Wednesday, January 25, 2012


It's hard not to admire purists, if they are on your side, and sometimes even if they aren't.  They appeal to first principles, they try to imagine long trajectories of human behavior, to choose wisely the precise word today that will bear fruit many tomorrows from now.

Today I read someone who really hoped we could get back to being a republic, and phrases like "principles of limited government" or "derived directly from the Constitution" have been popping up in conservative circles the last few decades.  The liberals have their own purist rhetoric - I'll pick on them some other day.

I can't object to these ideas.  I agree that we need to stick to them as closely as we can, teach them to our children when we rise up and when we lie down and all that.  But there's an important hip-check of reality we need to keep in mind.  It's not ever going to happen, not very much.  At most, we can yank the needle backward or forward a few ticks.  Great forces, not especially under government control, and under control of one group or another only temporarily, are going to move the barge, not Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich with a paddle, even if they are intent, and pure, and radical.  I mention Kucinich as a reminder to conservatives not to despair.  The other side has the same problem.  I think Obama is a milk-and-water socialist by the standards of Europe's last generation, which is still way too much for me.  But even if he were a flat out Trotskyite and could get a bunch of similar guys elected with him, he's not going to change things much.  He can't, no matter how badly he wants to.  It's 300,000,000 people, with a thousand major industries and a million small ones, interacting in a world economy of 6 billion - a number which is essentially meaningless to all of us.

I'm not just being cynical here.  It is the nature of governance and power.  How did our Founding Fathers create such a remarkable document designing a government according to first principles, far-seeing, wise?  Because for the most part, they weren't governing at the time.  They were given a space for wisdom and abstract principle and justice-in-theory, unrelated to immediate boundary disputes, or need to regulate shipyard repair costs, or tariffs on dried fish.  That will not occur again.  The closest we came to ever again rethinking great principles about how we govern ourselves was the Civil War, then more mildly and gradually in the World Wars and Great Depression.

It's not going to happen.  Now that we know that, now that we accept the point that changes from here on in will be gradual, unless some catastrophic events allow a brief radicalism - - - what do we do with this?  Once we abandon the fantasies of what they really, really should do down in Washington, what do we do?

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

I feel about this a little the way I do when I see President Obama complaining that he couldn't fix things because he didn't have the power. If there's an area where he's helpless, why is it the centerpiece of his campaign -- I mean, his SOTU speech? Why not talk about what he plans to do in the areas where he has some efficacy?

(I have the same problem with teacher's unions who complain the deck is stacked against them. If it's hopeless, why pay them?)

Certainly it's not likely that any administration, no matter how pure, will succeed in transforming the country. The fact remains that the country can be transformed by a bad administration in ways far more fundamental than I'm comfortable with. If there's going to be transforming at all, however minor, I'd like to know that it will be in the right direction.

I don't need a purist candidate. I do want as much coherence as I can get. A moderate candidate doesn't impress me if I sense that all it means is that he'll flop around ineffectually, trying to avoid giving offense or fright. A coherent candidate will not exhaust my patience if he does his best but acknowledges that some changes can't happen until there is a greater groundswell of public support -- then he gets out there and does his best to persuade people to accept the next small step, at least.