Modern v. Classical Liberals

“Governments are living things and operate as organic wholes.  Moreover, governments have their natural evolution and are one thing in one age, another in another. The makers of the Constitution constructed the federal government upon a theory of checks and balances which was meant to limit the operation of each part and allow to no single part or organ of it a dominating force; but no government can be successfully conducted upon so mechanical a theory.Leadership and control must be lodged somewhere; the whole art of statesmanship is the art of bringing the several parts of government into effective cooperation for the accomplishment of particular common objects,–and party objects at that.”

Woodrow Wilson, 1908. Emphasis added.

With their reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Garland v. Cargill (the bump-stock case) the disdain with which conventional American liberals hold the U.S. constitution is now on full display. In truth it has been on display to anyone who cared to look ever since the administration of political scientist and President of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson.  In the Wilsonian view, the U.S. constitutional system of checks and balances was an impediment to be overcome (see above). That view has been and continues to be the dominant view of contemporary American liberalism. 

In contemporary liberalism, as opposed to Classical Liberalism, the object of government is to follow the will of the people (vox populi). It is up to the President through the use of the bureaucracy, staffed by “experts” to interpret and implement that will.  It is this line of thinking that gave birth to the modern Administrative state. 

Note that the Wilsonian rationale for the Administrative state is one that is entirely at odds with the Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration the function of government is to secure pre-existing rights. Not grant rights, but secure them. 

Arguably Abraham Lincoln read that classically Liberal interpretation into the Constitution in his Gettysburg address, a portion of which follows below.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863. 

In this respect it is important to think of the Declaration as a road map that leads from the weltanschauung of the framers to its implementation via the US Constitution. This is made clear by reading the Constitution in conjunction with the Declaration, which reads (in part):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – 

In Lincolnesque and Wilsonian views we have a stark reminder of the differences between (a) modern liberalism that justifies the coercive power of the Administrative state and (b) Classical Liberalism that depends on the consent of the governed. Modern American liberalism vests authority in the hands of bureaucratic experts whose mission is to design policy that reflects the current whims of popular opinion. Rights are simply tools of an ever shifting majority. 

On the other hand, Classical Liberalism defines the role of government as one of securing pre-existing, meaning pre-political rights, rather than granting them. First and most importantly, because governments are not the source of rights.  Second, because the unmediated will of the people can quickly turn into mob rule. In this respect it is useful to remember that when Benjamin Franklin famously said  “…a republic if you can keep it” he did not use the word democracy. He said republic which, among other things, reflected the careful Madisonian checks and balances embedded in the system.

That was then and this is now. And in some ways the mob is now ascendant. So how did we get here?

The corrupt use of language, a sin committed by a whole host of players, is a key element. In fact an insistence on the proper definition of words is now seen as justification for righteous indignation. Consider the recent court case of Garland v. Cargill (the bump-stock case).

The Supreme Court held by a 6-3 majority that attaching a bump stock to a semi-automatic rifle does not in fact turn a semi-automatic rifle into a machine gun. The Trump administration had enacted a regulation which asserted that the use of bump stocks created machine guns, the use of which by civilians is banned by the National Firearms Act of 1934. (By way of reminder, the ATF on at least 10 separate occasions, held that use of bump stocks did not qualify as creating machine guns.) 

That fact was insufficient to contain the predictable over-the-top  liberal response to the holding. For instance, in the Washington Post E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote:

Conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court have decided that more Americans must die in mass shootings because they have a quibble over the word “function.”

Note the word “quibble”. He then went on to say:

 “…the court’s six conservative justices not only put their ideological preconceptions ahead of rational policymaking. They also privileged an arrogant, misplaced confidence in their own technical expertise over a federal agency’s thoughtful effort to prevent the grotesque slaughter of innocents.”

Also, hilariously he scorns the Court for “…arrogant, misplaced confidence in their own technical expertise…”

And finally in his fire-breathing column he claimed that the justices effectively said:

 “We know how guns work, and we consulted several dictionaries about what words mean.

Ahh, the hated use of dictionaries…

Not to be outdone, the Los Angeles Times opined: 

On Friday, the Supreme Court once more narrowed the power of the government to protect the American people from gun violence.

Note the claim “narrowed the power of the government to protect…”

Which of course implies that said government power (1) actually protects, and (2) does not require legislative authorization.  

The NY Times asserted:

 “It is one of the most astonishingly dangerous decisions ever issued by the court, and it will almost surely result in a loss of American lives in another mass shooting.”

Certainly more dangerous than Dredd Scott or Plessay v. Ferguson, wouldn’t you say?

Slate chimed in with this gem: 

This Supreme Court will be squarely at fault for the next mass shooting enabled by a legal bump stock.”

And so on.

Let’s examine a number of common threads in the display of outrage.

 (1) The Supreme Court was dastardly enough to pay attention to definitions used in the law as written—why—to quote E.J. Dionne once again, they even resorted to using dictionaries; 

(2) By reaching a conclusion that liberals don’t like the Supreme Court is responsible for future anticipated deaths. They are apparently unconcerned about the deaths  of unborn children that directly resulted from Roe v. Wade

(3) By implication we are invited to subscribe to the notion that mass shooters would otherwise be law abiding citizens who would never even think of harming their fellow citizens if bump stocks were illegal. (And by the way, how did that theory work out with prohibition, drug use, bank robbery, speeding etc etc.)

(4) Oh, Congress could change the law to take account of technological changes (as Justice Alito noted in his concurrence) if it so desired. 

So hilariously enough, the protectors of democracy are not interested in the hard work of convincing Congress to change a law to change policy, preferring instead to have the law re-written by the Supreme Court. But they are interested in creating a national law that guarantees and finances unlimited abortion on demand.  

That tells you all you need to know. 


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