In the tumultuous sixties, as an undergraduate at Harvard (for which I have prayed for forgiveness most of my life), I was disappointed again and again by the common Victorian and early twentieth-century convention of beginning a chapter with lush description and then abandoning it in favor of social interaction, philosophical reflection, and plot development. Nature was treated mainly as a stage direction: “Night. Wind in the pines. Soldiers around a campfire.” Even such details as those were to me more evocative and meaningful than much that followed, dry and disconnected from the universal language of creation that is the grammar and syntax of great art because it is the language given to us in the fullest and deepest measure.
Falling Into Eternity continued at First Things March 2017.
The American Constitution (an ancient document that annoyingly hobbled the genius of Barack Obama) is as abused as one might expect of something splendid that excites the envy and ire of those who willfully misunderstand the long history to which it has brought its bright and cleansing light. It prevents those who live to command from ruling like the kings and saints they think they are. It frustrates those who mistakenly attempt to govern man analogously with the physical principles that govern nature. Whether progressives, Communists, socialists, or fascists, the arrogant engineers of humanity are naturally averse to a document that, though it is more excellently reasonable than they are, is a work of art compatible with human nature rather than destructive of it.
The Constitution of 1787 is the product of the philosophical climate of the Enlightenment, a meticulous review of classical history, the evolution of the English legal system, the stress of war and revolution, the physical and political geography of the colonies, the rare brilliance of the leading figures of the time, and, in the last third of the 18th century, a widespread frenzy of constitution-making and debate that be- came a national pastime replaced only later by the invention of baseball.
Hardly ignorant of unforeseeable circumstance, the framers constructed a system so supple as to accommodate changes over time. In that its principles and procedures must be applied in ever-changing conditions, it is indeed a living document, but not as de ned by progressives, who are expedient to the point of recklessness in the belief that varying circumstances should act upon principles rather than the other way around. Though we live in an age in which the most superficial flickers of the present are wielded as instruments with which to wreck the profundities of the past, it is still stunning to hear, for example, the argument that, because the framers didn’t have to buy television time, freedom of speech may therefore be abridged.
The heart and sin of modernist political thought is that transient circumstance has license to alter proven principles. is arises not merely from opposition to such principles but from an insatiable lust for chaos, in that chaos is as much the handmaiden of change as principle is its sobering impediment.
Under Article V of the Constitution, amendments may be proposed either in Congress or by a convention of the states called by two thirds of the 50 state legislatures. (In either case, any proposed amendments would need approval of three fourths of the state legislatures to be val- id.) Given that no one is entirely exempt from the pull of the present, should constitutionalists live to see an Article V convention, they must be disciplined. Not only must they take care not to lard-up the document with pet causes, making it the statutory instrument it was never meant to be, but in making appropriate changes they should balance and counter-balance the impulses of the moment. Two brief examples:
Because the executive branch has molted into a near-Prussian administrative state, and the judiciary long ago succumbed to legislative temptation, two correctives have been proposed. Namely, submission of executive rules and regulations for legislative approval, and the abolition of judicial review.
As much as rebalancing the branches of government is necessary, keep in mind that the tectonic shift from a parliamentary to a written, constitutional system ended in America the British legacy of legislative supremacy. As each component of government must be able to check the other, active legislative review of executive regulation, now long overdue, should not be absolute. Perhaps it could be balanced by presidential veto reversible by something less than a super-majority.
Without judicial review, the equilibrium of courts and legislature shifts too much to the latter. As the judiciary now legislates at will, it cries out for restraint, such as the possibility of overriding judicial review not only by constitutional amendment but, for example, by a super-super-majority in Congress.
Anticipation beyond the passions and problems of the day would honor the framers, who looked not only back but ahead—as should we in seeking to restrain the organs of government that have leapt their confinements. Rather than merely rebalancing in the present, as difficult as that may prove to be, constitutional revision should have as its goal foresight of potential imbalances and their consequences. Impetuous reform might lead in directions such as the legislative preponderance that upon the birth of the written Constitution we chose to abandon.
In granting powers to government, the people should always err on the side of caution and restraint. Nor should the people even in this scientific age hesitate to champion artful rather than scientific governance, because man is not a substance to be engineered, and has neither the consistency nor the predictability of the rest of nature. Not science but art, with its deliberate lack of precision that by indirections finds directions out, is the way to deal with souls, collectively or otherwise. For all its clear reason, the Constitution is nonetheless a work of art, which is why it has worked. By analogy, the Old Statehouse in Boston is surrounded by immense glass towers. How much more humane in scale, warmth, and beauty is the former, welcoming still after 300 years, whereas the towers will be always be blank glass.
And if it is to be touched, the Constitution must be approached with honor, which is not amour propre but rather the willingness to sacrifice one’s interests—immediate, parochial, even essential—in favor of doing right. So it is with constitutional questions, not only in application of law even if the result is contrary to one’s preferences, but in revision or amendment—with the primary concern being not ideological advantage or the politics of the day but keeping the powers of government separate, balanced, limited, and checked, so that the people may forever exercise sovereignty over their lives.
From The Claremont Review of Books 17:1, Winter 2016-2017.
One of the certainties of European history is the alternation of unification and dissolution. At the deepest level, this reflects the ever-fluent question of government purview, whether in geographical extent or granular penetration. Even without knowing it, those hostile to nationality are partisans of anarchy, empire, or simply nations on a more intimate scale. There never will be an ideal size or reach of government, but only continual adjustment as the result of necessity, accident, providence, or force.
The European Continent and for a time even the British Isles have been partially unified—by the Romans, Charlemagne, Spain, Austria, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler, and the European Union. Even if they didn’t get very far, the Mongols, Muslims, and Turks gave it the college try. And then there was the papacy. The Romans were champions of endurance, but Napoleon’s stint was as short as he was, the empire of the Thousand-Year Reich didn’t make it by 995½ years, and the Soviets got only halfway across.
As it evolved from the European Coal and Steel Community into the European Economic Community, and then the Schengenized “E.U. plus,” bureaucracy’s pacific conquest of Europe was different, its weapons the ballot box, rubber stamp, and pen. Furthermore, other than in one civil war, the U.S. had shown that 50 states could unite to great advantage.
Why is it, then, with Jean Monnet’s body hardly cool, that Britain will leave the E.U., Scotland and Wales lust to devolve, Belgium and Italy each strain to break in two, Spain in three, Yugoslavia has shattered, Hungary may either quit or be expelled, Greece is like one’s child who ends up a heroin addict in jail, extremist political movements are partying like it’s 1936, and Marine Le Pen wants France out? Not even fully consummated, the European Union shows sign after sign of impending divorce.
One need not be hostile to the idea of this union to know the essential flaw in its conception, namely the statist assumption that bureaucratic conceit will prevail over geography, history, tradition, and individual attachments, preferences, and loyalties. Greek profligacy and German prudence cannot sleep in the same bed. Good luck to the Frenchman who tells an Englishman how much sugar to put in his tea. Rivers, alpine ranges, marshes, and seas have carved into the landscape physical barriers that for millennia have shaped the economics, histories, and cultures of these disparate nations. Unlike the United States—at its founding English in culture and language, with a pressure-relieving wilderness to the west—Europe as it united was a densely populated, grudge-filled continent with scores of major languages and their dialects. Its peoples had been governed in a hundred different ways, fought countless wars, and inherited dozens of philosophical traditions.
This concoction has always settled into a natural angle of repose only to be periodically disturbed by grand designs. But here is the problem with such grand designs. If government is a machine applied to everything, then everything becomes a machine—“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” This is where the Left’s dream of addressing human needs via a universal mechanism always fails, for it takes no account of the soul, the existence of which it denies as it fights a losing war against the untidiness of human nature.
Knowledge of this and more was present at the creation of the E.E.C., but the enormity of the two world wars elevated hope over experience. Nor is the union dead. But, still, the strength and depth of Europe’s long established cultures with their naturally diverging outlooks and interests cannot and should not be subsumed in a universal governance ill-equipped to understand, let alone guide them. To continue subjecting them to a coterie of second stringers in Brussels and Strasbourg is an exercise in imperial sado-masochism.
What can the United States learn from this? Progressive opposition to the embedded separation of powers in tripartite government and the structure of the electoral college, the Senate, and the states themselves, has as its best ally the homogenization of America by mass media, commercial standardization, and headlong administrative expansion. That to forge a ruling coalition progressives are engaged in fractionalizing the population into as many aggrieved groups as possible does not contradict their urge to centralize. For unlike the states, the elements of such a coalition have no enumerated or constitutional powers, and are raised or dismissed at will in the winds of propaganda.
Paradoxically, in the days when an American commonly identified as a Virginian, a New Yorker, a Californian, etc., the national interest was paramount. Now, when the national interest is lost in a sea of identity politics and contrition, attachment to one’s state (pace Texas) has almost vanished. As are all constitutional manifestations of the separation of powers, the states are becoming less and less a brake upon the dangerous ideal of democratic centralism, and as a result we may end up in a sadder condition than even a disintegrating Europe.
Our federalism is always in flux due to changing conditions that favor different levels of governance. Never was it intended to be entirely static, but with its oscillations dampened by a deliberate balance of powers, stresses upon it have been successfully contained. Now—with federal encroachment upon every province of life, overt ideological hostility to American nationhood, and the Balkanization of the population into as many manipulable identities as will (until no longer needed) serve the progressive agenda—the balance of levels of governance, and our felicitous constitutional structure will be so subject to stress and attack that, ironically, the wonderful example partisans of a united Europe sought to imitate may evolve into the kind of bureaucratic tyranny Europe now finds difficult to endure.
Originally published in The Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2016.