The Tale of Two Revolutions and Two Constitutions

The closing of the XXX Olympic Games, in both French and English, reminds me of Charles Dickens who in the nineteenth century wrote famously about the Tale of Two Cities—Paris and London–separated by a channel of water.  Paris was experiencing in 1789 the fervor of what Karl Marx was to later call “revolution in permanence,” and London was, following Edmund Burke, muddling through with reforms here and there.  But the 2012 Olympics confirm that London, and not Paris, is the city of Europe.  There are no longer two competing European tales.

But it would be wrong to conclude that the more sober tale of London has triumphed over the more intoxicating tale of Paris.  It would be more accurate to say that the victory of London is the result of the ascendency of Parisian intoxication over the sobriety of the Londoner.  What we witnessed at the closing of these games was not the display of good old-fashioned pomp and circumstance, or simply good old-fashioned British fun in the performance of Eric Idle’s famous Look on the Bright Side of Life skit.   This was revolution in permanence.  Or more delicately stated, Paris and London are now two cities with One Tale: democratic perfectionism. 

In the 1830s, a contemporary of Dickens, the young French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, marveled at the fifty-year successful experiment in self-government that was occurring in the United States of America compared with the fifty-year upheavals that continued to unfold in France.  What was it that America had that France did not have?  Let’s call that the Tocqueville Question.  Do we, in the twenty first century, still have what it takes to be not only different, but the last best hope of mankind?  Let’s put this question even more differently:  why are we supposed to feel ashamed when our common sense tells us otherwise?

According to Tocqueville, three factors ultimately decide the fate of nations.  In ascending order of importance, they are 1) accidents, 2) institutions, and 3) mores.

Now we all realize that we need some good luck in life if only to balance out the bad luck that surely comes our way.  And life is full of surprises both pleasant and unpleasant.  Accidents happen.  And we have no doubt that the English Channel helped the English repel the Spanish Armada in the 17th century and the German invasion in World War II.  Moreover, The Unites States is surely fortunate to have 3,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean separating us from the specters that haunted Europe for several centuries and from which so many sought refuge on these shores.  We also know the benefits of having three thousand further miles of domestic space within which Americans continued their westward migration.  But the accident of location can only take a country so far.  In fact, given the nature of twenty-first century technology, we wonder whether any country, including America, can depend on the “luck of the draw” anymore.

Which brings us to institutions.  The original French Revolutionary and Constitutional Founders of 1789, and the second Founders in 1848 and the third Founders in 1871, didn’t fuss much over such institutional niceties as the separation of powers between the branches of government, checks and balances between two branches of the legislature, an independent judiciary, a full and fair representation of the people, and meaningful protection for vibrant self-government at the local level.  And they got what they didn’t bargain for: the centralized administrative state where all roads lead to Paris.  It is no accident that the word “bureaucracy” is of French origin!

We need to ask ourselves, whether our American representatives in the twenty-first century have supplanted their attachment to separation of powers and checks and balances institutions with an adherence to political party loyalty.  When members of the Congress adhere more to the dictates of the party hierarchy and Presidential initiative than they do to the deliberative process inherent in the construction of the Constitution, they run the risk of substituting some form of collective action for independent judgment.   And finally, have we the people come to accept the fact that all roads should lead to Washington D.C?  And that there is no limit to what the federal government should be doing?  Under the Philadelphia Constitution, all roads did not lead to Philadelphia.

Finally, we come to the tricky issue of mores which means more than a personal code of ethical conduct or having an attachment to a moral framework, or pledging allegiance to uphold the law.  We are suggesting that we need a habitual American attachment to “constitutional morality” rather than a European makeover on behalf of “democratic perfectionism.” What kind of people do we need to be in order to make the constitutional framework bequeathed to us by the framers work to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity?  The answer is: One that understands that constitutionalism places limits on human action for the benefit of the individual and the society.  One that does not try to deliberately leverage the system to one’s advantage.   And one that does not defer final authority to any one institution to determine what the Constitution means and says.  Let us not forget that the Constitution is what 2/3 of the House. 2/3 of the Senate—our elected representatives—and ¾ of the state legislatures say it is.  That is the brilliance of the framers:  constitutional rule by a deliberative and choosing people over against plebiscitary rule by 1) an intemperate and demanding mass or 2) an “enlightened administration” that won’t stop fiddling until “everyone” receives an equal outcome.

Tocqueville admired what he saw in abundance in America and in short supply in France, namely, an instinctive love of liberty guided by a proper understanding of the limits we need to place on that very liberty.  The blessings of liberty flow from the right to self-government in matters ranging from politics, to economics, to religion; it is not the right to self-indulgence, or the right to self-destruction, or the right to self-aggrandizement.  Or even the right to self-interest narrowly understood.  It is not the right to do whatever I want to do when I have the inclination to do it.  Nor is it the right to trade liberty away in exchange for security.  And it requires resisting what we have called democratic perfectionism, namely, where democracy becomes identified with “everyman,” and perfectionism is achieved by equal outcomes.  Put differently, the rugged individual is replaced by the forgotten man as the central focus of public policy and with that refocus we get the replacement of the entrepreneur by the administrator as the hero of the regime.

Americans, said Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 19th Century, had the personal character to resist the temptation of the modern world.  That temptation is to choose the relief of democratic security in equality over the blessings of democratic liberty with inequality.   I’d like to rephrase, for the sake of the twenty first century, the temptation and the choice.  The temptation is do we want the government to make and deliver bread and cake—the bureaucratic model of the French Revolution—or, to borrow an alternative French word, do we want the entrepreneurial American Revolutionary model of limited government and self-initiative where the Revolution is about voting and taxation?

In the end, we have the battle of two phrases: equality of opportunity or equality of outcome.  And so we need to ask ourselves, do we Americans still have the entrepreneurial spirit, guided by a constitutional morality and equality of opportunity that it takes to be a free people?  Or are we willing to slip and slide into the bureaucratic world under the illusion that we are pursuing a new and higher democratic morality of perfectionism where we have equal outcomes?  Where we look out of our window and no longer see 20% of the population ill fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, ill-fit, ill-insured, etc. so that everyone is plum equal.  Whatever happened to the Framer’s case for popular government and free markets where the ideal of 80% of the population being able to buy bread, beef, and beer not to mention a few baubles, bangles, and beads was defensible?  Today, and this is our argument, it seems like to defend democracy requires the defense of a perfect union rather than a more perfect union.