The Founders as Collectivists

Joseph Postell’s Liberty Forum essay intervenes in a multifaceted debate about whether Congress or the presidency best embodies the American people governing itself. A third possibility also entertained is that self-government emerges from a creative interplay between the two, and a fourth is that perhaps self-government isn’t possible at all.

Absent from this debate are some other seemingly plausible alternatives. The judiciary could produce self-government. Or the Constitution itself could be the way that we perform self-government. These are interesting possibilities, but I will defend still another one: that the people generally can govern themselves, but that no state institutions of any form can do the job for them. At best, this entire class of institutions can make the conditions for self-government relatively more possible; at worst, governmental institutions are usurpers that promise self-government while supplying just the opposite.

When a libertarian says “self-government” he means, or should mean, the capacity of individuals to make responsible choices for themselves in the direction of their own lives, by means of adhering to a justified rule of conduct. Self-government touches on decisions like responsible personal finance, being a devoted father, exercising self-restraint and risk management, keeping healthy, and having an active intellectual and spiritual life. Self-government in this sense is a question of individual autonomy and the cultivation of personal virtues.

Self-government’s necessary preconditions are individual liberty and the generally law-like operations of the state and of others around us. The individualist who looks to any corner of Washington, D.C. in search of avatars of self-government is bound to be disappointed, or at least he should be.

Consider that I live in the congressional district of Mr. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a not inconsiderable man-about-Washington. He is the dean of the Maryland congressional delegation and the House minority whip. He grew up in Mitchelville, the same neighborhood where I now reside.

Perhaps Mr. Hoyer can self-govern me?

The question is more than faintly absurd. It becomes overwhelmingly so when we consider that Hoyer receives a grade of F from the National Rifle Association; he inclines strongly toward higher taxes; and he favors the adoption of a socialistic national manufacturing strategy.

All of this introduces a problem with George Washington’s belief, with which Postell begins, that the people will be self-governed through Congress. The problem is that, although Congressman Hoyer appears to be a relatively honorable politician—no serious scandals to speak of—one can’t say he favors self-government. What he favors is him governing me. I, for my part, would prefer to be governed otherwise, with freer gun laws, lower taxes, and no national manufacturing policy at all.

Now let’s turn to the White House, whose current occupant exercises less self-government than anyone else I can name. He is impulsive, cruel, short-tempered, ill-informed, easily swayed, and lacking in anything that one might call a principle of personal or public conduct. The idea that this individual should be the one to self-govern any other person is almost absurd enough to distract from the fundamental oxymoron of being self-governed by another.

Given my choices, I fear I might do better entrusting the government of the United States to the first 400 people in the nearby Jessup Correctional Institution. But there remain significant problems in the relationships among self-government, democratic representation, and personal virtue, and these problems take us deep into intellectual history.

For reasons already stated, I doubt that any institution can square the circle of self-government by another, at least as we individualists understand self-government. The answers to this conundrum supplied by social conservatism, however, seem unpromising to me. I confess that I have read only a little Willmoore Kendall, whom Postell takes for inspiration in his essay. I therefore tread carefully and qualify my conclusions about Kendall’s ideas. Still, it appears that he offers little to situate self-government in any more satisfying place.

I agree with Kendall, insofar as I understand him, that the problem of majority rule is central to modern politics. It certainly is. That problem only grows more salient when we recall that man is endowed with inalienable rights. These rights mean that majorities must be limited in their actions; they are moral claims against the actions of others, no matter how numerous.

On this I presume everyone agrees. What, though, are the proper limits to state action? Do I read Postell correctly that Kendall found the Mayflower Compact helpful in answering that question? Does Postell agree? I know that I certainly do not.

Let us not mince words: The Mayflower Compact established a Christian theocracy, for the glory of God, amen. The Compact did only one other thing, which was subject Plymouth to “our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.”

Although the Plymouth Colony did practice democracy (Quakers excluded), the Mayflower Compact itself was silent on democratic governance. Still less did it adumbrate a theory of limits to democratic decisionmaking, whether derived from rights or otherwise. It contained literally nothing besides submission to God and the king.

We are all glad to have the king out of our government, and we should feel the same way about God. What is this Compact to a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, or a religious skeptic like me? As historians like to ask, what is the usable past here? What is the lesson that we can profit from, as we seek to constrain democracy in the name of liberty, or otherwise to reach an accommodation between the two?

The Mayflower Compact is certainly not a framework for government that I could tolerate or live comfortably under. Nor, for that matter, could Catholics, Baptists, or members of many other Christian denominations. Even High Church Anglicans—like King James I himself—would not have been altogether welcome. James I and William Bradford had been on opposite sides of the law for years before the Compact was signed. Yet somehow I count the members of many different Christian and non-Christian faiths as my neighbors, and as equal citizens in a peaceful, pluralist, democratic, rights-respecting society.

So: As a rule of personal conduct, please do follow your conscience. Follow it scrupulously and go in peace wherever it takes you. I will be the last in the world to object. But if you’re seeking a way to temper the principle of majority rule, then bending the rest of society to your particular religious objectives does not suffice.

Something big must be missing here, because a sectarian theocracy is obviously not the solution to the problem of self-government through state institutions. What’s missing, I think, is that the American Founders spoke a political language significantly different from our own, with access to concepts that are to some degree foreign to us today. This difference in political language raises problems that we can begin to solve only by relearning some lost ideas. Understanding these ideas will put George Washington’s call for American self-government through Congress in a different light.

The fact is that when the Founders spoke of self-government, they did not mean precisely what individualist libertarians mean today. We like to claim the Founders as ancestors, and to some degree they are, but they also had principles in this area that served to cabin popular government in ways that will need significant reconstruction if they are to be made understandable in the present world at all.

Specifically, the Founders spoke of self-government through the state, and they did not perceive any oxymoron therein, because they accepted as a matter of course that humans have a binding, collective, social identity as well as an individual one: As an individual, I should govern myself by adhering to a chosen code of conduct, as George Washington famously agreed. Meanwhile, and as a collective, Americans should do the same, with results that I am obliged to obey. This type of collective choice, far from being a danger to liberty, was understood as an exercise of liberty.

This way of thinking is not one that I endorse. It does remain coherent, I think, provided that we answer two pressing questions: First, how are a collective’s laws to be recognized or otherwise chosen? And second, who is in (and who is out) of the collective? The Founders had answers to these questions that we moderns tend to pass by or forget.

This notion of a collective identity lying at the heart of the American Founding tradition may be uncomfortable to anyone who considers America to be the land of individualism. But it arises from the classical republican tradition, to which the Founders were all indebted to one degree or another, George Washington probably most of all.

Classical republicanism was an intellectual tendency in the early modern era that looked to Greece and particularly to Rome for examples of conduct befitting republican political action. Classical republicanism can be found in Renaissance Florence, Commonwealth England, Revolutionary France, and the early United States. It supplied ready answers to the two questions mentioned above, that of the means of discovery of laws, and that of the membership of the group on which they are binding.

Laws were well-chosen insofar as the most virtuous members of the collective did the choosing, and no one else. To live under the subjection of a foreign power—and thus without access to the laws that the virtuous members of one’s own collective would otherwise supply—was therefore a great evil. In the political language of classical republicanism, a key meaning of the term “liberty” was simply non-domination by outsiders, sustained through native virtue. Domination by insiders was perfectly okay, as long as they were virtuous. Liberty understood in this sense meant that whatever governance was done would be done by the best members of one’s own recognized group, whether that group was the Romans, the Florentines, or the Americans.

This view of liberty—much closer to the liberty of the ancients than to that of the moderns—also had to address our second question, that of membership in the collective. Determining membership became all the more difficult in an increasingly diverse society, which could not so easily resort to shared ethnicity to decide who is in, and who is out, of the American identity. Writing in Federalist 2, John Jay posited the existence of a unified American identity in terms that were both ringing and plainly false:

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

Now, the American people were not united in most of these ways, and they never would be; but classical republicanism said that they should be, so John Jay said that they were. Any polity that was so united, particularly if it were united in religion, might have done tolerably well on the classical republican plan. But the cracks in that worldview were certainly showing.

Defining liberty as only established by and for a collective explains why slavery raised few qualms in Roman society, or indeed almost anywhere before the modern era. To the Romans, the Roman polity alone had earned liberty through victory and virtue. Slaves, by being defeated in battle, had earned their slavery. Centuries later even John Locke accepted this principle, though admittedly the brief defense of slavery in the Second Treatise (1689) has the character of a legal fiction.

That’s why Maryland native Frederick Douglass’ question—What to a slave is the Fourth of July?–was so incisive. Douglass’ 1852 speech began by lauding (white) Americans for taking self-rule upon themselves, but it did not stop there, as a conventional Independence Day speech might have done. Instead it moved to an individualist defense of self-rule, one by which the enslavement of any man was always wrong. As Douglass put it, “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” (Emphasis in original.)

Douglass’ genius was to take the various identity-based, collectivist ideas of liberty that were common in the classical republican tradition and argue from all of them to a general idea of liberty, one that was individual in character and therefore applicable to everyone. As long as Jefferson was known to be a slaveholder, and as long as even Locke allowed for slavery, all American slaveholders could claim the mantle of liberty, as previously defined. Douglass denied this to them, using an argument that they themselves had partially accepted.

Yet this was certainly a radical political move. By this argument, the very exercise of government ceased to bear any obvious or necessary connection to liberty at all. Douglass did not assimilate all government to slavery, and he would have been wrong to do so, but his argument against slavery certainly raised difficult questions about government.

Douglass might easily have taken a more classically republican stance himself, favoring a collective, self-ruling liberty reserved solely for African-Americans, and a virtue-based politics for his race alone. That he did not take this route shows him to be much more an intellectual kinsman to modern individualists than to the Founders whom we so like to cite. In a philosophical contest between George Washington and Frederick Douglass, I would pick the Marylander over the Virginian, and I am sorry to say it, but it wouldn’t be close.

In this light, attempts to situate self-government in the institutions of the state can be understood as throwbacks to an older political tradition, one that took collective identities for granted and then looked to find their virtuous members to rule the collective.

The results of these attempts have generally been poor. In the sense that libertarians ought to mean it, a legislature, or a President, cannot do the work of self-government. At best such institutions may create or preserve the preconditions that make self-government possible. States overreach when they do more. We are entirely too governed by others, by the Hoyers and the Trumps of Washington.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on August 03, 2017 at 21:48:31 pm

Senior Editor Kuznicki immediately dismisses willing people as defined in the preamble to the constitution for the USA to assert that Congress, the President, the pair, the judiciary, or the Constitution itself, or “not possible” is the answer to self-government. George Washington’s words indicate belief that the people will govern Congress: The professor seems confused. Then, he asserts “the people generally [may] govern themselves, but that no state institutions of any form can do the job for them.” Libertarianism hinges on “a justified rule of conduct.” But there will always be dissidents and therefore the need for republicanism. Willing people may govern themselves by iterative collaboration. Perhaps Kuznicki states his claim at the people’s nadir of neglect, and the ascent to civic justice has begun.
Kuznicki’s definition of libertarianism is egocentric. The libertarian practices fidelity to his or her preferences in order to cultivate “personal virtues” in a vacuum. No politician can dictate those virtues, nor can Congress or a President. No neighbor is likely to care about his or her neighbor’s personal virtues as long as there’s no harm. That’s where Congress and the President come in: They are to manage civic morality for no harm, as discovered by the people. Because the USA has drifted into so much harm, President Trump has promised to return the power to the people. I want him to succeed and voted for him twice because of his humanness. I do not respect Kuznicki’s will to trash Trump and my votes.
I agree fully with Kuznicki’s objections to Kendall’s ideas based on theism. I think it is a mistake to skip the age of British Americans---loyal subjects who were colonists. They practiced British common law, which, for example, the Mayflower Compact assumes. But does a neighbor whose personal virtues hinge on theism conform to “a justified rule of conduct?” Kuznicki’s response is “somehow, yes.” However, religion does not belong in the civic debate. No two persons have the same religion.
Kuznicki leaves no doubt that he thinks libertarians are superior citizens. That makes it difficult to believe collaboration could help. If we met, I’d expect him to, at most, show tolerance toward my views. He’d be unaware that I view tolerance as arrogance (whether aimed toward me or offered by me). That is, the tolerant party thinks they hold the higher opinion and wait for the other party to see the light. People who tolerate me don’t realize that I consider most of their statements erroneous. I seek iterative collaboration to discover the-objective-truth rather than conflict to establish dominant opinion. And to discover civic morality for today, we need not understand the founders at all. We simply need to read the preamble, establish agreement to practice its essence, and iteratively collaborate to discover the-objective-truth and practice it using and improving the constitution for the USA. That’s packed yet understandable, in my view.
Within the body of willing people, citizens are free to associate as they like. Thus, libertarians are free to adopt a code of conduct. However, they are not free to impose the libertarian code in conflict with either the-objective-truth or public integrity. Late 16th century French standards for youth reflect an uncivil civilization relative to today’s ideas on freedom of expression, I doubt George Washington actually agreed with all the standards. See mountvernon.org/george-washington/rules-of-civility.
Kuznicki claims such collectivism was “an exercise in liberty” that is obsolete to libertarians. He erroneously claims that the Founders used the constitution to define the laws on which members of the collective are chosen, and the laws are based on “classical republicanism” rather than individualism. In classical republicanism, “Laws were well-chosen insofar as the most virtuous members of the collective did the choosing. To live under the subjection of a foreign power . . . was therefore a great evil.” Non-virtuous domination by outsiders was not “liberty.” The preamble presents the purpose and goals, and the articles are intended to execute justice; if not, they are to be amended by the people.
Kuznicki refers us to oll.libertyfund.org/titles/constant-the-liberty-of-ancients-compared-with-that-of-moderns-1819, where we read “the abbe de Mably, can be regarded as the representative of the system which, according to the maxims of ancient liberty, demands that the citizens should be entirely subjected in order for the nation to be sovereign, and that the individual should be enslaved for the people to be free.” Constant seemed to think a difference between ancient and modern provision of “political liberty” is slavery: The ancients had slaves to take care of commerce while citizens directly politicked but the moderns elect representatives to exercise political power. Constant: “Individual liberty . . . is the true modern liberty. Political liberty is its [indispensable] guarantee.” However, elected representatives exercise “arbitrary supremacy over individuals, and therefore, “it is civil liberty which I claim, along with other forms of political liberty.”
“But governments have new duties; the progress of civilization, the changes brought by the centuries require from the authorities greater respect for customs, for affections, for the independence of individuals.” Money and commerce free the individual from national conflicts. “In the kind of liberty of which we are capable, the more the exercise of political rights leaves us the time for our private interests, the more precious will liberty be to us.” In the interest of freedom to pursue private interests, “let us ask the authorities to keep within their limits. Let them confine themselves to being just.” Herein lies the failure of libertarianism: The libertarian would trust government for justice so that he or she may pursue the happiness personally perceived.
At this point, I suggest that Constant substantially drew from Machiavelli’s The Prince, 1517, perhaps assuming that readers would take that for granted. Naturally, we share that resource in 2017. Second, we have the benefit of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 thought, on evidence that was obvious to him upon the threat of war, that justice comes from a willing people rather than theism or government, the notorious partnership depicted as Chapter XI Machiavellianism. He asked the Confederate States of America, “Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?”
With the modification that in republicanism an informed public has the civic virtue to vote for representatives who will fulfill a continually improved constitution, self-governance can be a reality. The constitutional amendments would come from neither representatives’ arrogance nor dissidents’ dominance, but from the super-majority of people who are willing to discover the-objective-truth as the basis for civic morality. And to order civic interests according to the purpose and goals stated in the preamble to the constitution for the USA as viewed by modern people. For example, “more perfect unity,” perhaps referencing the states, might be equivocated to “more perfect integrity,” meaning both wholeness and understanding. Thereby, the private happiness Constant described might become an achievable possibility for the willing faction of We the People of the United States. Dissidents might steadily reform to the civic culture or suffer constraint from continually increasing justice under the rule of law.
John Jay’s Federalist 2 point about unity in the people seems like propaganda. True, the American English was more uniform than the language of Great Britain. And 99% of free citizens were factional Protestants. Most of them had been British Americans before they changed their style from colonists to statesmen, so they were accustomed to common law and Blackstone. But they objected to administration and adjudication from afar. However, only 5% of free citizens could vote. The natives, slaves, pacifists, and loyalists were dissidents, perhaps 40% of the population. And even among the 60% statesman, only 2/3 supported the change from statesman to We the People of the United States who agree to the purpose and goals stated in the preamble. There is evidence today that the willing vs dissident division is still 2/3:1/3. For example, 2/3 of citizens do not think taxes should support abortion for fun. (A term created by MWW.) That John Jay’s advocacy was for a classical republican plan is arguable, since the constitution he was defending was without theism. Theism was introduced by the 1st Congress, when it hired chaplains for their benefit at the people’s expense a couple months after their March 4, 1789 seating with only 10 of 13 free and independent states having joined the USA.
In quoting Frederick Douglass, Kuznicki could have chosen to encourage Americans to use the preamble to the constitution for the USA to order civic morality. Douglass said, “the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? [Let] me ask . . . if the Constitution were intended to be . . .a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it.” Is there an American who would blame Phil Beaver for lamenting Kuznicki’s slight to my country and the people who live here? Every American has the opportunity to choose the agreement proposed in the preamble or be a dissident. I count Kuznicki a dissident, wrong as I may be.
Not only that, Kuznicki has a lot of nerve to judge George Washington and Frederick Douglass. After all, Douglass praised the preamble which George Washington presaged on June 8, 1783. Washington presided at the preamble’s creation. Under the light of the preamble, Kuznicki might benefit from self-examination.

read full comment
Image of phil beaver
phil beaver
on August 03, 2017 at 23:04:39 pm

This makes almost no sense.

read full comment
Image of Leonard Marx
Leonard Marx
on August 09, 2017 at 06:33:38 am

I assume “This makes no sense,” refers to my comments.
I was constrained to ponder, “What’s the motive for writing such scorn?” I have no idea what “this” refers to, but I advocate that American citizens use the preamble to the constitution for the USA in order to effect self-governance.
Leonard Marx’s comment gave me a new perspective on AMO: Alinsky-Marxist organizing. Alinsky Rule No. 5: "’Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.’ There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.” Once a person is aware of this rule, he or she is immune to ridicule, but looks on the party who employs it as weak.
W. F. Buckley, Jr., said “Alinsky is twice formidable. For one thing, he is very close to being an organizational genius.” See archive.org/stream/nsia-fbi-alinsky/Alinsky,%20Saul-HQ-2_djvu.txt. Their debate at youtube.com/watch?v=OsfxnaFaHWI literally ends with Alinsky’s idea of when vigilantism is justified: when equality and dignity are denied. Both equality and dignity are subjective issues and should never be used to justify violence.
Many people fear---are not prepared for---the civic agreement that is stated in the preamble to the constitution for the USA, and they do everything they can to keep willing people divided. Meanwhile posterity---children, grandchildren and beyond---are being saddled with enormous adult debt. I work to defuse the power of ridicule and the subjectivity of “equality and dignity.”

read full comment
Image of phil beaver
phil beaver
on August 09, 2017 at 22:30:55 pm

I wrote without scorn. Im familiar with Alinsky, and my namesake, but I dont know why Alinsky would be cited or referenced.

I read Kuznicki's piece, and it made a reasonable, concise argument. Your comment to Kuznicki was very difficult to follow. I was unable to discern any thread, principal idea, or central argument.

Your second response also makes almost no sense. Thats simply an observation, not ridicule.

read full comment
Image of Leonard Marx
Leonard Marx

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.