by Robin McMeeking
William Jefferson Clinton
We return to our chronological look at the Presidents with Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton, whose father died a few months before he was born, wanted to be President from a very early age. Born in 1946, he attended public schools in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after moving there from Hope. As a boy he was obsessed with politics, winning student elections at high school and later at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Work on a committee staff of Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas and attendance at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar strengthened his resolve for a political career. After graduating from Yale Law School, Clinton briefly taught law at the University of Arkansas. He ran for the United States House of Representatives and lost, in 1974, and then was elected state attorney general. In 1978, at the age of thirty-two, he became the youngest governor in the nation and in Arkansas history. After losing his bid for reelection, Clinton came back to win four terms, positioning himself for a shot at the Democratic nomination for President in 1992.
Clinton defeated President George H. W. Bush and upstart independent Ross Perot in 1992 after besting a large field of fellow Democrats for the nomination. As President-elect, Clinton vowed to focus on economic issues like a “laser beam,” working especially to overcome the sluggish growth of the American economy. He also sought to remake the Democratic Party by focusing on issues supported by the middle class, such as government spending to stimulate the economy, tough crime laws, jobs for welfare recipients, and tax reform that shifted the burden to the rich. At the same time, Clinton stood firm on certain traditional liberal goals such as converting military expenditures to domestic purposes, gun control, legalized abortion, environmental protection, equal employment and educational opportunity, national health insurance, and gay rights.
Controversy, Scandal, and Success
Clinton stumbled badly in his first term when Congress vigorously rejected his complex health care reform initiative, spearheaded by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. By 1994, Republicans had launched an aggressive attack on Clinton that delivered Republican majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1955. Clinton fought back by capitalizing on Republican blunders and the nearly fanatical attacks unleashed on him by his conservative opponents. When Clinton refused to sign a highly controversial budget passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, he looked strong and resolute. Congress then generated a shut down of the federal government to pressure Clinton to back down, but Clinton remained firm, and the opposition caved in. Most Americans blamed Congress for the gridlock rather than the President, and Clinton was decisively reelected in 1996.
Clinton suffered two major setbacks during his administration. The first was his failure to obtain health care reform. The second, and much more damaging to his place in history, was his impeachment by the House of Representatives on charges of having lied under oath and having obstructed justice in the attempted cover-up of his affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. The impeachment issue grew out of an independent counsel’s “Whitewater” investigation of Clinton’s financial dealings in Arkansas, peaking just prior to the midterm elections in 1998. The American people evidently cared less about the President’s marital affairs or his long-ago financial dealings than about his success in reducing deficits and obtaining economic prosperity, and they found the reactions of the Republican Congress to be excessive. The Republicans lost seats in the House, and the Senate thereafter failed to convict Clinton on the impeachment charges. Nor was the independent counsel able to link either the President or the First Lady to criminal activities in the Whitewater investigation.
In foreign affairs, Clinton succeeded in brokering peace negotiations in Northern Ireland between warring Catholics and Protestants, and — after a failed first attempt at ousting a military dictatorship in Haiti — in ending the murderous rule of Haitian leadership. His call for NATO bombings in Bosnia and Kosovo — following his earlier reticence at intervening in the Balkans — forced the government of Serbia to end its murderous attacks on Muslims in Bosnia, as well as on ethnic Albanians within the borders of its Kosovo region. Nevertheless, Clinton failed to mobilize support to end the genocide in Rwanda, and the peace talks he facilitated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization soon devolved into a renewed and more lethal round of strife.
Clinton’s partner in his political career and marriage, Hillary Rodham Clinton, emerged as a key player in his administration. With a long record of professional achievement in Arkansas and beyond, Hillary’s popularity had plummeted after she failed to achieve health care reform in Clinton’s first term. However, she emerged from the Monica Lewinsky affair with very high popularity ratings in his second term.
Future history books may well begin by noting that Bill Clinton was the second President to have been impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. However, they will also likely note his ability to survive and his impact on the politics, policies, and programs of the United States during the 1990s, including his presiding over a period of rapid economic growth. Clinton also had a significant influence on the direction of the Democratic Party, although it is yet unclear how lasting that legacy will be.
George W. Bush
One of the most contentious Presidents in a long while. It is hard to imagine what an objective analysis of his tenure will look like in twenty years or so. Bush was criticized almost continuously by the Democrats, and fairly frequently by conservatives on talk radio, but for different reasons. After the World Trade Center attack the charges that “Bush knew” fueled a vast conspiracy theory outpouring of “inside” revelations. A video that was promoted by Google purported to show that the collapse of the WTC towers was caused by demolition charges that had been planted over the weekend prior to 9/11. It was professionally edit and narrated. The failure to find the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that everyone said Iraq had provided fuel for endless criticism of the Iraq War.
Michael Moor’s “Farenheit 9/11” followed in 2004. After hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 there were charges that Bush blew up the levies. Bush had his enemies.
Here is the Miller Center review of his presidency.
Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Bush moved as a toddler to West Texas and had what he has described as an idyllic upbringing in post-World War II Midland, the eldest son of Eastern establishment parents trying to carve out their own identities. This sense of serenity was broken by the death of his little sister Robin from childhood leukemia, a family tragedy that longtime friends believe had a hand in shaping Bush’s personality. As he sought to console his parents, the boy became something of a ham — but he was a cut-up with a fatalistic streak. The episode also helped forge a lifelong closeness between Barbara Bush and her eldest son.
Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Bush attended prep school, first in Houston, then in Andover. From there it was on to Yale, where he received a bachelor’s degree in history in 1968, and Harvard Business School, where he received a master’s degree in 1975. In between was a Vietnam War-era stint in the Texas Air National Guard where Bush flew F-102 fighters. This period of his life would later become controversial, but it wasn’t at the time. Bush moved back to Texas in the mid-1970s and went into the oil business. After marrying and launching an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1978, he put together the partnership that acquired the Texas Rangers baseball team.
Bush was the public face of the Rangers front office until 1994, when he left that job to run for governor of Texas. He defeated popular incumbent Ann Richards that year and won re-election in 1998 with 68 percent of the vote. Already, the Republican establishment was lining up behind Bush for a possible presidential run in 2000. Bush raised so much money that he became the first major political candidate to eschew federal matching funds in the primaries. His only real competition for the GOP nomination was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whom Bush outlasted, in part, because of his huge advantages over McCain in money, organization, activists, and fellow Republican officeholders. Positioning himself as a “compassionate conservative,” Bush then squared off against Vice President Al Gore.
In a closely contested election that featured three presidential debates and a vice presidential debate, as well as two unified political conventions, no national consensus emerged; going into Election Day, polls showed Bush leading the race — but within the statistical margin of error. A fast-closing Gore caught Bush the weekend before November 7, in part because a story surfaced about an old drunk-driving arrest that Bush had never admitted previously. Gore ended up winning the popular tally by half-a-million votes, but it wasn’t until the contentious Florida recount process was finally ended by the Supreme Court on December 12, 2000, that the election was decided.
Divided and United
In his first months in office, Bush got off to a solid start. He signed the broad-based tax cuts he had campaigned on and followed that success by shepherding through Congress a sweeping education bill that came to be called the No Child Left Behind Act. The legislation was pending in a House-Senate conference committee on September 11, 2001. In fact, Bush was in Florida drumming up support for it — the photo-op of the day was to feature him reading to a group of sixth graders — when the World Trade Center was hit by two hijacked passenger airliners.
If Bush’s tenure in the White House until that date had been marked by unexpected legislative success, he had not been successful in improving the civility of the political discourse. There were several reasons for this: Partly, feelings among Democrats about the Florida recount were too raw; also Bush’s vision on domestic policy was so different from the Democrats’ in Congress that a true détente was probably not plausible. Complicating that dichotomy was Bush’s insistence that he not govern as a minority President: Just as President Clinton had done eight years before, he rammed through his tax bill with hardly any support from the opposite side of the aisle. In the midst of these budget battles, longtime liberal Republican senator James Jeffords of Vermont quit his party and threw in his lot with the Democrats, giving them a one-vote majority in the Senate. The ramifications of Jeffords’ switch were enormous. The change in the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee meant that Bush could no longer count on getting his conservative judicial nominees confirmed; indeed, he ran into trouble even getting his cabinet confirmed. The upshot was that the new President’s honeymoon, like his transition, was cut short.
All that was swept aside, at least for awhile, by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Reeling from the devastating blows to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — and mindful that a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was headed toward the Capitol or the White House — the nation’s political leaders banded together while Americans of all political stripes rallied behind the commander-in-chief.
Bush’s job-approval ratings soared as he faced this new challenge, and stayed at near-historic levels for well over a year. And the man who had sought the Oval Office without articulating clearly defined foreign policy goals suddenly found himself a wartime President, fighting a shadowy army of Islamic extremists holed up in some 60 countries under the direction of Osama bin Laden, who headed a worldwide terrorist organization called Al Qaeda. Bush almost instantly refocused his priorities, telling his aides that fighting what he called an international “War on Terror” was now the primary mission of his administration and those who worked in it.
But if the terrorists were scattered around the globe, their headquarters was Afghanistan, then under control of the reactionary Taliban movement. The Bush administration almost immediately issued an ultimatum to the Taliban to surrender bin Laden — a demand that was rebuffed. On October 7, 2001, the United States began air sorties against Al Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan.
“We are supported,” Bush said in an Oval Office address, “by the collective will of the world.
A War Presidency
Support for a military invasion of Afghanistan was certainly not unanimous in every world capital, but in the days after 9/11, the expressions of solidarity with the United States was a worldwide phenomenon — even in much of the Muslim world. In Pristina, where American armed forces under President Clinton had prevented genocide, some 10,000 Muslim Kosovars marched on September 12, 2001, carrying American flags and signs of support. Ethnic Albanians on the other side of the border, also Muslim, held candlelight vigils. “We are all Americans now!” declared the headline in Le Monde.
Yet already plans were being drawn up in the war councils of the White House and Pentagon to ready America’s military forces for another invasion, one that would prove costly in lives, materiel, and national prestige: the invasion of Iraq.
In a lopsided and bi-partisan congressional vote on October 11, 2002, Bush received authorization to invade Iraq if it did not turn over its presumed arsenal of biological and chemical weapons, as well as what was thought to be its reconstituted nuclear weapons research. Iraq insisted it had no such weapons, and United Nations inspectors could not find them. But the President, expressing certainty that Iraq was hiding evidence and convinced that replacing the repressive and violent Baathist regime with a democracy would have positive and far-reaching implications throughout the Middle East, took the nation to war.
On March 19, 2003, Bush informed the American people — and the world — that the invasion of Iraq was on. “We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace,” he said in an Oval Office address. “We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others, and we will prevail.”
In less than six weeks, American troops were in control of Baghdad, early concerns about massive civilian casualties were unrealized, and Iraqi troops had been killed, had surrendered, or had melted back into the general population. On May 1, 2003 — at a time when only 137 American military personnel had been killed — Bush told the American people that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”
The early euphoria, however, proved premature. Remnants of the old regime, joined by Islamic terrorists who infiltrated the country, kept up a steady insurgency throughout the summer of 2003 and into the autumn. A war described as one of liberation took on the feeling of a war of occupation. In April 2004, 139 Americans were killed in Iraq in a single month. By July, the number of soldiers and Marines who had died there stood at more than 1,000.
By then, world opinion had shifted strongly against the United States — Le Monde had long since retracted its pro-American headline — and, at home, a strong anti-war sentiment re-energized the Democratic Party. The initial beneficiary was little known former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who spoke of “regime change” not in Iraq but in Washington. Dean fizzled in the primaries, but the Democrats’ energy didn’t, and the party settled on Massachusetts senator John Kerry as its presidential nominee. Kerry didn’t mind reminding people that his initials, J.F.K., were the same as John F. Kennedy’s, but Democratic party regulars agreed privately that the animating force in their party was A.B.B. — “anybody but Bush.” Meanwhile, public opinion surveys showed Bush with near-unanimous support among Republicans. He’d run for office vowing to be “a uniter, not a divider,” and he achieved that goal after a fashion: he helped each party to unite behind itself.
Barack H. Obama
I don’t have much to say about Obama. His presidency is still a work-in-process and what the effectiveness of his policies will be is yet to be determined. If we can’t be truly objective about Bush yet, we certainly can’t be about Obama. One thing that seems certain about him is that he is more ideological than possibly any previous president. Most, if not all, previous presidents were politicians first, ideologues second, if they were even ideologically driven. This made them sensitive to the mood of the public and they would temper their agenda with politically necessary concessions. I don’t see much of that in Obama. We know little about his past except for what he put in his first book, Dreams From My Father. His political/economic positions are covered in his second book, The Audacity of Hope. This book rejects conservative approaches to governance in favor of liberal approaches. Both of these books were written to further his political career. We know he has gone to considerable lengths to conceal his activities at Harvard, so it seems likely that these books may not be completely candid views. To me it seems that his lack of previous management experience is quite evident. If that has kept him from implementing more of his agenda that may be a good thing.
The above is from 2010. Our national debt has doubled under Obama and we are still in the “worst economic mess since the Great Depression”. The next president may inherit the worst economic mess in U.S. history. The reported decline in unemployment during his administration is due to massive government hiring and large numbers of people leaving the work force under “disability” or simply abandoning hope. Some people call Obama a socialist, communist, or worse. Others call him the “lord and savior”. Only rarely does he say something revealing about his ideological core. His political promises do not correspond to his actions. What was to be “the most transparent administration is history” has actually been one of the most secretive. He promised to cut the national debt by half.
He only gets by with it because of an adoring press. Other administrations would have been excoriated over incidents like “Fast and Furious” and the security failures at Benghazi that got 4 Americans killed.
The following musings are my own.
In the 1700s the philosophical ideas of individual equality, natural rights, and a universal desire for freedom from government oppression dominated European and American philosophical thinking. These were considered to be fundamental aspirations of human nature. It was also generally believed that human nature led people to behave in ways intended to increase their individual wealth, and/or decrease their work load, generally with little regard for the impact on others. The free market was seen as the best mechanism for balancing individual self-interest against community needs. It was also believed that within every level of society unscrupulous individuals would attempt to acquire the power necessary to circumvent honorable interactions for their own benefit. One purpose of government was to establish laws and systems to protect the citizenry and prohibiting power concentrations sufficient to unbalance the free market.
In Europe the disastrous consequences of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars brought a loss of confidence in the libertarian ideas which combined with the effects of the Industrial Revolution to open many minds to other ideas. Socialism seemed more attractive to many and Karl Marx provided an intellectual framework for understanding history that made sense to many academics combined with rhetoric that appealed to many of the working masses. The underlying principles were that a benign government by the Working Class could distribute wealth equitably and that such distribution would result in a change in human nature that would eliminate desires for personal gain and increase interest in community betterment and personal development.
Numerous socialist groups sprang up. Although Marx was the dominant influence, many variations of socialism were advocated. These groups competed with each other for followers. The competition was often more violent than intellectual. By the time of the Great Depression the struggles left three prominent European groups – Communism, National Socialism, and Fascism.
Meanwhile, in England and the U.S. most of the ill effects of the Industrial Revolution had been dealt with by legislation. Child labor laws, anti-trust legislation, collective bargaining, and other initiatives brought humanity back into the workplace.
In America in the last decades of the 1800s, U.S. Presidents and their parties were not motivated by philosophical world views. There were attempts to regulate the economy for the benefit of constituencies by raising or lowering particular tariffs, providing incentives to various business ventures, such as the railroads, etc. Corrupt dealings between large business interests and government were uncovered and became election issues, leading to the first government controls on business. But the only significant social agendas were the segregationist Jim Crow laws in the south. The general population never lost its faith in the ideas of individual liberty and natural rights. The academic community studied Marx and socialism and began to formulate new governmental concepts incorporating these ideas which developed into Progressivism in the early 1900s. John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and others continued to refine these ideas up through the depression.
Is it just a coincidence that the Presidents who have overseen the most Progressive administrations, Wilson, FDR and Barack Obama came from a strong academic background?
Politicians in both parties were influenced by these, but by the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidency it was the Democratic Party that most completely embraced Progressivism. At that time the dominant Democratic constituencies were eastern intellectuals, and midwestern unions, and these were the groups that were most in tune with European philosophies. Farmers were largely Democrats too, but not for ideological reasons. I have mentioned earlier that Dixiecrats represent a special case that was resolved around the time of the Johnson and Nixon Presidencies.
The Republicans were not immune to Progressivism, but they attracted a mix of groups favoring a weaker form of Progressivism relying more on private sector initiatives, as well as those favoring minimal business controls, economic solvency, strong military, and limited social engineering. It was not until Bill Buckley published National Review that a coherent Conservative wing established itself within the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan was the first conservative President but in spite of his wide public appeal, the Republican Party has not fully embraced Conservatism. In fact, a significant part of the eastern Republicans didn’t embrace Reagan. In 2008 Newt Gingrich reportedly said “the era of Reagan is over.” Since that time the early response to President Obama’s agenda and the advent of the TEA Party movement, Conservatism has gained a more prominent place in the GOP, but it is not appropriate to equate “Republican” with “Conservative”.
There are a few other parties out there that put candidates on the ballot. Wikipedia has the following list of parties with recent candidates; America First Party, American Party, America’s Independent Party, Boston Tea Party, Communist Party of the United States of America, Constitution Party, Florida Whig Party, Green Party, Independence Party of America, Libertarian Party, Moderate Party, Modern Whig Party, Objectivist Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Peace and Freedom Party, Progressive Labor Party, Prohibition Party, Reform Party of the United States of America, Socialist Equality Party, Socialist Party U.S.A, Socialist Workers Party, United States Marijuana Party, Unity Party of America, Workers Party, Working Families Party.
Very few people belong to these parties and they rarely get a candidate elected. When they do it is generally a city council member or other local office. The parties in bold are substantially larger than the others.
Many people who strongly identify with these parties are registered Democrats or Republicans. They feel that voting for these lesser parties is throwing their vote away. Historically when a new party is created to support a popular person for president, someone who couldn’t get nominated by the Democrats or Republicans, the result favors the “wrong” party. Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party is an example. So, many people of varying political leanings wind up voting for what they consider to be the lesser evil.
I started writing this before the news of the dire economic situation in Greece that is threatening the entire European Economic Union. From a London Daily News Editorial;
The problem of Greece, is not simply the problem of unreliable data, or a weakness of political leadership, but the intrinsic problem with the Greek public sector, which allows civil servants after serving 20 years, to retire on a full pension from 38 years old in some cases. What pension system in the world can with stand 30-40 years of an individual being paid a full pension, and not putting anything back in the system? Only in Greece.
That is but one of several government guaranteed “positive rights” for Greeks. I mentioned above that there is an inherent conflict between negative and positive rights. As a general rule, a progressive will be the person advocating for expanded positive rights and a conservative will be the one advocating for protection of negative rights.
I have been doing some revision of this document in December 2010. The number of European Economic Union countries with problems similar to Greece has expanded. The public resistance to necessary cutbacks in benefits is quite severe.
Religion, Conservatism and Rights
Our Declaration of Independence says it is “self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed… ”. Remember that in most of the world in 1776 it was held that kings were endowed with a “divine right” to rule. Many conservative writers make a lot out of the “endowed by their Creator” phrase and use the connection with God as a primary rational for their conservative beliefs. There is an implication by these writers that the atheist, agnostic, or just a less dogmatic believer, will reject the concept of “natural rights” and, by extension, conservatism. It is worth remembering that the first recorded ideas of individual equality came from Greek philosophers around 500BC, not from any religious doctrine. No religion that I am aware of had a problem supporting monarchical government for the better part of 2000 years.
I am not a religious person. I don’t think Jefferson’s eloquence can be improved upon, but perhaps the logic can be enhanced. I ascribe no particular significance to the use of “creator” and “created”. They knew that like begets like and chickens don’t come from rocks. Darwin hadn’t arrived yet and there was no viable alternative to the idea that living things must have somehow been created. So, religious or not, the concept of a creator seemed necessary.
The Declaration’s statement “that all men are created equal” is a rejection of centuries of rule by “divine right”, of an hereditary aristocracy, and any other hereditary class or caste. The founders felt it was “self-evident” that coming from humble origins was no impediment to acquiring all that was necessary for leadership in any field. Similarly, being of high pedigree offered no assurance of ability in any field. Instead, at birth all are equal and to develop and realize their individual potential people had to have the liberty to pursue their own dreams, or “happiness”. It is also self-evident that it is irrational for me to demand that others respect my liberty if I am unwilling to respect theirs. Therefore, the highest function of government is to secure this liberty for the people. Any government that designates different treatment for different groups is practicing an irrational denial of individual equality, i.e. tyranny. There is no need for natural rights to be supported by religious argument. If anything it is the concept of hereditary privilege that fails without supernatural support.
I feel strongly about conservatism because I find that there is overwhelming evidence that conservative principles are more in tune with human nature and lead to a more prosperous and just society. I find that the Progressive notion that economic redistribution will change human nature and lead to utopian bliss has been thoroughly discredited. The government infrastructure that must be built to implement the Progressive plan simply leads to a power hungry bureaucracy that becomes increasingly oppressive. This has happened everywhere any version of socialism has been tried.
The “Bill of Rights” in the Constitution also enumerates negative rights. The closest the Constitution comes to granting positive rights is in the is in the 14th Amendment which was passed in 1868. It has requirements for “Equal Protection”, “Due Process” , and voting rights which impose duties on the states. Because it requires positive behavior from the states in regard to rights it can be argued to grant positive rights. However, the behavior required is primarily the protection of negative rights.
It was not until the Progressive Era that positive rights ideas gained any traction. Legislation passed during the depression that established Social Security, and other “entitlements” created some virtual positive rights (not specified in the Constitution, but essentially impossible to revoke). Others have been similarly added since then. While negative rights come from God, or are simply “natural rights”, positive rights can only come from the state. There can be no right to an education, health care, or housing unless the state is there to provide them. The state cannot provide what it has not taken from the people either in the form of property, labor, or another natural right. At the two philosophical extremes regarding rights we have absolute negative rights, leaving the state with virtually no power (anarchy), or absolute positive rights with the state having total power (communism, fascism, absolute monarchy, etc.).
There are not, fortunately, a whole lot of people advocating the extremes, but there are probably more than you think. Interestingly, people on both sides will talk in nebulous ways about “rights” and “freedom”, being quite sincere, but meaning very different things. Most of us sit somewhere in between, recognizing some value in both forms of rights, but with conservatives protective of negative rights and progressives promoting more positive rights. For discussion on a more sophisticated approach to categorizing political distributions click here.
Like Karl Marx, John Dewey believed that he was promoting scientifically supported ideas. More from Liberalism and Social Action, 1935:
The crisis in [old] liberalism is connected with failure to develop and lay hold of an adequate conception of intelligence integrated with social movements and a factor in giving them direction. We cannot mete out harsh blame to the early liberals for failure to attain such a conception. The first scientific society for the study of anthropology was founded the year in which Darwin’s Origin of Species saw the light of day. I cite this particular fact to typify the larger fact that the sciences of society, the controlled study of man in his relationships, are the product of the later nineteenth century. Moreover, these disciplines not only came into being too late to influence the formulation of liberal social theory, but they themselves were so much under the influence of the more advanced physical sciences that it was supposed that their findings were of merely theoretic import. By this statement, I mean that although the conclusions of the social disciplines were about man, they were treated as if they were of the same nature as the conclusions of physical science about remote galaxies of stars. Social and historical inquiry is in fact a part of the social process itself, not something outside of it. The consequence of not perceiving this fact was that the conclusions of the social sciences were not made (and still are not made in any large measure) integral members of a program of social action. When the conclusions of inquiries that deal with man are left outside the program of social action, social policies are necessarily left without the guidance that knowledge of man can provide, and that it must provide if social action is not to be directed either by mere precedent and custom or else by the happy intuitions of individual minds. The social conception of the nature and work of intelligence is still immature; in consequence, its use as a director of social action is inchoate and sporadic. It is the tragedy of earlier liberalism that just at the time when the problem of social organization was most urgent, liberals could bring to us solution nothing but the conception that intelligence is an individual possession.
It is all but a commonplace that today physical knowledge and its technical applications have far outrun our knowledge of man and its application in social invention and engineering. What I have just said indicates a deep source of the trouble. After all, our accumulated knowledge of man and his ways, furnished by anthropology, history, sociology and psychology, is vast, even thought it be sparse in comparison with our knowledge of physical nature. But it is still treated as so much merely theoretic knowledge amassed by specialists, and at most communicated by them in books and articles to the general public. We are habituated to the idea that every discovery in physical knowledge signifies, sooner or later, a change in the processes of production; there are countless persons whose business it is to see that these discoveries take effect through invention in improved operations in practice. There is next to nothing of the same sort with respect to knowledge of man and human affairs. Although the latter is recognized to concern man in the sense of being about him, it is of less practical effect than are the much more remote findings of physical science.
In case you decided not to struggle through the above quote, the first paragraph says that although the study of human behavior is a fairly new science, it has produced findings that, unfortunately, early liberals were not aware of and therefore could not make use of. The second paragraph says that findings in physical sciences generally proceed to have direct impact on products or manufacturing processes, however, we ignore the findings furnished by anthropology, history, sociology and psychology in the development of social policies.
These statements are at the very core of his “new liberal” philosophy as they supposedly establish the rationale for discarding the “old liberal” philosophy. And yet they seem to be at odds with the facts. Granted that our founders were not privy to Marx, et al., but they devoured history when planning the basis of our Constitution. They were students of human nature and they had strong convictions about the fragility of a system based on natural rights. As we look back on the warning statements in their writings it seems to me that their projections of future developments were far more accurate than the “scientific” projections of Marx, Dewey, and other utopians. Does this not indicate that their understanding of human nature was was much better developed than Dewey’s, in spite of all his logical reasoning? Studying history may be a better way of understanding people than studying social science!
In support of this contention I present a few excerpts from the Federalist Papers. These were written by a few founders prior to the adoption of the Constitution. They were intended to explain the Constitution and the reasoning behind it to the general public. I have chosen these just to point out the founders understanding of human nature, not for the particular arguments being presented.
From Federalist number 10: Regarding possible internal insurrection
A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.
From Federalist number 71: Regarding the Presidency
It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the PUBLIC GOOD. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it.
From Federalist number 39: Regarding characteristics of a republic
Holland, in which no particle of the supreme authority is derived from the people, has passed almost universally under the denomination of a republic. The same title has been bestowed on Venice, where absolute power over the great body of the people is exercised, in the most absolute manner, by a small body of hereditary nobles. Poland, which is a mixture of aristocracy and of monarchy in their worst forms, has been dignified with the same appellation. The government of England, which has one republican branch only, combined with an hereditary aristocracy and monarchy, has, with equal impropriety, been frequently placed on the list of republics. These examples, which are nearly as dissimilar to each other as to a genuine republic, show the extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used in political disquisitions.
Let’s review some of the prophesies made by the proponents of socialism.
Marx, on the final stages of communism from the manifesto:
When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
Has anything like this come to pass in any communist or socialist society? Does it even sound reasonable?
Dewey, Croly, and the other Progressives did not accept the idea of a revolution to impose their socialist agenda. Also, they were nationalists and did not hold to the international imperative of communism. They believed their aims could be achieved through democratic means. But it was clearly a socialist model that they wanted to establish. Another quote from Dewey’s Liberalism and Social Action; “social control of economic forces is equally necessary if anything approaching economic equality and liberty is to be realized.” And a few paragraphs later, “The only form of enduring social organization that is now possible is one in which the new forces of productivity are cooperatively controlled and used in the interest of the effect liberty and the cultural development of the individuals that constitute society. Such a social order cannot be established by an unplanned and external convergence of the actions of separate individuals, each of whom is bent on personal private advantage.”
Have any of the socialist or quasi-socialist countries established a greater degree of equality and liberty than the U.S.? Have any produced more general prosperity? Why has China abandoned the communist economic model? Why has China begun to prosper since adopting a more capitalistic economy?
Let me also reiterate that philosophical arguments can not be considered “scientific” regardless of the conclusions reached. The scientific method requires experimentation with measurable results that can be replicated consistently. It is a good way to find out about physical things, but it isn’t really suited to studying real-world human behavior. It has similar limitations in studying economic behavior. It took almost 100 years for the psychological community to begin discarding Sigmund Freud’s teachings.
The alternative it to study actual past events with all their unknown variables, and look for seemingly recurring themes in the results. This approach may be methodical, but it is not “scientific”. I do not mean to disparage any of these disciplines, just to point out that the nature of the subject makes it impossible to use the scientific method.
The economic situation in Greece and other EU members seems to put an exclamation point on my reasons for being a conservative. There is no question that many of the objectives espoused by Progressives have a nice ring to them. However, there does not seem to be a recognition of the practical economic limits of providing these objectives. When the number of people benefiting financially from positive rights significantly exceeds the number of people paying for them the political ability to put on the brakes is lost. The system becomes unstable and can not be sustained.
Furthermore, history is full of examples of the inability of government planning to be an effective approach to providing the necessities of life or solving its major problems. History also shows us that people with power in government will frequently abuse that power. Many times they will not be held to account even when their abuses are obvious.
It is not a Republican/Democrat thing, it is a power thing. Too much power in any organization leads to abuses. This is true whether we are talking about big business, big unions, government, and even religious institutions. Government can police the others, but governments do not do a good job of policing themselves.
From the misguided to the unscrupulous to the despotic, neither party has a monopoly. But one of those parties is driven to acquire power through the extension of positive rights. The other party can be just as bad at times. The Democrats approach elections with a cry of crisis, whether it is health care, education, energy, the environment, etc. The news media help them to sell the idea. The solution is always more government control, more government spending.
Politically it is an enviable position to be in, to be the problem identifier and claim to have the solutions. In many cases the “crisis” is the result of previous government actions; the unintended consequences of trying to control something.
Our current “economic crisis” is the result of problems in the housing mortgage market. The events behind this crisis are carefully analyzed by Thomas Sowell in The Housing Boom and Bust which is summarized here by Walter E. Williams. A portion of his summary follows:
The root of the problem lies in Washington. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, later given teeth during the Bush and Clinton administrations, forced financial institutions to make risky mortgage loans they otherwise would not have made. President Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno threatened legal action against lenders whose racial statistics raised her suspicions. Bank loan qualification standards, in general, came under criticism as being too stringent regarding down payments, credit histories, and income. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government-sponsored enterprises, by lowering their standards for the kinds of mortgage paper they would purchase from banks and other mortgage lenders, gave financial institutions further incentive to make risky loans.
In 2002, the George W. Bush administration urged Congress to enact the American Dream Down Payment Assistance Act, which subsidized down payments of homebuyers whose income was below a certain level. Bush also urged Congress to pass legislation requiring the Federal Housing Administration to make zero-down-payment loans at low-interest rates to low income Americans. Between 2005 and 2007, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac acquired an estimated trillion-dollar’s worth of subprime loans and guaranteed more than $2 trillion worth of mortgages. That, Sowell points out, is larger than the gross domestic product of all but four nations.
This was all part of a government “solution” to a “housing crisis” of “unaffordable housing”. The book does not absolve Wall Street of any blame, but clearly shows that social engineering with laudable intentions was at the root of the crisis. Easier mortgages led to a boom in housing sales driving home prices up. Prices rose quickly enough to encourage speculation. Lenders needed some kind of backing for these proliferating under-financed mortgages and Wall Street offered to bundle mortgages in “derivatives”. It was unstable. There were cries of concern from a few economists. Bush(43) eventually called for reforms which Congress ignored, but it was probably too late already.
Congress investigates and finds corporate greed is responsible.
I will close with some thoughts about government from our Founding Fathers.
‘A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.’ –Thomas Jefferson
I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. James Madison
While all other sciences have advanced, that of government is at a standstill – little better understood, little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago. John Adams
Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. George Washington