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Seizing the Opportunity to Revisit the Republic’s First Principles

On Monday Senator Harry Reid introduced an amendment, which would permit both Congress and state legislatures to prohibit the use of resources for political speech at election time. The Republicans did not vote to filibuster it but instead by a substantial majority agreed to open debate. Senator Reid then complained that Republicans were trying to “stall” the Senate from getting to other items on his agenda. Washington has reached a new high in legislative hypocrisy: criticizing the opposition for wanting to debate an amendment that you brought to the floor!

The debate is scheduled to last the week. And nothing is more important than having a debate that brings us back to the consideration of first principles. Political theorists since Machiavelli have been absorbed by the problem of preventing the decay and corruption of the republic as its founding principles gradually recede from public view. The most important safeguard against such decline is the creation of mechanisms that naturally ventilate deep disagreements and renew the citizens’ appreciation of their republic’s first principles. Floor time for divisive constitutional amendments is such a mechanism and this one illustrates three first principles on which our two major political parties disagree.

Equality before the Law. The constitutional amendment exempts the media from congressional regulation applying to others: the press can spend as much as its wants on election time, including on endorsements. Thus, the amendment would create two classes of citizens- those in the media who cannot be regulated and other citizens who can.  Making such distinctions is contrary to fundamental republican principles. To be sure, some individuals use their First Amendment rights more than others, but unequal exercise is the way of rights. They are open to all, even if they are exercised to different degrees by people.

Trusting the Benevolence of Government—Reid’s proposed amendment would allow legislators to regulate the campaign expression that may unseat them.  Empowering government officials to structure the rules for their own retention is also contrary to the healthy republican suspicion of those in power. But it is consistent with Democratic party’s greater trust in the benevolence of government actors.

Spontaneous Order vs. Order Imposed by Government—The rights guaranteed by free speech rights create a continuous spontaneous order of civic discourse, including around election time. Citizens, for instance, come together in partnerships and corporations to amplify their voices and get a hearing they would otherwise not. Democracy, as the Declaration of Independence reminds us, should be dedicated to securing such rights and thus sustaining that spontaneous order. This amendment instead embodies the Progressive ideals that would trench on rights and disrupt the spontaneous order in the interest of a pattern of government enforced equality.

Reader Discussion

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on September 10, 2014 at 11:13:54 am

John:

Nice piece!
A couple opf comments:

1) this is the best "first step" that the GOP has taken in a rather long while. Now, if they only have the cajones to take the next step(s) which will be to highlight the Dems attempted debasement of our constitutional order and liberties. Highlight this, go on all the usual talk shows with the usual suspects and rail to the heavens about this. would not this make for a nice 30 - 60 second campaign spot?

2) Alternatively, introduce an amendment to the Dems proposal wherein the media corporations are also restricted - sort of an update Fairness Doctrine. We could have a lot of fun with this.

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gabe
on September 10, 2014 at 12:31:05 pm

While some might quibble that the "first principles" of our Republic are not first principles of social organization and human interactions; there were, and have been, "first principles" of our Republic. Are they still – "First" principles?

Let's consider how particular concepts came to be first principles of our Republic. Those "principles" evolved from a culture in which there was a sufficient commonality of individual motivations in determining the "ought and ought not" of human interactions in this particular society that produced this particular Republic in this particular form.

While that may view is compatible with the concept of "Spontaneous Order," one does not have to ascribe to that concept to recognize the prevailing force of individual motivations in the development of "first principles" of this Republic.

Most actors in the political arena of today depend on their sense of the predominant individual motivations (usually as aggregated) of the general polity; they also gauge their own conduct in political action in accordance with their observations of those motivations and their assumptions of their own capacities to influence those motivations.

This brings us to the question of whether those political actors (not limited to those in or seeking elective positions) sense changes in individual motivations, or an opportunity to influence individual motivations to a degree that would no longer sustain the former concepts of "first principles." There has been little evidence of a broad commonality in the change of those original motivations; but, there has been substantial evidence of academic, wordsmiths' and political actors' efforts to influence those motivations toward other dominant principles of social order and the forms of government necessary for them.

None of the advocates of the departures from first principles, discussed above, are particularly *politically* stupid (though they may err). It's hard to conceive of another time in American political conditions when such a proposal would have been brought forth. That raises the question of whether the current political actors correctly sense a change in individual motivations or correctly assess the possibilities for influence. If they are even partially correct, a further question arises as to why and what has caused, and what are, the changes in those motivations of the body politic.

Perhaps one way to consider these issues is to conjecture whether today's body politic, reflecting the degree of commonality of individual motivations, would produce the same or equivalent First Principles. There is a strong possibility they would not because of the changes (diminution) in the commonality of the sources of formation of individual motivations that have resulted from the changes in the demographic, geographic, sociologic factors shaping those sources.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on September 10, 2014 at 15:01:18 pm

Richard:

"There is a strong possibility they would not because of the changes (diminution) in the commonality of the sources of formation of individual motivations that have resulted from the changes in the demographic, geographic, sociologic factors shaping those sources."

Sadly, I must agree. One can only speculate what the "silent artillery of time" has done to original conceptions.
In fact, if I may be so bold as to attempt to correct Lincoln, the artillery has not been silent but rather boisterous in its condemnation of original conceptual framework / principles, now including sportscasters moralizing over every little thing. The attack is loud and insistent and regrettably appears to have worn down resistance amongst the populace.
Downright reprehensible!!!!

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gabe
on September 11, 2014 at 08:38:35 am

I found this essay to be insightful and to my intuition correct up until I got to the third category.

To my reading of the founders, there is no discussion of "spontaneous order" or of "order imposed by government" one way or the other. When I read the thought of the framers, freedom of speech is largely assumed. There is to my recollection almost no discussion of that freedom anywhere in the Philadelphia Convention, nor does it get much emphasis or discussion in the Virginia, New York, or Massachusetts ratifying conventions. It may come up tangentially, but it was not fundamental in any of those debates. The term "order" does crop up, in discussion of demagoguery, but to my recollection in no other context. At no point in the debates, at least to my recollection, did the term "order" appear next to the modifiers "spontaneous" or "imposed by government." So I think it is fair to say that these terms are not native to the thought of the founders, but rather are inferred by subsequent thinkers.

That is not to say that these ideas are not implicit in the thought of the founders. But it is to say that, unlike the first two categories, it is not explicitly present.

Since it is implicit, and since the vocabulary is anachronistic, imposed by us today on the thought of people in the past, it seems to me that, unlike the other two categories, the derivation of this one must be given some attention. I would benefit much from that exercise. I suspect that this category derives from criticism of progressivism--a 20th century project--and not from the 18th century--which is why it is not obvious to someone like me, who studies the 18th century but not the 20th. At any rate, I found the discussion of the last category here to be opaque, and would benefit from some clarification.

All best wishes,
Kevin

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 11, 2014 at 11:09:53 am

Kevin:

Interesting and valid points.

I do believe that the "spontaneous" order of which McGinnis speaks was, in fact, implicit in both the assumption(s) and understandings of the Founders. witness, discussions by Jefferson, and others, concerning the value of religious discourse and the "salutary" effect it may have on the populace. The understanding being that in the marketplace (another later century term) of religious ideas a virtuous order would emerge.

But yes, "spontaneous order" is definitely not a term or a fully developed idea of the Founders.

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gabe
on September 11, 2014 at 12:07:52 pm

I guess I really do not know what is meant by "spontaneous order." When I read classical liberal sources, what I apprehend in them is an abiding fear of disorder that stems from the absence of government. Anarchy is not an option; the state of nature is ultimately not a wholesome place, because the nature of man is imperfect. Spontaneous order connotes to me the idealism and utopian faith in human nature I associate with the thought of those concerned to defend the French Revolution.

I rather suspect that is not what Professor McGinnis intends to convey. But I do not (honestly!) know what alternative meanings I should associate with the idea. Such connotations as I can deduce from the term strike me as not organically associated with the founding.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on September 11, 2014 at 12:58:10 pm

Kevin,

To me, your observations are absolutely correct. The overall commonalities in understandings of particular "principles" of human interactions were well established, the issues concerned how the necessities for a union of governments were to be made to mesh with those understandings. To me, those overall commonalities derived from the commonalities of individual motivations which formed the "culture;" those motivations in turn having been formed from commonalities of their sources. So, let me repeat from my post, above:

"Let’s consider how particular concepts came to be first principles of our Republic. Those “principles” evolved from a culture in which there was a sufficient commonality of individual motivations in determining the “ought and ought not” of human interactions in this particular society that produced this particular Republic in this particular form.

"While that view is compatible with the concept of “Spontaneous Order,” ***one does not have to ascribe to that concept*** to recognize the prevailing force of individual motivations in the development of “first principles” of this Republic."

Somehow I doubt you have difficulty in grasping the concept of "Spontaneous Order." You may have difficulties ( or dismay) with the understandings some others seem to imply to that concept (and their expressions of it); but, I'll bet you can convey a reasonable grasp to one of your classes.

There is always the comparison to spontaneous combustion. Nobody starts it. the materials do not act voluntarily; but when certain conditions and materials are found in a particular circumstance (the circumstance may be "caused' though not intended) combustion may result - spontaneously.

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Image of R Richard Schweitzer
R Richard Schweitzer
on September 11, 2014 at 13:49:18 pm

Richard / Kevin:

This is a rather interesting discussion on the term "spontaneous order." I suppose we all have a slightly different take on it and i think Richard does his usual nice job of providing a suitable definition as well as providing a gracious explanation / recognition of your "difficulties" (I think more alleged than factual) in understanding them.

I think to the extent that you both assert that the Founders looked at their society and apprehended certain conditions as widespread and certain intellectual / political concepts as normative, the notion of spontaneous order would be quite alien to them. It may have been that this "order" arose over time (as surely it did) but to their mind and experience, it was simply the norm and they chose to so structure a polity as to sustain it. Yet, there was, at least to my mind, a nascent understanding of some form of this concept in their comments on the value of free speech and religion. It seems as if they recognized that out of the cacophony of opinion / beliefs, some measure of virtue and order would arise. This is somewhat different from the current understanding of spontaneous order but both understandings recognize the value of free and vigorous debate and the resultant "compromise", i.e. "order' that results.

And I agree with Richard - I doubt you have any difficulty getting anything across to your students.

take care
gabe

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gabe

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