Fahrenheit 451
52 Movies: Week 4 - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The State of American Politics

It was soon discovered, that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, were things not altogether incompatible.


I think that remark sums up the current direction of things pretty nicely. It serves as an epigraph to a set of articles in the most recent New Criterion titled "The corruption of our political institutions." I've only read the introduction (click here to read it) and one of the articles, and am not sure yet to what extent I agree with the diagnoses offered by the various contributors, but I certainly agree that the corruption is deep and advancing in exactly the direction described by Burke. 


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Read something just this morning by Bertrand De Jouvenel which makes a similar point. I don't have the exact quote, but it's along the lines that modern holders of power, since they view that power as being derived from the will of the people, see the exercise of that power as inherently tending to the people's good. This would result in a situation not unlike that which Burke described.

I think in our situation, although the mechanism is similar, it isn't the will of the people that the rulers claim to be implementing, but a higher law, although they don't use that term: an abstract idea of justice and equality completely unmoored from any historical, cultural, or religious roots. In the name of that law, the judiciary appropriates power that doesn't have any real limits.

I don't think he meant that they believed it was the will of the people that was being implemented, so much as it was the will of the people which gave them the original imprimatur, so to speak, to do whatever they felt was good for those who willed them into power.

Hence, "the higher law" you mention is appealed to in the name of the people.

Well, maybe in some foundational way. I don't really see much thought of it among those who hold power in contemporary politics. I find it hard to imagine Obama or Justice Ginsburg talking of "the will of the people" in that way. "What's good for the people," yes, but they seem more conscious of the need to suppress the will of the people in the name of "justice" etc., though of course ultimately for their own good. Or at least the good of the good ones. I think there's more tendency now than, say, fifty years ago, for the rulers to write off large numbers of the people as hopelessly retrograde and requiring the whip hand.

The duty of the prince is to enact the will of the people, or at least the better part of the people, which need not be the majority if the majority is misled by passion. I seem to remember reading this as the opinion of Marsilius of Padua when I was an undergraduate. Or something to that effect. I don't own a copy of Defensor Pacis and can only find summaries online.

(I have in the past half an hour or so come across online translations that give "valentior pars" as "majority" - but this would make a nonsense of what he says about who to follow when the majority is beguiled.)

There's a long tradition of thinking that the statesmanlike thing to do is to work against the declared will of the majority when the majority doesn't know its own best interest. One often finds it among German Eurocrats.

As Burke, again, put it: There is and can be no law of nature, no axiom of eternal morals, in virtue of which three foolish men are entitled to bind and overpower two wise men ... the simple majority required at our hustings and in our Parliament, the positive or proportionate majority required in certain cases in America and France, the fixed majority required in Scotch juries ... are all alike matters of arrangement and not of natural right.

The difference is that Burke was reluctant to go against established "arrangements" unless prudence rendered it a necessity.

"Well, maybe in some foundational way. I don't really see much thought of it among those who hold power in contemporary politics."

Right -- in some ways things have gotten more acute since Jouvenel was writing in the 40's, so in a sense we're beyond his immediate concern. But I think he's onto something w/r/t the root of the problem.

"will of the people" had a pretty different resonance then, I guess.

Paul, certainly there are always going to be situations where the will of the majority needs to be opposed. The American founders were aware of that and attempted to build into the system mechanisms that would obstruct pure and direct majority will. What I'm talking about--what struck me so about the Burke quote that I used--is a shift in the normal operation of the American system, in which the forms of the system are preserved but are de facto controlled by a governing elite. I specified American politics because I don't have much idea of how things are going in other democracies.

Perhaps it's the power of the dictum about politics being the "art of the possible" - it becomes "the art of what we can get away with".

That's definitely operating. In this country it's all mixed up with the "culture wars". A lot of things that couldn't be done electorally, at least not across the entire country, can be implemented without majority concurrence by means of executive and judicial fiat.

Yo, Jimbo?

Jimbo has run into a delay. Colonel Blimp will be taking his place shortly.

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