To Keep America Will Be to Keep Its Balance

Many long posts ago, this website hosted a discussion of Michael Greve’s wonderfully illuminating Upside Down Constitution. A key part of the thesis was the degree to which local self-governing political bodies in America have steadily ceded administration to national agencies, not as the helpless victims of a national takeover, but as willing, nay eager participants in the national redistribution of our common wealth.

Without a consideration of basic principles, of basic notions of right and wrong, of moral and philosophic ideals, this transfer of self-governance from the local to the national, becomes very hard to criticize. A purely contextualized affirmation of lived experience, as Ted McAllister has so eloquently presented us, cannot reach it. At best, he can lament a tradeoff for what he thinks a worse expression of American liberty, but this reduces to a kind of… utilitarianism. And being an abstracted “ism,” I’m certain he wouldn’t like that.

Fortunately Americans are not limited to their particular historical experience of liberty, but have a long tradition of both abstract normative reflection as well as their practical lived experience. The two need each other like life needs air. That air is also necessary for fire, does not mean we should get rid of it, as Madison once famously reflected, in a different but not unrelated context. That long-tradition predates America, but it was given renewed vigor for reasons already nicely summarized by Brad Thompson. It is a western tradition that can be found in the earliest debates of both philosophy and faith. Out of these discussions has come the continual reaffirmation of the need for a practical mediation of the application of principles informed by consideration of the earthly realities of human existence.

We are fast approaching the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses, which ushered in the Reformation. This cataclysmic event was, in a very important respect, a struggle over how best to accommodate the ideal and practical. Rome had come to some very pragmatic accessions to the here and now. Luther abjured. But it was not that he refused to make concessions to the needs of human existence. Rather, he disagreed what those concessions should be. Fundamental questions had to be addressed: How does one realize salvation? Who has the power to give it? How is atonement and the confession of sins to be undertaken? Of course, the authority to which both sides made their appeal was Christ himself, who taught that we are in the world, even as we are not of it. Reflect on the teaching: fully God and fully man.

Taking their cue from this beginning then, later Protestants would create those very localized and particular forms of communal life that McAllister rightly celebrates, attempting to follow Christ’s example in this world. The lived experience of covenanting, localized and self-governing parishes and counties, civil and religious associations, produced a wonderful tapestry within which the interplay of the ideal and the practical were continually on display—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

By the time of the American Revolution, Americans had this whole legacy to draw from, to inform their reflections on their lived-experiences. A premiere desideratum for understanding America is the text of the Declaration itself—the whole of it: The principles expressed in the rights and liberties to be defended, provided the standard by which imperial actions were to be judged, but a pragmatic consideration regulated those scales such that resistance would not be for light or transient reasons. These were then set forth in the very practical delineation of the grievances, which mapped out in negative the American understanding of what the imperial constitution had been historically: highly federal and highly decentralized. It formed then, as Jefferson would later write, the harmonizing sentiments of the day, combining the best of both experience and theory.

By keeping in view our principles as well as our experiences, we can differentiate the better from the worse sorts of political governance, but separated from principles, from a philosophical consideration of what liberty ought to mean, our judgment is rendered futile.

Administrative regulation from independent national agencies takes away from the self-governing experience of persons. Shorn of such experiences, these persons become less, not more free. Being less capable of governing themselves in either their personal lives or their associations, they are crippled in the expression of a fundamental aspect of their humanity, which is the defining moral ground by which we know right from wrong. We need to be able to argue what that ground is, how it is constituted and defined, even as we need to temper those discussions by a consideration of what is possible.

Hans Eicholz is a historian and Liberty Fund Senior Fellow. He is the author of Harmonizing Sentiments: The Declaration of Independence and the Jeffersonian Idea of Self-Government (2001), and more recently a contributor to The Constitutionalism of American States (2008).

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Comments

  1. gabe says

    “Taking their cue from this beginning then, later Protestants would create those very localized and particular forms of communal life that McAllister rightly celebrates, attempting to follow Christ’s example in this world.”

    But did not also the Roman Church practice or at least profess subsidiarity. Perhaps, due to the constraints obtaining within the older european states, it could not be practiced whereas in the colonies conditions were such that it could not only be practiced but thrived.

    “By keeping in view our principles as well as our experiences, we can differentiate the better from the worse sorts of political governance, but separated from principles, from a philosophical consideration of what liberty ought to mean, our judgment is rendered futile.”

    This is a nutshell sums up the deficiency of so many schools of interpretation – originalism, textualism, etc etc.

    • Hans Eicholz says

      History is complicated. Subsidiarity was surely part of the understanding of how the various orders both secular and religious were to relate to one another. It was practiced and realized even in Europe, but experiences varied across Europe as well as between Europe and America.

      As for both textualism and originalism, these are very large sets and different varieties within have different virtues and weaknesses. Some forms I might argue are quite compatible and even necessary for the debate about what is right and good, especially in a republic of laws.

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