It seems every year we have more proof that American universities are failing to engage in civic education, especially if we understand the concept as requiring meaningful reflection about the nature and purposes of government rather than just an awareness of the mechanisms of our government. There are exceptions, but for the most part, it seems unreasonable to expect much from the cafeteria-style general education curriculum required at most colleges. It is just as often remarked that even the civic education that some college students might encounter does not help, either—at least if you are a U.S. citizen who cares about fostering morally serious debate about the legitimate purposes of government in shaping our lives.
In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Gil Pender vacations in Paris with his fiancée and her parents. One night Pender takes a walk to escape the insufferable egotists who surround him and stumbles upon an antique Peugeot. It takes him to the 1920s, the golden age for which he has always yearned. He falls in love with Picasso’s lover Adriana, who herself has always longed for the 1890s’ Belle Époque. After a horse and carriage pass them by and whisk them to that period, and after the Impressionists they meet yearn for the Renaissance, Pender realizes that no age is as golden as we imagine and concludes that it is better to live in the reality of the present.
Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic is an extended essay on the same theme.
Food, football, and another uncomfortable conversation with the family boor are what many Americans have in store for them this (and every) Thanksgiving.
For the few and the proud who can look forward to a civil discussion of today’s news in addition to a delicious meal, this year’s political menu includes the ongoing craziness on college campuses, the collapse of twelve of the twenty-three Obamacare state co-ops, and the twists and turns of the presidential race, not to mention the deadly seriousness of another horrific terrorist attack.
This is the second part of a three-part summary of a speech that I gave last weekend at the 2015 National Lawyers Convention of the Federalist Society. The first part focuses on how commerce encourages civic virtue. The second continues by discussing how limited government aids civic culture and how the Constitution helps assure that religion will be helpful rather than harmful to that culture:
Besides encouraging a commercial society, the Constitution also sharply limits government. The federal government is limited by the enumerated powers. The states’ capacity to create large, intrusive, anti-commercial government is circumscribed by the right of citizens to exit. To take just a purely hypothetical example, if my home state of Illinois exacts large taxes in favor of small groups like public sector unions, many of its citizens will leave.
Limited government creates the space and indeed the need for the kind of private associations that Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated. Varying in size and mission, these associations may concern self-improvement, mutual aid, or social welfare. As the Nobel Prize-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom showed, these associations can help people develop bonds of social trust and maintain long-term relations of reciprocal goodwill, which can also help sustain a free society.
Taxi drivers in France rioted yesterday to prevent Uber from competing with them. They attacked vehicles on the mere suspicion that they were working for that company. They broke windows on cars carrying tourists. It was a kind of economic terrorism. Even a left-liberal rock star was upset!
France is one of the most heavily regulated and centralized states in the Western world. But Uber represents the new forces of decentralizing competition that it may ultimately be powerless to block. While the French government appeared to take the side of the violent strikers today, it will have difficulty in stopping this kind of competition without deploying coercion unacceptable in a democratic society.
Uber is essentially an app that connects people who want to make a mutually beneficial transaction. Other apps will connect those who want to make other transactions—for plumbing, gardening or housework. These services will be less expensive than current services, whose cost is inflated by regulations, not least of which are those designed to protect incumbents.
General elections in modern democracies bore much of the population—perhaps most of it. They even seem to many a form of slow torture by means of constant and inescapable publicity and propaganda in favor of the nonentities who stand for public office. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to despise practical politics on the grounds that politicians are all the same, which is to say no good. Such indiscriminate disdain creates an opening for a more extreme and dangerous form of politics that preys upon universal discontent.
Still, in almost every Western democracy, there is a growing feeling that the political class (including its bureaucratic allies) has become more like a caste—a self-enclosed and self-perpetuating group of people that arrogates privileges to itself, through the enjoyment of which it insulates itself from the rest of the population, whose interests it has therefore no reason to share or understand. We the people increasingly believe that the division between the political class and everyone else is much greater than any factional divisions within the political class.
Via David Henderson, I came upon this essay by John Edward Terrell in the New York Times criticizing libertarians and Tea Party types for favoring individualism. What a morass of confusion!
To begin with, Terrell conflates (1) the appropriateness of respecting individual rights, (2) the moral question, how we should act, and (3) the psychological question, how we are likely to act. He seems to believe that libertarians believe that we should have absolute individual rights, that it is moral to be selfish, and that we are likely to be so.
These are old mistakes, but it is sad how often libertarianism is rejected for these mistaken reasons.
1. First, it is true that libertarians believe that people should have individual rights, but it is not because our actions have no effect on other people. Libertarians recognize that we are interconnected and argue that our mode of interaction should not be through coercion but through voluntary associations. Social interactions work better through voluntary associations.
Goods and services are better provided through a competitive market than through monopoly government provision. Similarly, in a free society, as de Tocqueville saw, people form voluntary associations to serve community ends and these associations generally work better than government does through coercion.
George Nash, the dean of Herbert Hoover scholars, wrote about our 31st President most recently in the Wall Street Journal, commemorating the centenary of Hoover’s heroic World War I disaster-relief efforts in Europe. Nash described how, in 1914, a young and successful London-based mining engineer made his move “to ‘get in the big game’ of public life.”
Nash’s words capture a do-gooding impulse, but one that is mixed with personal ambition. This interesting alloy should be familiar. It puts Herbert Hoover in a long line of Americans in whom self-improvement and world-improvement seem inextricably tied—a line stretching back in our history, at least to Benjamin Franklin, and forward into our time.
Anyone who takes higher education seriously attends to the words of legendary teachers. They are likely to be undisciplined, witty, and unfashionable; about great books; ironic about the careerism of their colleagues, students, and administrative bosses; self-indulgent; and insistently erotic, without being creepy.
There are striking parallels in how the left-liberals treat constitutional liberty in political and religious expression. First, their positions in both areas are premised on a kind of faux neutrality that masks consolidation of their own power. As I have discussed, in campaign finance, left-liberals seek to eliminate the undue influence of the rich, regardless of their viewpoint. What this “neutrality” ignores is that by restricting the influence of some powerful citizens, it effectively expands the influence of other powerful groups who substantially affect the political climate and are not similarly constrained. These powerful are most importantly, the mainstream media, academia and the entertainment industry that are predominantly—indeed in most cases—overwhelming left- liberal.
Similarly, in religious liberty, left-liberals want to restrict the capacity of religious organizations to project their views, as reflected, for instance, in their opposition to school vouchers available to religious schools. It is true that preventing religious schools from using vouchers treats all religions equally but it privileges a secular civic life. A government school can and frequently does have a secular creed that is some mixture of environmentalism and a particular take on the concept of state mandated diversity. It is much more hospitable to reinforcing a state-centered view of the world than a religious school.
A second point of comparison is the hostility of left-liberals to the rights of corporations.