On the essays shelf:
My grandmother had a big illustrated copy of Poor Richard’s Almanac, which I had practically memorized by the time I was 6 years old. The illustrations were goofy and elaborate, and I somehow “got the joke” that so
much of it was a joke, a satire on the do-good-ish bromides of self-serious Puritans who worry about their neighbor’s morality. Obviously I wouldn’t have put it that way at age 6, but I understood that the book in my hands, the huge book, was not serious at all.
Clearly, many others did not get the joke. Benjamin Franklin, throughout his life, was a master at parody and satire, as well as such a master that he is still fooling people! He was his very own The Onion! He presented ridiculous arguments and opinions in a way where people nodded their heads in agreement, and then afterwards wondered uneasily if they were being made fun of. Their uneasiness was warranted. Yes, Benjamin Franklin was making fun of them.
Franklin played such a huge role not only in creating bonding-mechanisms between the colonies – with newspapers, his printing service, the Almanac – but in science and community service (he started the first fire-brigade in Philadelphia on the British model. He opened the first public lending library in the colonies), as well as his writing. He was an Elder Statesman of the relatively young men who made up the Revolution. There were so many of “those guys” who played a hand in the Revolution, but perhaps Benjamin Franklin played the most crucial role in his time as a diplomatic presence in France, where he became so beloved a figure that the French fell in love with him, commemorated him in songs and portraits, putting his mug on plates and cups and platters and buttons – so that in a time when nobody knew really what anybody looked like, Benjamin Franklin was instantly recognizable the world over. Read the rest of this entry »
Francis Fukuyama and other critics misinterpret democratic messiness as existential crisis.
Adam White writes: The ink was barely dry on the new Constitution, and Benjamin Franklin had just left his fellow Framers behind in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, when a woman accosted him on the street and asked, “What type of government have you delegates given us?”
“A republic, madam,” Franklin purportedly answered, “if you can keep it.”
This familiar tale makes a simple point: Franklin and his collaborators had succeeded in framing the new republic. To the extent that their creation might someday prove unsuccessful, it would be not their fault but rather the fault of the people. But does this story give Franklin and his fellow Framers too much
credit—and the people too little? Francis Fukuyama thinks so. That’s the ultimate warning of his recent book, Political Order and Political Decay, the second volume of his landmark two-part examination of political order.
The first part, The Origins of Political Order (2011), traced the history of political development from its pre-political origins in the state of nature—not Hobbes’s or Locke’s theoretical constructs but, quite literally, chimpanzees—to the late-eighteenth century’s American and French Revolutions. (See “The Dawn of Politics,” Spring 2011.) Looking not only to familiar Western sources of republican government but also to Chinese bureaucracy and Egypt’s Mamluk warrior class, among other Eastern contributions to modern state-building, Fukuyama examined three fundamental political institutions—the state, the rule of law, and notions of accountability—and how societies develop them over time.
But now, in Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama meditates on how things fall apart. Though “the American Revolution institutionalized democracy and the principle of democracy,” the American state two centuries later “is not working well, and its problems may be related to the fact that it is too institutionalized.” Decay’s closing chapters argue that the structure of American government, its checks and balances, has become a “vetocracy,” providing too many opportunities for special interests to prevent the government from enacting necessary and popular reforms.
“Institutions are created to meet certain needs of society, such as making war, dealing with economic conflicts, and regulating social behavior,” Fukuyama writes. “But as recurring patterns of behavior, they can also grow rigid and fail to adapt when the circumstances that brought them into being in the first place
themselves change.” Worse still, such rigidity can be exacerbated by the elite classes’ misappropriation of state power for their own primary benefit. Those two
dreaded forces—rigidity and elite self-dealing—are the sources of political “decay,” Fukuyama’s ultimate focus.
[Check out Francis Fukuyama‘s book “The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution” at Amazon.com]
His criticisms are harsh and substantive. Yet three significant problems underlie his analysis, weakening its force. While he calls for greater “autonomy” in federal agencies, his notions of “autonomy” and “expertise” seem flatly at odds with nearly a century’s worth of experience with the structure of federal agencies. More fundamentally, his narrow view of the Founding Fathers’ objectives prevents him from grappling seriously with the actual constitutional mechanisms that they created into law. And his disparagement of modern political stalemates manages to oversimplify, to the point of caricature, the policy debates that he cites as evidence of governmental decay. Read the rest of this entry »
David Boaz writes: Not long ago a journalist asked me what freedoms we take for granted in America. Now, I spend most of my time sounding the alarm about the freedoms we’re losing. But this was a good opportunity to step back and consider how America is different from much of world history — and why immigrants still flock here.
[Check out David Boaz‘s book “The Politics of Freedom: Taking on The Left, The Right and Threats to Our Liberties” at Amazon]
Rule of law. Perhaps the greatest achievement in history is the subordination of power to law. That is, in modern America we have created structures that limit and control the arbitrary power of government. No longer can one man — a king, a priest, a communist party boss — take another person’s life or property at the ruler’s whim. Citizens can go about their business, generally confident that they won’t be dragged off the streets to disappear forever, and confident that their hard-earned property won’t be confiscated without warning. We may take the rule of law for granted, but immigrants from China, Haiti, Syria, and other parts of the world know how rare it is.
Equality. For most of history people were firmly assigned to a particular status — clergy, nobility, and peasants. Kings and lords and serfs. Brahmans, other castes, and untouchables in India. If your father was a noble or a peasant, so would you be. The American Revolution swept away such distinctions. In America all men were created equal. Thomas Jefferson declared “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” In America some people may be smarter, richer, stronger, or more beautiful than others, but “I’m as good as you” is our national creed. We are all citizens, equal before the law, free to rise as far as our talents will take us.
Equality for women. Throughout much of history women were the property of their fathers or their husbands. They were often barred from owning property, testifying in court, signing contracts, or participating in government. Equality for women took longer than equality for men, but today in America and other civilized parts of the world women have the same legal rights as men. Read the rest of this entry »
And their consequences—for his era and ours
From the Autumn 2013 Edition of City Journal, this is a long article but highly recommended, save this to read at leisure, it’s good — Sunday Nov. 10 – The Butcher
Myron Magnet writes: On November 30, 1774, a 37-year-old Englishman—an ex-privateer, ex–corset stay maker, ex–tax collector (fired twice for dereliction of duty), and ex-husband (also twice over)—arrived in Philadelphia with a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin in his pocket. The old philosopher’s praise was understandably restrained. This “ingenious worthy young man,” Franklin wrote, would make a useful “clerk, or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor.” Four months later, however, the shots that rang out at Lexington and Concord galvanized the newcomer’s hitherto aimless life into focus and purpose. “When the country into which I had just set foot was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir,” he recalled. “It was time for every man to stir.” And so, adding a final “e” to soften the surname he was born with, he began to write under the byline “Thomas Paine.”
Celebrated around the world for his key role in the American Revolution, Paine went on to play an important part in the French Revolution, as well.
He found he had a literary gift that almost instantly turned him into one of history’s greatest revolutionary propagandists—not just of one major revolution, as it happened, but of two. But as his thought developed—and except for the Norfolk grammar-school education that ended when he was 13, he was self-taught—his radicalism, so lucid and solidly grounded during the American Revolution, lost sight of the darker realities of human nature. As a result, when he and his close, like-minded friends, the Marquis de Lafayette and United States ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson, plotted reform together in Paris in the fateful final years of the 1780s, they disastrously misread the French Revolution as it gathered and burst forth. While Jefferson luckily went home to America with his illusions intact, Paine and Lafayette both ended up wasted with illness in pestilential prisons, and Paine escaped the guillotine by the most capricious of chances.
In the face of government spying, “Oh, well” is not the correct response
‘Until August 1914,” A. J. P. Taylor wrote, heartbreakingly, at the beginning of English History, 1914–45,
a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. . . . All this was changed by the impact of the Great War.
Thus did Liberal England begin to suffer its quick and “strange death.”
Here in America, eyebrows are being raised. In the middle of Queens this weekend, I heard a moderate-seeming father of three tell his friend that he generally had “no time for the conspiracy people.” “But,” he continued, shrugging his shoulders, “you look now and think, ‘Well, yeah.’ Those guys were always going on about this or that. Maybe I should have listened more closely?” What strange bedfellows the last two months of scandal and revelation have made. And what a disgrace that it has taken so long.
Nonetheless, who really needs “the conspiracy people” when so many of our institutions are tasked with spying on us in plain sight? “No one likes to see a government folder with his name on it,” wrote Stephen King in Firestarter. If this is true, we tolerate it manfully. Every year, as a condition of my being alive, I furnish the IRS with a huge range of personal information. As of next year, I will be required to alert them of my health-care arrangements, too. Who among us was honestly surprised when the IRS used the vast powers with which it has been endowed against the people who object to its existence? Nowadays, the government openly keeps files on each and every one of us. Lord knows what happens in secret.In the country that I left behind, it is worse. The streets of England are paved with cameras that film day and night without rest or interruption. On the roads, “average speed check” equipment tracks drivers along their way, recording where they have been and averaging out the time it took for them to get to each checkpoint in order to ensure that they are not traveling too fast. Number-plate-recognition systems are commonplace, and intended to become ubiquitous. At 3.4 million strong already, the National DNA Database grows like Topsy. No distinction is made between innocent and guilty; everyone falls into the net.
Because the British government owns and runs almost all the hospitals and employs the vast majority of the medical staff, if you wish to access the care for which you are forced at gunpoint to pay, you must hand your most sensitive information over to a bureaucrat. This process is not only accepted in the country of Locke, Mill, and Orwell; it is wholeheartedly celebrated, as if it were the national religion.
So complete has been the destruction of liberty’s cradle that, a few years back, the ruling Labour party felt comfortable suggesting that all British automobiles be mandated to carry state-owned GPS equipment that would track each car’s movements and automatically calculate one’s road taxes. With a few admirable exceptions, the ensuing debate was over whether this was practically feasible. One hundred years ago, the very suggestion would have been treated as downright treasonous. Now, it is blithely ignored. If this can happen there, it can happen here.