for comfort and protection.  On their standard, adulthood is resignation, a lack of illusions, an acceptance of narrow limits.

We must choose one or the other.  I don’t see a middle ground.  Our choice will determine the future scope of individual action, and the quality of our public life.  We will be civic agitators or supplicants.  Our elected officials will be our humble servants or our wise schoolmasters.  The decision can only be based on moral vision and faith, but will immediately collide with the objective world, and determine our place among the nations, our standing with old friends and with those who have always wished us ill.

That is the Darwinian aspect of the test.

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