The traditional—or at least doctrinaire—response of conservatives and libertarians to the phenomenon of income inequality has been, “So what?” The common attitude of many on the Right is that, in a free-market economy, individual differences in ability, skill, and effort will lead to inequality of income. James Madison summed up the sentiment nicely in Federalist 10 when he stated that the “first object of Government” consists of “the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property,” which “immediately results” in “the possession of different degrees and kinds of property.” In a free society, it is often believed that unequal results are inevitable—for some, even desirable.
On this site Frank Buckley yesterday made a series of puzzling assertions about originalism. First, he says that “original meaning originalism” (which I believe most people call “public meaning originalism”) “dispenses with an examination” of what the Framers intended. At another point he states that public meaning originalism “collapses” into original intent originalism. These statements are in some tension with one another, but neither is accurate.
Few, if any, public meaning originalists believe that public meaning dispenses with examining what the Framers intended. What the Framers intended to do with words they wrote is often good evidence of what the public meaning was, particularly if they made their intent manifest publicly, as in the Federalist Papers. That is why almost all originalist scholarship of the public meaning variety regularly consults such materials.
On the other hand, the original intent does not collapse into public meaning. For public meaning originalists, the Framers’ intent does not constitute the public meaning conceptually and it may not even provide powerful evidence of that meaning if it were not known and contrary to other evidence of what their words would have meant. Moreover, there is ample other evidence from materials at the time that bears on the meaning of the words and phrases in the Constitution, such as newspapers and dictionaries of the time—material also regularly cited by public meaning originalists.
I’ve just finished F.H. Buckley’s excellent new book The Once and Future King. I’m reviewing the book for another outlet so I won’t repeat myself here, but here’s the short version: Professor Buckley has identified a key weakness in the American system of government, but perhaps has misidentified its roots. Regardless, I think that his book is very important for thinking about a way out of our present gridlock and dysfunction.
Here I would like to take up and challenge one of the most controversial parts of Buckley’s argument.