Politics Anchored in the Past v. Politics Oriented Toward the Future

The transition from one year to the next prompts reflections on how our relation to the past constitutes the politics of the present.   Before the 1700s politics was wholly oriented toward the past. As Robert Tombs puts it in his brilliant new book, The English and Their History: “Legitimacy came from the past: rights, status, property, laws—all were inherited. So desirable changes were conceptualized as a return to a pristine past. The idea was of a stable ordered hierarchy in which all knew and accepted their place.” In that world the culture made political arguments naturally conservative. Public ideals had to be put in the categories created by past practices.

The hierarchy described by Tombs started to break down with the rise of capitalism. But the nature of political legitimacy persisted, as the memory of the people still preserved an idealized past.   Thus, even in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century political arguments were almost entirely founded on continuity with past political settlements, real or imagined.   The American Revolution was fought on the basis that the British government was violating what they understood as the ancient prerogatives of Englishmen, which were then codified as the Bill of Rights.

But as technology created one new revolutionary invention after another and the market broadly delivered these benefits, the culture necessarily became focused on the future. And as technology has accelerated, future-oriented culture has become more encompassing and even more uninterested in the past.  Our heroes tend be the innovators who will bring the next new thing that will change the tempo of our lives until that new thing is itself replaced. As the Star War movies show, even our folk myths are set in the future. And the old are less revered, because our culture values those who are closest to the future, not those who can best remember the past.  In such a culture  legitimacy does not come from a defined past but an undefined, but presumably more glorious future.

The future orientation of culture has a profound effect on political and legal arguments. For instance, it is not enough to defend an institution, like traditional marriage, to say that is been part of Western culture for hundreds of years. Historical prescription tends to fall as a matter of fact to claims that we can make the world anew with the latest moral intuitions.

Thus, while classical liberalism had a bad year in 2015, true conservatism has had a bad couple of centuries. To be sure, periodically conservative movements resist change in attempt to recover past political ideals and settlements, but they have been by their nature reactionary without the resources in our future-oriented politics to make a sustained case for return to the  previously established order.

One might think that classical liberalism faces less danger from the future orientation of politics, because it depends on enduring principles of liberty that best deliver a prosperous future. But this is not so clear. For most, these principles are themselves not intuitive nor are they a matter easily capable of derivation by utilitarian calculation. They too are a legacy of the Western tradition which helps uphold them.   As a result classical liberalism also may be imperiled by modernity’s fundamental  political break with our past.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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  1. says

    Your statement, “One might think that classical liberalism faces less danger . . . because it depends on enduring principles of liberty that best deliver a prosperous future,” is debatable, as you point out.
    We think at the heart of the problem is Blackstone and in this particularity, misguided focus on property.
    We advocate for a civic people. “Civic” refers to the ineluctable connections each person has because they collaborate for life during the same years on the same land rather than either “public,” which refers to all inhabitants including criminals and such, or “social” which refers to association by preference or class.

    A civic people devise a way of living that is inviting to children and children to be born: the civic people’s children. Under classical liberalism as practiced by American capitalism, a poor child has almost no chance to become an adult with a sense of ownership in his or her country. We think each child should have that sense—should know that if they take charge of their acquisition of personal, basic understanding and become a collaborate, civic adult, they will be not only consumers but owners in American capitalism.
    American capitalism teaches the mendacity that faith, family, community, and work is the way to the American dream. Fidelity, family, a civic people, work, and savings so as to invest in assets is the way to the American dream.

    However, for an average adult to participate, he must live on 85% of gross income and invest the savings. According to http://www.usdebtclock.org/ median income is $29,000/yr and the assets per citizen is $362,500. At 4% interest, compounded monthly, it takes $306 savings/month over forty years to accumulate $362,500. That’s $ 3672/year or 12.7 % of median income, leaving $25,330 to live on. According to http://www.kiplinger.com/slideshow/real-estate/T006-S001-10-cheapest-u-s-cities-to-live-in/index.html the cheapest living cost in the USA has median household income $53,000.
    I think the classical liberal attitudes about these issue include “you will always have the poor among you,” and “there but for the grace of my god go I.” At least, that’s what I learned growing up.

    I do not advocate income redistribution or excess taxation of the rich. However, I think a civic people must collaborate to find a way of living that is inviting to all children and children to be born.

  2. nobody.really says

    Thought-provoking remarks about the difference between a past orientation and a future one – and identifying the rise of capitalism (the Industrial Revolution?) as a point of transition. As a lawyer, you may have reflected on how past-oriented the law tends to be. Property rights. Compensation. Restitution. Even the concept of justice is typically grounded in restoring someone to some prior (or previously expected and bargained-for) state of affairs.
    To get a future orientation, you need entrepreneurs and game-theory guys — people who bridle under the constraints of the legal unit.

    But one quibble:

    As the Star War movies show, even our folk myths are set in the future.

    I have it on good authority that Star Wars occurs “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

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