How Did Our Politics Go Insane?

Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, a dear friend and one of the nation’s most insightful and thoughtful political observers, explains in a provocative Atlantic piece “How American Politics Went Insane.” The short answer, more fully elaborated in Jonathan’s earlier e-book, is disintermediation—that is, the demolition of political structures and mechanisms that, in a system of divided powers, make politics work and enable “middlemen” and power brokers to protect the system against crazies. Primaries and campaign finance reforms have weakened the parties. The destruction of the seniority and committee system has disabled Congress from legislating even when a (latent) consensus does exist. “Open government” reforms  have constricted the space that is needed for political bargaining. The “pork” that once greased the system has mostly disappeared. Over time, the institutional immune system has collapsed. The ensuing chaos has produced further public disaffection and populist agitation against “the establishment.” It’s a feedback loop, and not a good one.

I agree with much of the analysis, and I’m largely on board for Jonathan’s meliorist reform suggestions (bring back pork; strengthen the party apparatus or apparati). The ground of agreement is that we’re both institutionalists at heart. E.g., Jonathan’s analysis suggests that the culprit du jour, “polarization,” is largely a consequence rather than a cause of our predicament. That’s probably right. Still I wonder whether Brother Rauch’s riff is the whole (institutionalist) story. For want of a compelling counter-, complementary, or complete story, I offer three questions to noodle over.

Situationalism. You want to think not just as an institutionalist but also as a constitutionalist. The way Jonathan comes at this: the (Madisonian) Constitution sets up rival power centers but doesn’t tell you how they’re supposed to cooperate and generate output. That’s where parties, committees, etc. come in. That’s right, but only up to a point or rather two. First, the lack of coordinating devices is a constitutional design decision, not a hole or oversight. (The constitutional point is to make ordinary politics possible, not to manipulate it this way or that under circumstances you can’t foresee.) Second, the Constitution—in its structure, and as elucidated in The Federalist—is very clear on a crucial institutional point that ought to matter to Jonathan Rauch. “Our most pressing political problem today,” he concludes, “is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.” That collapse into a cliche and pablum (What country? What establishment? How does one “abandon” the other, and how does that differ from the premise of  mutual distrust that underpins the entire system?) might have been avoided by engaging a constitutional thought: liberal democracy (“republican government,” as the Founders called it) demands some slack between the people and their agents.

The task, then, is to ensure the right kind and amount of agency slack and then to guard against its abuse. Nowadays, though, there is no slack between us and our elected agents. They’re perfectly monitored, 24/7, and they’re easily “Cantored” or otherwise punished for going off the reservation. But it’s hard to convince folks to just surrender the (by now, highly institutionalized) monitoring devices they’ve built up—all the more so because “the establishment” has in fact made a big mess of things, and still more so because the “auxiliary precautions” that once incentivized our institutions to monitor each other have pretty much fallen into desuetude. (E.g., Congress no longer holds hearings because all the committees are going to get is a snow job.)

Bureaucracies. Jonathan’s analysis and prescriptions focus on Congress and parties. That’s a big piece of the puzzle but it’s, like, so 19th century—the century of parties and courts. The 20th century, in contrast, has mostly been the century of bureaucracy. It doesn’t really appear in Jonathan’s picture but I think it ought to: it’s the actual “establishment.” Even if we could somehow revitalize the parties and re-enable Congress, executive agencies will still run the show. (More in a sec.)  The traditional reason for cutting agencies some slack was “expertise” and partial insulation from partisan politics. Modern agencies, though, are the President’s attack dogs, and they‘re expert at regulating by offering deals you can’t refuse. In the absence of effective congressional or judicial oversight, the “open government” reforms Jonathan laments are often the only means of exposing flagrant abuse at the IRS, the EPA, the FCC, and so on through the alphabet. So how does the Rauchean program shake out in that context?

Expectations. If you want to make room for transactional politics, Jonathan Rauch explains, you have to re-parochialize Congress and re-empower the parties: pork, backroom deals, the works. That’s true but effective, I suspect, only over some range. Parties and parliaments are pretty good at negotiating who gets what. In that context our representatives can cut interest group deals and make them stick. Even the bureaucracy problem becomes manageable. E.g., in the 1950s AT&T got its long-distance monopoly and local carriers got their subsidies, and no FCC bureaucrat could unravel that bargain. The arrangement was stupid but stable. However, parties and parliaments are not good at many other things.

They’re absolutely awful at “values” politics (which is why national compromises in that domain are imposed by the Supreme Court, not Congress). They lack the capacity to govern local, quotidian transactions (which is why bathrooms, student dating behavior, and mud puddles are governed by poorly monitored bureaucracies). And they keel over when vast popular majorities hold intense but (time-)inconsistent preferences, as when 102 percent of eligible voters want (1) a gargantuan welfare state and (2) not pay for it. In that predicament the most transaction-minded, party-dominated legislature will kick the problem down the road, or perhaps to a central bank. This happens in many advanced democracies, including quite a few whose institutional pathologies differ from ours.

Aspirational values, micro-concerns, debt-financed entitlements: that just about covers the waterfront. Maybe a more transactional, parochial politics would facilitate consensus on these issues. But it might also produce more agitation and, in Jonathan’s phrase, “insanity.” Among the most memorable bargains in recent memory was the “Cornhusker kickback,” which gave us an Affordable Care Act that combines utopian politics, micro-regulation, interest group racketeering, and debt finance in a singularly nasty fashion. Happy now?

Like I said: I don’t have a better story. But I have a suggestion. The late great James Q. Wilson—a die-hard institutionalist and an intellectual hero to Jonathan Rauch and yours truly—described the dramatic lowering of a “threshold of concern” as a central feature of modern politics. Ordinary politics collapses when everything becomes a problem; when values politics becomes organized; and when public tolerance for peacetime debt finance proves unlimited. Neither our Constitution nor our institutional practices were designed for that. The experience of European countries, alongside ours, suggests that few if any institutional systems can cope with demands of this sort.  The pathologies differ from country to country, but they stem from the same source. In that sense, they’re epiphenomenal. In short, you don’t have to be a Libertarian (Jim Wilson wasn’t) to suspect that sane forms of politics depend on a limited range and on public realism about what politics can actually do.

If that’s roughly right, maybe “the country” should in fact “abandon the establishment”—not in the sense of cutting it more slack but in the sense of lowering its own expectations. In return, maybe “the establishment” could gain some maneuvering room on manageable issues by “abandoning the country”—by explaining that it can not in fact arrest the ocean tides, imbue drunk student athletes with sense and sensibility, or guarantee freedom and justice for transgender Arroyo toads. There being little evidence to either effect, maybe H. L. Mencken had it right: under our democratic system, the American people should get the government they deserve. Good and hard.

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 08, 2016 at 09:12:29 am

There is more to be said, such as considering the fact that we have "two governments" (the Constitutional State and the Administrative State) and (so far) only one set of "political" arrangements for the public interfaces with each.

So, we might begin with what "Institutions" and institutionalization involve and whether we have developed "political" processes to cope with the issues generated by the rise of the Administrative State and its institutions.

Carroll Quigley (1910-1977)

Used the term Social Instruments to describe facilities established to meet real social needs.

He found an explanation for the disintegration of social orders in the gradual transformation of social instruments into institutions, that is, transformation of social arrangements functioning to meet real social needs into social institutions serving their own purposes regardless of real social needs. [From the introduction to the work cited below]

Quigley identified categories of human “needs” in the development of “levels of cultures ‘ that make up social orders.

He posits:

"To satisfy these needs, there come into existence on each level social organizations seeking to achieve these. These organizations, consisting largely of personal relationships, we shall call “instruments” as long as they achieve the purpose of the [cultural development] level with relative effectiveness. But every such social instrument tends to become an “institution.” This means that it takes on a life and purposes of its own distinct from the purposes of the level; in consequence, the purpose of that level is achieved with decreasing effectiveness. In fact it can be stated as a rule of history that 'all social instruments tend to become institutions.'

"An instrument is a social organization that is fulfilling effectively the purpose for which it arose. An institution is an instrument that has taken on activities and purposes of its own, separate from and different from the purposes for which it was intended. As a consequence an institution achieves its original purposes with decreasing effectiveness. Every instrument consists of people organized in relationships to one another. As the instruments become an institution, these relationships become ends in themselves to the detriment of the ends of the whole organization."

[pp. 101-102 Op. cited]

The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley 1961; Liberty Fund reprint 1979. Still available in print.

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on August 08, 2016 at 09:45:59 am

From the 1788 ratification, the people didn't comprehend their collective opportunity. It's time for the people to discover the literal preamble to the constitution for the USA and use it to establish civic morality. Willing people can, for their own lives, separate 1) personal commitment to broadly defined civic safety and security for living (consider John Locke without theism) from 2) private pursuits of precious hopes for spiritual comfort, such as religion, fine arts, spectator sports, etc (consider the native-American religion).

The people of the world are at a turning point in the debate over whether the human species is basically bad and therefore must live under force and coercion or is basically good and each human only needs to be encouraged to trust and cultivate private goodness.

The USA is failing its promise to lead, as expressed in this forum continually.

Politicians elected to execute the offices specified by law must perform under the oversight of a civic people. Hopefully, in this country, participation as a civic people would asymptotically approach "We the People of the United States." We are iteratively collaborating a theory to empower private liberty with civic morality. See A Civic People (ACP) , especially the featured post, the continually improved theory. Please help improve the theory.

read full comment
Image of Phil Beaver
Phil Beaver
on August 08, 2016 at 10:21:30 am

Excellent thoughts from Professor Greve as always. As Peggy Noonan pointed out recently, we have a kakocracy. We need to stop pretending that the 1791 Constitution matters.because it died over one-hundred years ago with the passage of the 16th and 17th Amendments, which weaken the influence of the states and gave the central government access to too much money, which, as with any bubble, it spends on too much stupid stuff, e.g.,the bloated Administrative State.

read full comment
Image of Ron Johnson
Ron Johnson
on August 08, 2016 at 11:29:29 am

Given the reference over to Wilson's "Bureaucracy," Gordon Tullock's work (Liberty Fund 2005) of the same title(Volume 6 of the "Selected works of Gordon Tullock") with its inclusion of his 1965 "The Politics of Bureaucracy," is perhaps more apt to the question of this essay.

Has "Politics" (in the highly simplified notion of the interface of the individual with the social organization [polis]) gone "insane," or, are we observing obstacles to, or failures of, particular (constitutionally oriented political) processes and relationships in the interfaces of individuals with the Federal Administrative State.

"Politics" to provide adequate interface does not seem to (can not?) function with continuing centralizations; but, though it might be, is not being used to de-centralize by returns to local facilities where normal politics works as the interface.

The processes of "politics" have largely been adapted to purposes of social and economic power; which, given the human condition, can hardly be called "insane."

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on August 08, 2016 at 11:38:40 am

"Modern agencies, though, are the President’s attack dogs, and they‘re expert at regulating by offering deals you can’t refuse. In the absence of effective congressional or judicial oversight, the “open government” reforms Jonathan laments are often the only means of exposing flagrant abuse at the IRS, the EPA, the FCC, and so on through the alphabet" - Many of these Executive abuses, what I like to call, the Tyranny of the Tax Exemption and Fascism of Federal Funding, could be curtailed if Congress were to be less inclined to do what, as Hadley Arkes often characterizes as, "legislating without legislating", engaging in "back-handed legislation", and "legislating through indirection", by providing for the revocation or denial of Federal Grant monies from parties determined to be in violation of broadly and ambiguously defined and interpreted Civil Rights Legislation. Congress must demonstrate a new willingness to find the courage to legislate on the "tough" issues in open, straight-forward, and concrete terms if they are to regain any modicum of public confidence and legitimacy.

read full comment
Image of Paul Binotto
Paul Binotto
on August 08, 2016 at 13:53:25 pm

Good to see Prof. Greve back with another fine insightful essay!

A thought or two on the topic:

Both Greve and Richard point to some possible causes of our current insanity: institutions that have a) either failed (Greve) or b) simply followed their natural eveolutionary path (Richard) to *institutionalization*

Let me add one other element:

This a.m. I observed members of the Int'l Golf Federation conducting a press conference prior to the opening of the Rio Olympic Games which will now hold a golf competition. Interesting to note that an association (an instrument in Richard's terms) whose initial goal was to simply grow participation in the game of golf NOW sees fit to publicly lobby for increased or in some instances initial Governmental financing / subsidies to support growth of this game.

What does this tell us about associations? Richard's point re: "institutionalization" is correct; associations do tend toward that final configuration. Yet, it is not simply that the "institution" THEN becomes *corrupt*, i.e. in pursuit of aims not otherwise intended or foreseen by the association members, but rather that in the first instance the aims of the members themselves may be the product of (as Greve asserts) unrealistic (improper, perhaps) expectations of the members. What they seek, while perfectly proper when confined to a simple civic association and its limited influence restricted to persuasion, voluntary effort, etc, becomes decidedly improper when backed with the power and force of a National Government.

In short, the people themselves have been corrupted and now possess expectations of / from government that permit / encourage / sustain governmental actions outside the proper boundaries of a constitutional order.
We ALL now want something AND government (and all its institutions / mechanisms, etc) are the place to seek it.

I think that in some respects the *institutionalization* of which Richard speaks is nothing more than the mechanism deployed by both the "members" and the bureaucracy of the institutions to deliver on the unreasonably high (and false / improper) expectations that have become resident in the peoples understanding of government.

And in my opinion (and being a golfer) one does not want government support for golf - next thing we will have calls for equal pay for the LPGA, EEOC quotas and Dear colleague letters sent out to the various Tour Commissioners. How readily do we slip the silk cord around our own necks once we seek to fulfill our own inflated expectations (and egos?) via the use of governmental mechanisms and institutions.

The fault Dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.
What should anyone expect of those seeking handouts but that we become subservient to the institutionalized interests of the bureaucracies and the peculiar motivations of its legions of minions.

And if you want another instance of sports institutionalization, albeit one that is truly corrupt in the economic sense, look to FIFA - but don;t get me started on a good rant against that stupid game!!

read full comment
Image of gabe
on August 08, 2016 at 15:54:17 pm

I read the Atlantic piece. My take is that politicians can't keep up with the rate of change of technology. With better technology we get faster and wider communication.

Democracy feeds on communication. As technology aids communication, transparency in government decreases every day, and government becomes more democratic (and less republican).

A new--or at least different--theory of government is needed that can work with the fact that not only will technology continue to increase communication, but that the rate of growth will also increase.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in a society where no one has any privacy at all. That seems to be the direction technology is taking us.

How might a government operate if everything its office holders did was done in public?

read full comment
Image of Scott Amorian
Scott Amorian
on August 08, 2016 at 17:03:27 pm


Thought (hoped) you might chime in.

"I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in a society where no one has any privacy at all." - Think Puritan New England with it's rather strict (albeit imperfect) enforcement of moral codes / conduct.
When ALL is known to ALL, there is no refuge, there is no hiding, there is no repose.
In microcosm, one need only look to our Parties, as you have often observed, and see how this lack of privacy, this destruction of the private sphere (I would add both politically and *epistemologically) conduces to a rigid (again, albeit imperfect) enforcement of Party discipline in pursuit of whatever peculiar social "aspirational" values that Party seeks to advance.

I would prefer, as Greve suggests, that a little "pork" gets sliced up and tossed about, as a result of "secrecy" in our Legislative than to compel all of our Legislative members to endure the tyranny of "openness."

I say we skip New England on our road trip. Been there, done that and those DASTARDLY Patriots play there!!!!

read full comment
Image of gabe
on August 08, 2016 at 19:16:08 pm

A "new" or different "theory of government.

What is the current theory of government? IYO?

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on August 08, 2016 at 19:18:29 pm

Sorry that was meant for Scott

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on August 09, 2016 at 04:14:08 am

There is simply too much use of academic, high-falutin' references ("disintermediation," transactional politics," "micro-concerns," etc) in this article, and they are not needed, to explain that the lib/lefty/"progressive"/Democrat fools have misread the American mood and think that they are now in a good position to jam their lib/lefty/"progressive"/Democrat nonsense down the throats of honest, hard-working, red-blooded (dog whistle for the folks in Rio Linda). They are wrong about their good position, because natural law, upon which conservatism (not necessarily political conservatism, which is, of course a product of natural law) in general is eternal. They will be humiliated both today and ultimately.

read full comment
Image of Luis
on August 09, 2016 at 09:01:15 am

"not necessarily political conservatism, which is, of course a product of natural law." I like that statement, I think.

I feel that "natural law," the focus of lots of 17th and 18th century Western literature is a controversial term. For example, the authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote "the laws of nature and of nature's God." That was 1776 jargon.

In 2016 so much more has been discovered: America's dream---mutual private liberty (live and let live) in civic safety and security---can come true.

We can iteratively collaborate to establish a civic culture. Civic morality would be based on the indisputable facts of reality rather than dominant opinion. Reality is discovered from physics, which is energy, mass and space-time from which everything including political conservatism emerges. For example, people wouldn't lie so that iterative collaboration would not start with a lie to be discovered.

A couple hundred years ago, most people thought a god is responsible for physics, or it's namesake, natural law. So far, the god hypothesis has not been dis-proven, so it is alive and waiting for evidence that could lead to proof. Therefore, any religion that accommodates civic morality could flourish in private liberty.

read full comment
Image of Phil Beaver
Phil Beaver
on August 09, 2016 at 09:30:53 am

It has always seemed to me to be a much simpler cause. The present day Democratic Party runs on the platform of having people self identify as a subset group (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc) and offering special treatment specific to that group. The Republican Party runs on representing 'America' and defining what and who is 'American'. Each party's platform by default makes outsiders of members of the competing party.

read full comment
Image of James
on August 09, 2016 at 09:53:50 am


Here is a reply received by another commentator:

Yes, you are onto something, or back onto something, that became a concern several decades back as we began to see persons and groups seeking positions as part of the political class through "constituency building." The shifts of power, influence, prestige, etc. to members of the political class had become obvious, but the methods of "entry' and positioning had been limited by the party system. That changed in the days of Jim Farley and the constructed constituencies of the Democrat Party to form coalitions.

So, you could "create" a constituency and get into a part of a coalition, then move up to member of the coalition as your constituency was built.

read full comment
Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on August 09, 2016 at 10:18:08 am


Thank you for that reference. One often forgets just how consequential a political figure was Mr. Farley.

He was indeed, a *clever* fellow. We, of course, are the *beneficiaries* of his cleverness.

read full comment
Image of gabe
on August 09, 2016 at 11:21:46 am

Thank you. I was unfamiliar with James Farley and found the information interesting.

read full comment
Image of James
on August 09, 2016 at 12:06:31 pm

I don't think it's a theory so much as an aggregation of influences. The Constitution has a strong influence. Individual congressmen have some influence. SC justices have a strong influence. Your and my opinions have a tiny influence.

Communication technology has a strong influence also, starting perhaps with the printing press.

First books, then pamphlets and newspapers, then radio and television, now blogs and most recently gimmicks like twitter. Communication accelerates the speed at which information--true or not--transfers between people, and it makes it spread faster. Democracy is made more powerful by the distribution of information--true or not. So democracy becomes increasingly powerful.

Politic systems take time to adapt to new communication technology. Political bodies used to have decades or even hundreds of years to adapt to new technologies. But the rate of technological change today is happening faster than political bodies can adapt. So we have chaos. So we have unconstrained democracy conquering reason everywhere.

IMO, that's our current theory of government. Like Gabe, I would like to see more privacy introduced to the inner workings government; at least in the Senate. But whatever happens, government must be able to surf on the waves of technology, otherwise it will drown in the sea of democracy..

read full comment
Image of Scott Amorian
Scott Amorian
on August 09, 2016 at 14:59:49 pm

The questions posed by Professor Greve are valid, so long as one shares the perspective from which they are asked, but he gives no defense of that perspective. Richard hints at the issue when he asks about models of government.

A person's view of government tends to occupy a spot on a spectrum, from necessary evil to consummate good. One's view of politics and how to "fix" government depends greatly on this seminal perspective. Whether one is a totalitarian or an anarchist is the consequence of how one views the nature of government. Likewise, progressivism,, conservatism, libertarianism, etc. are consequences of a fundamental belief of the role and nature of government. The question of why our politics is insane brings to mind Chesterton's essay on the medical mistake; i.e. politics and government cannot be cured, and therapies prescribed as they are in cases of medical infirmity because in the latter case there is no controversy as to what health looks like, but in the former there is no agreement as to what a healthy government is.

There are certain fallacies that exacerbate the shortcomings of this perspective-dependent method of analysis. The first is the false equation of "necessary" with "good." If government is necessary, it must be a good thing, right?, and if it is good, its goodness has no limits. But, just like the body's immune system, when necessity leads to excess the results are decidedly not good. In a similar fashion, when wants are mistaken for needs, it is very easy to lose sight of what, exactly, government is necessary for, and to make demands of it for which it is ill-suited.

Another fallacy is that the benefits of government that accrue to a collective can be scaled down to provide analogous benefits to individuals; that if one person is offended, or inconvenienced or disadvantaged, or simply fails at something, this somehow represents a failure of government and demands a remedy. There are certain things for which government is objectively ill suited: choosing a person's spouse, or deciding what people should be allowed to learn, or deciding which beliefs should be penalized or suppressed, or prescribing the value of things. It is commonplace, and in fact inevitable, that when government tries to be a benefactor of one insular group, it is a malefactor to another, and arbitrary determinations of which group should be favored make the debasement of government no less real.

The allure of government as generic problem solver boils down to two attributes: government has guns and a big checkbook. It is far more tenuous to assume that government is possessed of a unique capacity for good judgment or immunity to corruption or a knack for providing justice. History suggests that it does not. The use of force and money have an observably spotty record when it comes to making life better.

So before we decide why our politics is insane and what to do about it, it would be useful to make the case regarding what government should look like, what are its benefits and detriments, its capacities and limitations. What characteristics make totalitarianism bad, and anarchy unreasonable? What perils lurk in bureaucratic meddling, incompetence and official corruption on one hand and leaving the masses to their own devices on the other? Then we can talk about what to expect from greater secrecy and pork, and political wheeling and dealing, and if we must find out the hard way whether government is a consummate good, or a necessary evil, or something in between.

read full comment
Image of z9z99
on August 09, 2016 at 17:24:36 pm


Careful now!!!!
Questioning whether gummint is good could result in a state paid vacation to a re-education camp the result of which could be a new book, "Report from a Democrat Village."

read full comment
Image of gabe
on August 10, 2016 at 02:07:31 am


Phil, I feel as if we are old friends. That does not mean that I agree with everything you say, that is, if I am capable of receiving the ideas that you expose in your post.

But first, my post was too quickly written and has a problem in the next-to-the-last sentence which has probably caused readers to be put off. It should have said the following.

"...natural law, upon which conservatism is based (not just political conservatism, which, still, is, of course, a product of natural law), and in general is eternal and universal."

But your post shows that you had the capacity to compensate for my mistake. Thank you if that is the case.

Now, this is not the medium to discuss point-by-point your ideas, but here are a couple of unavoidable responses.

"I like that statement, I think." I believe I know exactly what you mean by that, and don't want to flatter myself too much, but my reference to political conservatism being a product of natural law is, at least reflexively, easy to accept but might require more deliberation. Yes.

"...the authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” That was 1776 jargon." I honestly had in mind when I wrote the post, the reference you quote from the Declaration, and is, no question, an eminently great example of natural law at work in this still-greatest nation in the history of man, no matter what the riffraff, flimflam, low-brow, low-life, low-class, phony, artificial, Barack Hussein Obama has tried to do in his efforts to transform the US. But "jargon"? No. If you mean by jargon the style of that period, maybe. But the statement is universal in time, universally applicable.

"Civic morality would be based on the indisputable facts of reality rather than dominant opinion. Reality is discovered from physics, which is energy, mass and space-time from which everything including political conservatism emerges." No, reality is much, much, more than the physical, the observable, the "provable," and even the epistemological if you want to get that technical, and acting on morality is certainly natural law in action, in reality--I am not saying that everyone is so motivated, but normal folks are.

Your final paragraph might need to be rewritten--forgive the presumption, but I have never heard that natural law is a namesake for physics. I would like to think that you might suggest that there is much, much, more to reality than with whatever physics can help us.

May the Holy Ghost continue to inspire you and me in this most fundamental battle for decency in the United States of America.

read full comment
Image of Luis
on August 10, 2016 at 09:37:52 am


I think by "JMJ" you referred to the Holy Family. My wife is Louisiana French Catholic, but moreover a serene, responsible person. I would not change anything about her and share her hopes for her afterdeath but do not have those hopes for my person. She and I, together, separate our civic provisions from our religious hopes and comforts. From the day I met her, she has indicated that her god is not higher than God. She would not bring religious language into our civic discussion. With that experience, I work to encourage everyone to focus on civic issues in civic debate, recognizing that no one negotiates the character of their god or gods or none. Yet, institutional religious doctrine must conform to civic morality: a person cannot harm another based on religious opinion.

Perhaps you and I can iteratively collaborate to find a new statement that promises a better future. You bring to mind Michael Polanyi's book Personal Knowledge, 1958. He seemed to argue against my trust and commitment to the objective truth, of which most is undiscovered and some is understood. Only on the last couple pages he stated that a Christian worshiping God is seeking the same goal: "ultimate liberation." Thus, after arguing that my effort is misguided, he stated that his effort to understand the source of life is on par with mine. I could be wrong and wish I could talk to him.

The dialogue with you, so far, lends possible understanding. Thus, Polanyi is perhaps saying he and I have the same intentions: remaining true to ultimate liberation as we perceive it. But we each know that our lifetimes during a millions-of-years-old human quest are too brief to realize success.

The indisputable facts of reality (natural laws?) exist and humankind must discover them based on what is evident rather than imagined. Find any resource that presents the timeline of evolution and it should start with the sudden appearance of energy, mass, and space-time at the big bang (call it "EMST" and refer to Einstein's general theory of relativity). Science is the study and EMST plus all that derives from it is the object. Continuing from the big bang, 13.8 billion years ago (BYA), cosmic chemistry then inorganic chemistry emerged. Earth formed 4.6 BYA. Biology on earth 3.8 BYA, placental mammals 65 million YA, homo species 2.8 MYA, Opinion, culture and politics perhaps 200,000 YA; monotheism and slavery perhaps 3800 YA. That paragraph tends to turn readers off, but persistence will reward, I think.

The first step in discovery is imagining that what seems perceived is real, or hypothesizing and explanation. Belief is real, but the hypothesis may not be true. The god hypothesis remains undisproved, but many of the god constructs seem disproved, for example, human sacrifice, especially ceremonial sacrifice, and slavery. We are told that sacrifice was Jesus's purpose, but so far, we have not learned the intentions for slavery.

When Emperor Constantine ordered Roman priests to canonize a Christian Bible, the physics of slavery was plain to everyone: chains, whips, brutality and rape to slaves with burdens to slave-masters. (How slavery emerged from physics is complicated evolution of economics, but sociology is the science that works to explain.) The priests (mistakenly?) included books with passages that condone slavery. About 1700 years later, South white Christians waged war with North white Christians to preserve "[less] erroneous Bible [interpretation]," quoting the Declaration of Secession. Perhaps the proof that slavery is religiously moral will come in the future. On the other hand, perhaps a civic culture has learned not to wage war based on religious interpretations.

Nonetheless, I do not want to delay the provision of civic morality--broadly defined safety and security in human connections. Religion is precious to the believer and to the public when the religion serves civic morality as well as religious hopes and comforts and institutional doctrine. With religious beliefs that differ for each person alive, humankind needs a foundation on which to collaborate for civic morality, and we propose the indisputable facts of reality (TIFR). TIFR can be discovered through physics, the object of scientific studies including sociology, difficult as that science may be.

In a civic culture, every real-no-harm belief can flourish, but religious doctrine cannot determine civic morality. Instead of past ideas, for example, each individual conforming to society "for the overall good," a civic people collaborate for private liberty with civic morality (PLwCM) keeping religious pursuits in privacy.

To practice iterative collaboration, we may admit to ourselves and then to each other that we will not compromise the objects of our personal trust and commitments---you your god and me the objective truth both of which may be seeking God despite my doubts. We may decide to mutually grant efficiency and duration of civic life so as to contribute to the quest such as Polanyi's ultimate liberation. We collaborate together for a possible future civic culture. Together, we might create an insight whereby most people may live long, rewarding lives rather than squabble for dominant religious opinion.

I look forward to your alternative idea on how to provide civic morality.

read full comment
Image of Phil Beaver
Phil Beaver
on August 11, 2016 at 08:39:33 am

[…] Michael Greve, a GMU colleague over in the law school, asks how our politics have become so insane. […]

read full comment
Image of Some Links - Cafe Hayek
Some Links - Cafe Hayek
on August 12, 2016 at 07:54:30 am

Not sure I get the part about what's so great about pork. Isn't this list long enough?


read full comment
Image of Moore

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.