Flight of Fancy

The Conundrum for anti-Trump Conservatives

In his June 1 column, George Will wrote that not only should President Trump be defeated this Fall, but so should his Congressional “enablers.” In language evocative of an angry god declaring that all shall be vanquished before him, Will wrote:

The nation’s downward spiral into acrimony and sporadic anarchy has had many causes much larger than the small man who is the great exacerbator of them. Most of the causes predate his presidency, and most will survive its January terminus. The measures necessary for restoration of national equilibrium are many and will be protracted far beyond his removal. One such measure must be the removal of those in Congress who, unlike the sycophantic mediocrities who cosset him in the White House, will not disappear “magically,” as Eric Trump said the coronavirus would. Voters must dispatch his congressional enablers, especially the senators who still gambol around his ankles with a canine hunger for petting.

Will was not quite finished.

We cannot know all the measures necessary to restore the nation’s domestic health and international standing, but we know the first step: Senate Republicans must be routed, as condign punishment for their Vichyite collaboration, leaving the Republican remnant to wonder: Was it sensible to sacrifice dignity, such as it ever was, and to shed principles, if convictions so easily jettisoned could be dignified as principles, for . . . what?

Nothing cries dispassionate analysis quite like World War II parallels.

Will is certainly not the first fire and brimstone spewing conservative critic to call for the electoral elimination of the Republican party, but he’s perhaps the only one worth taking seriously.

Most anti-Trump conservatives[1] will not find much to disagree with GeorgeWill here. We have watched in horror as the Republican party has transformed itself into a cult of personality. Even Trump-skeptical Republicans have either muted their criticism or have become, to not put too fine a point on it, royal ass-kissers, including certain 2016 primary opponents of his. In many right-wing journals even mild criticism of the president is considered something like treason.

So why might an anti-Trump conservative have reservations about Will’s strategy? Because the beneficiary would be a political party no more deserving to hold the reins of power. It could also have the unanticipated result of inspiring a reaction that leads to something much worse than Trump down the line.

The case against Trump

The easiest part of Will’s argument to swallow is the most basic one: President Trump does not deserve to win re-election. The reasons so many conservatives opposed Trump in 2016 still obtain. If anything, Trump has exceeded our worst expectations of his character. He continues to spew idiotic conspiracy theories on Twitter even in the midst of a global pandemic that his administration, to put it charitably, bungled the response to. And even as America descended into riotous protests, Trump’s response was to suggest a “shoot first, ask questions later” response to the protesters and to suggest another conspiracy theory about a man whose skull was cracked open after being pushed by the police.

Trump supporters downplay the significance of all this – “They’re just tweets,” is the common response – but even for those of us who think the “rhetorical presidency” is overblown, we cannot ignore that these insane ramblings do nothing to help unify the country or advance his agenda.

Speaking of Trump’s agenda, while he has been not as bad as conservatives feared, there’s little here to suggest that he has earned a second term, as the miles and miles of invisible border walls attest to. Thus far Trump’s main “accomplishment” has been a tax cut, but for credit for that mainly goes to former Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And while his administration has rolled back regulations, these are temporary victories that can be easily undone with the next Democratic administration. He has been bolder than other theoretical Republican presidents in some areas – moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, for starters – yet Trump has been more of a paper tiger than a fierce warrior slashing down the cultural enemies quaking before him.

And then there’s the courts. “But Gorsuch” was the rallying cry for Trump supporters once upon a time. Indeed, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court, not to mention hundreds of federal judgeships secured for originalists throughout the country, is a major victory for Leonard Leo and Mitch McConnell. But as several late-term SCOTUS opinions demonstrate, there are limits to how much the judiciary has advanced. Specific opinions aside, if the major argument for a president’s re-election is judicial appointments, then the republic is on far rockier ground than we even realize.

Trump supporters have another “ace” up their sleeves: Flight 93 revisited. If Joe Biden is elected president then the Green Deal will be enacted, religious liberty will be destroyed, taxes will go through the roof, single payer healthcare will be upon us, and the rivers will run red with the blood of cancelled conservatives. It’s a familiar argument that turns every election into the most important election in American history™ and demands that all good God-fearing American must vote for the Republican nominee or else.

The rebuttal to this is straightforward enough: even a Biden administration will be unable to enact a quarter of what the most radical progressives desire. There are far too many moderate Democrats – yes they exist, no matter what social media fearmongers insist – for a President Biden to force through major changes (assuming he even wants to). Assuming Senate Democrats eliminate the filibuster – and they will – Democrats will still need a Sinema and Manchin-proof majority, not to mention vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in 2022. Do you think Michael Bennett is a sure vote for single payer?

To say that Donald Trump doesn’t deserve to be re-elected is not to suggest that conservatives must go out and vote for Joe Biden. Casting a protest vote against Trump’s character for someone who has repeatedly lied about the sobriety of the man involved in the accident that killed his wife, enabled the disgusting character assassination of Robert Bork and then Clarence Thomas, and told a black audience that Republicans “want to put y’all back in chains,” not to mention his move to the left since wrapping up the nomination, is a little bit odd.[2] Then again, I voted for Evan McMullin, so my judgment on protest votes is also suspect.

Against Never-GOPism

Whatever conservatives decide to do this November with regards to the presidential election, though, Will’s own contention that it is a moral imperative to remove President Trump is undermined by his added contention that Congressional Republicans be decimated at the polls as well. As I noted above, one of the main arguments against the Flight 93 paranoia is that there’s only so much a President Biden can do. That argument is nullified if the Democrats have a 60+ seat Senate majority and a triple digit advantage in the House of Representatives.

One could plausibly counter by observing that the Democrats had a 80+ seat advantage in the House and a filibuster-proof (at times) majority in the senate during the Obama administration, and the world didn’t end. While true, there are two counterarguments. First of all, the 111th Congress managed to pump out a lot of legislation with long-lasting and negative impacts. Dodd-Frank, the massive stimulus, and the expansion of SCHIP are but a few of the major pieces of legislation signed into law in Obama’s first term, not to mention a little thing called the Affordable Care Act (which, one observes, was not repealed by the 115th Congress). Even if the long, drawn-out process of passing Obamacare prevented the Democrats from achieving more, that’s a pretty substantial list and it was certainly more ambitious than the Republican achievements between 2017-2018.

More importantly, even if the Democratic party hasn’t moved as far left in its totality as Republicans contend, it has moved left. The legislative program to be pursued by a Democratic Congress with supermajorities in both chambers is likely to be far, far more ambitious than one with narrow majorities (and perhaps a continuing Republican majority in the Senate). Suddenly single-payer, the Green New Deal, and God knows what else are all on the table.

It’s easy enough for people like George Will to say that’s what Republicans deserve for kowtowing to Trump for four years, but a radical re-orienting of America to the far left seems to be a pretty high price to pay to teach Republicans a lesson.

More to the point, one lesson from life under the pandemic is that the Democrats have done little to merit the gift on uncontested power.

Life in Lockdown

Neither party holds a monopoly on good or bad governance during the COVID crisis, highlighted by the recent spike in infections in both red and blue states, but the very worst behavior among state and local officials played out in New York thanks to the Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne of New York, Andrew Cuomo and Bill deBlassio, whose gross incompetence, negligence, indecision, and egoism literally cost thousands of lives.

And while (largely) Democratic reticence to end lockdowns can be debated on the merits, the gross inconsistency in how lockdown policies have been applied is sufficient evidence of why many Democratic officials should never be allowed near the levers of power again. We will continue to debate the merits of past and future lockdowns for years to come, but there’s no debating the moral inconsistency demonstrated by the likes of Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser in not only permitting mass Black Lives Matters protests but in actively celebrating and encouraging them even as they energetically pushed for continued lockdowns.[3]

Seeing what amounted to (in some cases) giant block parties being permitted while being denied the ability to receive Holy Communion is bound to rub some people the wrong way. It also does not inspire confidence that one’s rights will be protected by these same people if they are given even more power.

Whatabout “whataboutism?”

Some will argue that these are tantamount to “whatabout” arguments, and indeed they are. What about Democratic party radicalism? How does a conservative reviled by Donald Trump and unhappy with Republican party subservience to him solve this conundrum? How was a conservative to vote in, say, Texas in 2018 when Ted Cruz was up for re-election to the Senate?

Ah, Ted Cruz. This is a good time for a slight tangent. I supported Ted Cruz during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, and I would not have made a different choice if I had to do it all over again, especially once some of the heavy-hitting solid GOP governors bowed out early. And this is why I am not Never Trump. Because when people started adopting this term, for many it also meant “and not Cruz either.” The very same people who urge the fiery destruction of the Republican party are the ones who continued to support the dead-end candidacy of John Kasich. Instead of uniting behind the one candidate who could actually defeat Trump, as the Democrats did this year to united behind Biden when the prospect of a Sanders nomination stared them in the face, these self-centered, short-sighted dolts wasted time and resources on the pointless candidacy of John Kasich. Would Trump have won anyway? Perhaps, but it would have been awfully nice to have tried a true one-on-one matchup. But since Ted Cruz gave them the ickies, they selected a path that only aided and abetted Donald Trump. And now these same geniuses are still dishing out political advice? Lest I run afoul of such stalwart conservatives as Max Boot and Tom Nichols, maybe I will follow my own instincts.

Anyway, back to Ted Cruz. I have been as disappointed as anyone in his sudden turn from fierce Trump critic and as a man who said “vote your conscience” at the Republican convention into another Trump-defending sycophant, especially as he adopts policy positions he should know better than to support. But if I lived in Texas (I wish) in 2018 and I had to choose between him and Beto O’Rourke, I wouldn’t have even given it a second thought before voting for Senator Cruz. Sure, there’s always the option to not vote or vote for a third party, as I am doing this year in the presidential race, but am I really just going to “punish” a Senator who I am aligned with on 99 percent of issues because he hasn’t been as critical of Donald Trump as I would like? Who am I punishing in allowing someone like “Beto” to represent me in the United States Senate?

Both Trump critics and Trump fans are finally joined in unison as they shout back at me “Aha – charade you are!” After essentially disclaiming against the “elections are binary” argument for the presidential election, I am now changing tact for other elections.

Not quite. In every election you have to make a rational decision weighing all the circumstances. In 2016 I decided that neither Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump were good enough to earn my vote, but neither was so obviously heinous as to force me to vote for the other person. I have made the same decision (so far) with regards to the 2020 presidential election. But not every election is the same. I couldn’t (and still can’t) vote for Donald Trump because, well, he is an utterly repellent human being and an ineffective president. But Ted Cruz? I’m supposed to enable the ascension of a character like Beto O’Rourke at his expense because I don’t think he’s been critical enough of Donald Trump? That’s a stretch to me.

More importantly, in at least the example outlined above, I did find the other person (Beto) heinous enough to move me to vote for Ted Cruz (if I could have).

But that’s a discrete decision based on the circumstances of one race. The larger context, which I have tried to lay out, is that punishing Republicans at the ballot box for insufficient Trump hatred is a questionable, at best, strategy. Leaving aside the question of whether Republicans have truly enabled President Trump (and it’s not a small question to leave aside, but I don’t need to drone on for another thousand words), conservatives are right to feel more than a little suspect at the prospect of handing unlimited control of government to the Democrats.

Populism: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

There’s one other big risk entailed in a massive Democratic takeover of the government. Anti-Trump conservatives have held a (likely fanciful) hope that there will be something like a return to normalcy once Trump is removed from the scene. This is wishful thinking. The populist ascendency within the GOP is no short-term phenomenon. It began before Trump, and will outlive him. Perhaps this populist strain will be more “enlightened” – it cannot but help but be. Yet the tension between the classically liberal/conservative and anti-liberal/populist strands of the movement is likely to become even more fierce once Trump is no longer on the scene (and his defeat this November by no means guarantees he will not be a major player in the years to come).

What’s more, a complete Democratic sweep this November is more likely to favor a populist ascendency. The Democratic sweep in the aftermath of the 2008 election inspired the growth of the tea party movement. Some of us might pine for the relatively sanguine days of a libertarian-inspired social protest movement. Yet this was also a populist revolt. Indeed it was a paradoxically libertarian-populist (two words combined that can’t make sense[4]) protest. Over time, though, it was the libertarian side of this uneasy alliance which lost.

There has been something like a rebirth of the tea party, libertarian-populist sentiment in the wake of COVID lockdowns, and it’s possible two years of hard-left Democratic rule can spur something similar. Yet nothing that has occurred over the past few years inspires confidence that any right-wing reaction to leftist overreach will be measured and reasonable. A more likely right-wing response will look a lot more Josh Hawley than Mike Lee. And it’s possible a Hawley-styled turn is the best case. In other words, the sort of figure to emerge as the leader of the anti-liberal response to left-wing dominated governance may look Donald Trump look like a piker.

Look, it has not been a fun five years or so for anti-Trump (but not quite Never Trump) conservatives. We spent the better part of a year vocally arguing against Trump’s nomination. We then watched as a majority of those who were in the trenches yelling with us swiftly turned around and decided to be a part of Trump’s palace guard. (Some for genuine reasons, some, well, less so #caring). Then for four years we dealt with accusations of disloyalty from Ever Trumpers on one hand, and on the other hand complaints about our insufficient hatred and fear of Trump by idiots playacting as the modern incarnation of who people who #resisted an actual tyrannical regime.[5]

We are frankly just a little bit weary of it all. So when George Will tells us it’s not sufficient that Trump be defeated, but that the entire GOP should essentially be burnt to the ground, it’s hard not being a bit conflicted. Because, frankly, the GOP does deserve to be massacred at the polls.[6]

But so do the Democrats.

And so we are confronted with yet another ugly choice with really no good options. Sure, we could stand aside and let the Republicans go down to defeat, and hope (foolishly, no doubt) that it will be reborn in the aftermath of an electoral massacre. And in this fit of rational spite we might come out on the back end even worse off, with the most radical elements of the Democrat agenda enshrined into law. And if the GOP does endure such a defeat, and Democrats are allowed to roam about the country unchecked for two years, does anyone expect that the reaction to this will be measured?

In case I am not making myself clear, if George Will has his way then expect something much worse than Donald Trump four years hence.


[1] Note I do not say “Never Trump.” For reasons to be explained shortly, this is a term I reject for myself.

[2] Kevin Williamson has the measure of the man. https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/03/joe-biden-not-a-socialist-just-a-scoundrel/

[3] To say nothing of the mandate in new York not to ask COVID-positive patients if they attended BLM rallies, or the Oregon decision to exempt “people of color” from the obligation to wear masks.

[4] HT: Megadeth.

[5] Because one recalls the history of anti-Vichy Frenchmen openly and loudly denouncing Hitler, lining up bookshelves with their tales of denunciation, and being supported by a media establishment that aids and abets their animus. Totally the same thing there, fellas.

[6] Like, for instance, calling a man who has served in every Republican administration a “warmonger” because he had the temerity to write a book publicly critical of Donald Trump.

Go Away Lucy, and Take Your Football With You

It is difficult to feel angry about the outcome in June Medical Services v. Russo when it was entirely expected. Most conservatives knew Chief Justice Roberts would come up with some half-baked legal justification to “preserve the integrity of the Court,” so naturally he did so with a ridiculously strict rendering of stare decisis, one which he couldn’t possibly uphold. (And as always a satire site manages to convey the ultimate stupidity of this stance.) So be it.

There was one tweet which caught my attention, and so I republish it here.

It is the usual gibberish from the pro-Moloch “Catholic” left. “Forget about all that abortion stuff, and come join the Democrats so we can enact all the stuff that is not really a part of Catholic teaching but we will insist is as absolutely central to being a good Catholic as belief in the real presence.”

I’ve learned to roll my eyes at this stuff a long time ago. The Catholics for Moloch need some way to look at themselves in the mirror, so it makes sense to create a fake Catechism (while calumniating most other Catholics in the process.) They’re no different than pro-choicers who ramble on about “clumps of cells” and other non-scientific hogwash to be able to come to grips with the fact that they are okay with the legalized murder of unborn children.

We all need to find a way to make it to the next day, I suppose.

And yet there is the slightest bit of truth in this statement. One of course has to ignore that all four of the justices who voted to uphold Louisiana’s law were Republican appointees, and four of the five justices who voted to strike down the law were Democratic appointees. It is, I suppose true that conservatives and Catholics cannot absolutely rely on “their” justices to vote as they would like, whereas Democrats never seem to have to sweat this stuff with theirs.

13 of the 17 justices appointed to the Supreme Court since January 1969 have been Republican appointees, yet Roe not only was made law of the land, it has been entrenched several times – once by a Supreme Court with 8 Republican-appointees (and the one Democrat voting to strike it down). While the judiciary has advanced on several fronts, abortion law is one area where the court remains especially disappointing.

The issue remains that the Supreme Court – and indeed the federal judiciary as a whole – has long ceased to operate effectively within the context of a republican form of government. I am no majoritarian democrat, but the fundamental problems with the Court are not going to be fixed by the “right” appointments. This is why the “what about judges?” argument never came close to persuading me to support Donald Trump. Even if Trump has nailed every single appointment (and I think Gorsuch will be fine in the end), we are no closer to a proper orientation of the judicial branch, and likely will not get there anytime in my lifetime.

On a related note, and once again going through the Twitter account of two-faced frauds, here’s the Lincoln Project’s take:

“True conservatism” indeed.

To quote a mediocre coach, they are who we thought they were.

COVID

Over the past few years I have experienced an eternal headache as I have navigated the rough waters of writing about Donald Trump. In the morning I might be doing rhetorical battle on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere with a Trump supporter offended that I have deigned to criticize His Omnipotence, and in the evening I am dueling with some #Resistance fool upset that I do not share his belief that Donald Trump is a tyrant, and as such I have shown insufficient angst regarding Hitler Junior.

And so it has been with COVID. When the virus became a serious concern in March I broke with many people in supporting the lockdowns and in arguing that the virus was indeed a much more serious concern than the flu. Then, over time, the lockdown forever brigade began to fray my nerves.

In an age of Google and instant internet access for all, it is not difficult to find statistics and other reports about the virus to gain a better insight into what is truly happening. Yes, even months on from the onset of COVID we still receive inconsistent and sometimes contradictory information, so I understand there may be a level of deserved mistrust in the reporting. But as time has gone on, certain facts seem indisputable.

Yes, COVID is deadlier than the flu by quite a lot. At no point in recent memory have 2,000+ people died of the flu in a single day, as happened during the peak. Even now as the curve has flattened (more on that in a moment), the 700-800 daily deaths are 2-3 times what one would see at the peak of flu season. I have seen some estimates that 80-90,000 people might die in a particularly bad flu season, but that figure is wildly exaggerated as the peak number of deaths in the past decade is closer to 60,000, and COVID deaths have doubled that in just over three months.

Conversely, it is true that COVID is significantly less lethal for people under about the age of 60 who have no other underlying health conditions. Nearly 80% of coronavirus-related deaths in the US have been in people aged 65 or older. It is still more lethal than the flu for just about every age group except the very youngest, though, so one should not casually dismiss the seriousness of COVID – especially when one factors potential long-term health impacts.

Most importantly, COVID is especially non-lethal for children under the age of about 12. There have been about two-dozen deaths in this age category, and I believe almost all involved children who had some type of underlying illness. As a father I cannot imagine losing a child, so no death should ever be diminished. But not only is COVID not very much of a threat to the health of young children, contrary to almost every illness in history (I exaggerate, but kids are called “germ factories” for a reason) kids do not seem to transmit the virus much if at all to adults. What’s more, many other countries have opened schools and there have been no reported outbreaks due to these openings. There was a concern that there was a relationship between an uptick in Kawasaki-disease (or a similar syndrome) related to COVID, but the number of cases remained small, and it doesn’t seem as though this ever became a significant concern (though I am open to correction if people have updated data).

It seems as though we have two conflicting goals. On the one hand, we need to better demonstrate the seriousness of the virus to a subset of the population who continues to dismiss its significance. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who continue to live in abject fear would do well to better understand recent studies and data. If one purports to be a believer in science, it seems strange to be personally paranoid about a virus that has almost no chance (assuming you are in the low-risk age group) of killing you or even leaving you with long-term disabilities, and has practically zero chance of harming your child if you are a parent.

It’s an admittedly difficult dance. I may not personally have much concern about the virus as it relates to me or my family, but neither do I want to be responsible for passing the virus onto someone who is higher risk. I was very happy to return to Church last week for the first time in three months – a return that was way overdue. Every other pew is blocked off, and everyone wore masks. And yet I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous as two women, likely in their 80s, sat in the next available pew in front of me. I wondered if I could hold my breath for an hour.

And that’s why those who think they are making some sort of political statement by not wearing a mask infuriate me. Oh, you aren’t some sheep who just listens to what others, including the government, tell you to do? Do you stop at red lights? Do you wear a seatbelt? Do you pay your taxes? If you answered yes, then I guess you are just a “sheep.” Wearing a mask is not about protecting you: it is about protecting others from you in case you are pre-symptomatic (as opposed to asymptomatic, which is somehow a different thing). Yes, authorities likely lied about mask-wearing at the outset of the pandemic crisis, and they deserve blame for that. But that’s no excuse now when we know better.

Incidentally, the anti-mask stance is an odd one for libertarians. In an age of video surveillance and facial recognition, mask wearing would seem to be an anti-establishment, finger-poke in the eye type thing. In fact, it is much more likely for masks to be outlawed as facial recognition becomes more ubiquitous. Indeed, masks are precisely the type of subtle protest used in authoritarian countries where video surveillance and facial recognition are widespread. It will be ironic when in a few years libertarians protest the outlawing of masks.

Once again, the flipside is also silly. I don’t wear a mask walking around or when I’m running. I don’t begrudge anyone who decides to do so, though I can’t imagine it being particularly healthy to run in a mask during the summer months. It doesn’t seem as though there is much of a call for people to wear them outdoors except in cases where sustained distancing is not possible, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that started happening because again, nobody seems to be reading anything.

Admittedly this has been a somewhat rambling post as I am just basically venting off three months of frustration. If there is an overarching message, it’s that I wish people really would take data seriously and really think before jumping on this or that bandwagon. For example, when you see cases jump in certain states, don’t just assume it’s the end of the world. Look more closely at the data. For instance, see Avik Roy’s thread about Florida. He shows that most of the cases are in a much younger population, and that even if hospitalizations are increasing, these are cases where most people are discharged and recover. (Incidentally, the thread also gives lie to the idea that Florida is hiding its data or is being insufficiently transparent when it’s the complete opposite of the truth – Florida has been more transparent than just about any other state).

Maybe my message is simply: be safe, be careful, but also don’t feel you need to hide in your cave.

What He Said

I am not the only person returning to the blogosphere. Dale Price has been writing up a storm at his excellent blog, Dyspeptic Mutterings. Today Dale perfectly echoes my own anger and disgust at the iconoclast movement turning its eyes towards a statue of Abraham Lincoln – a statue freed slaves paid for.

Here’s a taste:

I do not share citizenship in the same nation with the mobs. Yes, they are presumably composed of American citizens, but shared citizenship indicates devotion to common ideals no more than standing in the same line at a McDonald’s does. My enmity for them grows by the day.


There is a hellish spectre abroad in our land right now, and it has possessed countless mobs. That self-same mania is aided and abetted by the sympathy of countless political figures, or the cynical calculation, cowardice or fecklessness of the rest. The rage we are seeing was ably described by a wiser man than we currently possess as “the simple gratification of a hell-black spirit of revenge.” It is a hatred for our past and all that represents it, and no amount of explanation or context matters.


As the proverb goes, you cannot reason someone out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.


And what will happen when they run out of memorials to destroy? Communal violence gets nearer by the day.

As the saying goes, read the rest.

Rewriting History

Neo-Confederates and others who have a more sympathetic understanding of the Confederacy don’t generally agree on much with far-left Progressives. And yet they do have at least one thing in common: they share a revisionist interpretation of the Civil War generally and Abraham Lincoln specifically. Both downplay the significance of the Civil War and the elimination of the scourge of slavery, and both portray Lincoln as a typically racist white man who didn’t really care all that much about the plight of slaves and whose interest in emancipation was purely part of a larger effort to preserve the Union and win the war.

In my life I have spilled a metric ton of digital ink arguing that this is an egregiously mistaken or warped view of American history, so I’ll address these inaccuracies briefly. First of all, with regards to the cause of the war, yes it was about slavery. One only has to read the documents produced by the secessionist states and speeches from the likes of Alexander Stephenson to understand this. The idea that tariffs or some other underlying economic motives were factors is frankly absurd. Lincoln and Douglas spent seven debates in Illinois arguing about popular sovereignty as it relates to whether territories should be able to choose whether or not slavery would be legal as they moved to statehood. Tariffs did not come up. Nor are they mentioned much in the articles of secession.

It is true that Lincoln and the union government did not engage in war to eliminate slavery, and many if not most union soldiers didn’t care one way or the other too much about the issue. And the same is also generally true of confederate soldiers. Yet there is no serious proof that the ultimate precipitating cause of the division between north and south was anything other than slavery. Once the war started the men were fighting for their country (in the north) or for their homeland (in the south). But why were they fighting to begin with? Surely not tariffs.

And this leads us to Lincoln and emancipation. First of all, it is true that Lincoln was not an abolitionist per se, though he was adamantly opposed to slavery. And his animating purpose at the outset of the Civil Was was the preservation of the union at any costs, including the potential of chastened seceded states returning and keeping slavery. But as the war wore on, Lincoln saw the opportunity to emancipate slaves and he took it. In part it was a war measure, but he also saw it as the right thing to do, and so overruled practically his entire cabinet in issuing it.

That the Emancipation Proclamation did not technically free any slaves at the time of its issuance is true but it misses the larger point. From that point forward the Civil War was now a war of emancipation. It meant that every territory reclaimed by the union would be free soil territory. It essentially signified that union victory in the war meant the end of slavery in America.

Lincoln also comes into criticism for his support for sending freed slaves to Africa, specifically Liberia. Once again this is an incomplete history. Lincoln initially supported this plan because he didn’t think freed slaves could live peaceably in the United States, and assumed they would want to relocate. As president he met with African-American leaders and freed slaves like Frederick Douglass and he learned that they wanted to be a part of the United States. So he ditched this idea halfway through his presidency, and by the time of his death he was fully committed to guaranteeing full citizenship and civil rights to freed slaves (a position which only intensified John Wilkes Booth’s hatred of Lincoln).

So what motivates this unusual coalition of Lincoln haters, aside from pure historical ignorance? For neo-Confederates and a certain element of conservatives, they view the Lincoln presidency as the end of the America of the Founders. According to them. the Civil War put an end to federalism and limited government and gave rise to the imperial presidency. This narrative would make more sense if we ignore pretty much the whole of American history from 1865-1933. Immediately after the war federal spending fell back to pre-war levels. While the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments restricted state powers in many regards, the actual lived experience of most Americans didn’t reflect a total consolidation of federal power (admittedly some of this is because those amendments were ignored, but that’s not the only reason). And the history of the American presidency after Lincoln until at least the Teddy Roosevelt administration is not exactly one of a domineering presidency.

And what of the Progressives? Admitting that 600,000 American lives were sacrificed to end slavery and that Abraham Lincoln was the primary driver of emancipation, and he did so for legitimate moral reasons would mean that something noble and good happened in America prior to, I don’t know, yesterday. And we can’t have that.

2018 Finis

I created this blog at the tail end of the Kavenaugh hearings. At no point in the last three years had I felt as inflamed and passionate about politics as I was during this time, and so I decided to start blogging yet again.

These past three years have been rough politically, and this is especially reinforced every time I hop on Twitter. All of social media has been bad, but everything is magnified on Twitter. This past weekend I flipped back and forth between certain MAGA-nation grifters expressing their lack of #caring about dead immigrants, backed by their legion of cult followers, and the #Resistance crowd – who frequently bellyache about Donald Trump’s callous tone – celebrating the death of a young staffer for the Federalist.

It is at times amusing, and at other times distressing, to note the similarities between MAGA Nation and La Resistance. The former mocks the latter for their snowflake tendencies, even as the former viciously turn on anyone who dares even utter a peep of criticism of President Trump. The former’s cultlike reverence for the current president, meanwhile, is eclipsed only by the latter’s undying devotion to his immediate predecessor, which is itself being eclipsed by their deification of the white Irish skateboarding guy who lost to Ted Cruz. And of course neither side can see the irony of mocking/lauding Donald Trump’s ignorance one moment while lauding/mocking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the idiocy that comes out of her mouth the next.

All this means my passion for writing about politics has waxed and waned. (It should be noted that the time I have to devote to extended writing has almost entirely waned.) Who wants to write about politics when it seems less than ten percent of the population is anywhere near where you are at the moment?

In the end, my lifelong interest in politics cannot simply be snuffed out. So my hope is that in the coming year I can get around to posting more frequently. This blog was never intended to be yet another one dedicated to current events. There are plenty of people who have dedicated their careers to either complaining about Donald Trump or complaining about the people complaining about Donald Trump, and I don’t need to add my voice to this chorus.

With that in mind, to the extent I do write about current events, it will be in the light of constitutional and general political philosophy (this blog should really be hopping around June, then). I will also hope to expand into other areas that tickle my fancy.

And with that, I hope you all have a healthy and happy New Year.

So You Say You Want a Revolution

Getting back to my series on Cato’s Letters, written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, we’re going to take a deeper dive into the subject matter which may have had the most influence on America’s revolutionary generation.

In the previous post, I discussed Cato’s writings about the origin of government. These writings had clear Lockean overtones. Cato’s views on revolution also had a very Lockean tone to them, though Gordon and Trenchard develop and build upon Locke’s theories and present a wide-ranging justification for revolution.

In the 25th letter, Cato writes about arbitrary power: “There is something so wanton and monstrous in lawless power, that there scarce ever was a human spirit that could bear it; and the mind of man, which is weak and limited, ought never to be trusted with a power that is boundless.” Cato adds, “The state of tyranny is a state of war.” For Cato, tyranny is a description of lawless governance where the ruler governs not for the good of his subjects, but for personal advancement. Even good men can become tyrants if they set themselves above the law. In other words, tyranny describes governance based on the arbitrary whims of the ruler rather than in observance of the laws.

Following the Lockean model, if men only enter into political society to guarantee their safety, arbitrary and tyrannical governance does not not merit obedience. While lawful rulers do merit loyalty, tyrants are assured of no such loyalty. From Letter 36:

To obey a prince, who does himself obey the laws, is confessed on all hands to be loyalty: Now, from hence, one would naturally think, that, by every rule of reason, it might be inferred, that to obey one who obeys no law, is a departure from all loyalty, and an outrage committed upon it; and that both he who commands, and he who obeys, are outlaws and disloyalists: And yet these same ungodly pedants shall maintain it to your face, that though loyalty consist in obeying a good prince, it also consists in the very contrary, and in obeying a wicked prince; who, though he be an enemy to God, is the vicegerent of God; and though he commit all wickedness, yet does it by divine right; and though it be a sin to obey him, yet it is a damnable sin to resist him: In short, that all the instruments and partners of his crying crimes are loyalists; and all who defend law, virtue, and mankind, against such monsters, are rebels, and assuredly damned, for preventing or resisting actions which deserve damnation: And thus men become rebels, by acting virtuously against the worst of all rebels, who are restrained by no consideration, human or divine.

In the 42nd letter, Cato would add there is no duty to obey unjust laws.

The violation therefore of law does not constitute a crime where the law is bad; but the violation of what ought to be law, is a crime even where there is no law. The essence of right and wrong does not depend upon words and clauses inserted in a code or a statute-book, much less upon the conclusions and explications of lawyers; but upon reason and the nature of things, antecedent to all laws.

This is language that would be echoed by our Framers, and all the way through the civil rights movement. Bad law, or law which violates natural rights, is no law at all.

He expands on this later in the letter:

But every man, who consents to the necessary terms of society, will also consent to this proposition, that every man should do all the good, and prevent all the evil, that he can. This is the voice of the law of nature; and all men would be happy by it, if all men would practice it. This law leads us to see, that the establishment of falsehood and tyranny (by which I mean the privilege of one or a few to mislead and oppress all) cannot be justly called law, which is the impartial rule of good and evil, and can never be the sanction of evil alone.

Then he writes:

The two great laws of human society, from whence all the rest derive their course and obligation, are those of equity and self- preservation: By the first all men are bound alike not to hurt one another; by the second all men have a right alike to defend themselves: Nam jure hoc evenit, ut quod quisque ob tutelam corporis suifecerit, jure fecisse existimetur [“For this comes from the law: that which someone does for the safety of his body, let it be regarded as having been done legally.”], says the civil law; that is, “It is a maxim of the law, that whatever we do in the way and for the ends of self defence, we lawfully do.” All the laws of society are entirely reciprocal, and no man ought to be exempt from their force; and whoever violates this primary law of nature, ought by the law of nature to be destroyed. He who observes no law, forfeits all title to the protection of law. It is wickedness not to destroy a destroyer; and all the ill consequences of self-defence are chargeable upon him who occasioned them.

This is, dare I say, revolutionary stuff. Cato (specifically in this case, Gordon) ties the first principles of government and argues that man is not obligated to follow laws which would do harm to his natural rights. Moreover, man has an affirmative obligation to overthrown an unjust ruler. Here he lays out, in clear language, that we have a natural right to revolution.

Many mischiefs are prevented, by destroying one who shews a certain disposition to commit many. To allow a licence to any man to do evil with impunity, is to make vice triumph over virtue, and innocence the prey of the guilty. If men be obliged to bear great and publick evils, when they can upon better terms oppose and remove them; they are obliged, by the same logick, to bear the total destruction of mankind. If any man may destroy whom he pleases without resistance, he may extinguish the human race without resistance. For, if you settle the bounds of resistance, you allow it; and if you do not fix its bounds, you leave property at the mercy of rapine, and life in the hands of cruelty.

In a sense, not only do we possess the right to rebel against unlawful authority, we have an obligation to do so lest further injustices are committed. He writes:

The law of nature does not only allow us, but oblige us, to defend ourselves. It is our duty, not only to ourselves, but to the society; Vitam tibi ipsi si negas, multis negas, says Seneca:[“If one denies life to oneself, one denies it to many.”] If we suffer tamely a lawless attack upon our property and fortunes, we encourage it, and involve others in our doom. And Cicero says, “He who does not resist mischief when he may, is guilty of the same crime, as if he had deserted his parents, his friends, and his country.”

The idea that revolution is a duty, not just a right, is a step beyond anything written by Locke. Locke justified the right of revolution, but only within very narrow parameters. Cato broadens Locke’s conception of the right of revolution to intimate that subjects are duty bound to resist unlawful tyrants. This would certainly have great reverberations fifty years later in the colonies. Indeed, if one considers what was at issue in the American Revolution, Gordon and Trenchard would seem to be of greater applicability than Locke. It is certainly a broader justification for the right of revolution than what is expressed even in the Second Treatise of Government.

Later on, in his 55th letter, Cato looks back on history to justify the overthrow of tyrants. Specifically, he lauds those who assassinated Julius Caesar. “Every body, I believe, will own, that when he first made war upon his country, his country had a right to make war upon him; and to destroy him, who fought to destroy them.” Not only were Caesar’s assassins meritorious, the greatest men in history have been those who slayed tyrants, and in doing so saved millions from abject servitude.

If we read the stories of the most celebrated heroes of antiquity (men of whom the present world is not worthy) and consider the actions that gained them their highest reverence and renown, and recommended their names to posterity with the most advantage; we shall find those in the first rank of glory, who have resisted, destroyed, or expelled tyrants and usurpers, the pests, the burdens, and the butchers of mankind. What can be more meritorious, what more beneficent to the world, than the saving of millions of men at the expense of one grand murderer, one merciless and universal plunderer? And can there be any better or other reason given for the killing of any guilty man, but the preserving of the innocent?

These ideas could certainly prove dangerous. Who gets to decide when a ruler is governing arbitrarily? Isn’t this an open invitation to anarchy?

In his 59th letter (already discussed in some detail in the previous post), Cato addresses this concern directly:

But here arises a grand question, which has perplexed and puzzled the greatest part of mankind: Yet, I think, the answer to it easy and obvious. The question is, who shall be judge whether the magistrate acts justly, and pursues his trust? To this it is justly said, that if those who complain of him are to judge him, then there is a settled authority above the chief magistrate, which authority must be itself the chief magistrate; which is contrary to the supposition; and the same question and difficulty will recur again upon this new magistracy. All this I own to be absurd; and I aver it to be at least as absurd to affirm, that the person accused is to be the decisive judge of his own actions, when it is certain that he will always judge and determine in his own favour; and thus the whole race of mankind will be left helpless under the heaviest injustice, oppression, and misery, that can afflict human nature.

But if neither magistrates, nor they who complain of magistrates, and are aggrieved by them, have a right to determine decisively, the one for the other; and if there be no common established power, to which both are subject; then every man interested in the success of the contest, must act according to the light and dictates of his own conscience, and inform it as well as he can. Where no judge is nor can be appointed, every man must be his own; that is, when there is no stated judge upon earth, we must have recourse to heaven, and obey the will of heaven, by declaring ourselves on that which we think the juster side.

These words have a certain resonance in our age. Rulers themselves cannot be the arbiters of the merits of their own actions. It thus comes down to the informed reason of subjects to judge for themselves. Their actions, in turn, will be judged by the Ultimate Judge: God Himself.

Cato (in this case, now Trenchard) thus argues that the governed have the right and duty to judge their rulers.

In truth, I think it is as much the business and right of the people to judge whether their prince be good or bad, whether a father or an enemy, as to judge whether he be dead or alive; unless it be said (as many such wise things have been said) that they may judge whether he can govern them, but not whether he does; and that it behoves them to put the administration in wiser hands, if he be a harmless fool, but it is impious to do it, if he be only a destructive tyrant; that want of speech is a disqualification, but want of humanity, none.

It’s instructive to note that in subsequent letters Cato writes forcefully against the idea of the “divine right of kings.” Kings were not appointed by God to rule over men. Instead, rulers were appointed by men to rule over men. If that is the case, then it is only right and natural that these same men can judge their rulers to be tyrants and lawfully overthrow them.

Cato further outlines what he deems to be arbitrary rule in the 63rd letter:

Such are arbitrary princes, whose laws are nothing but sudden fury, or lasting folly and wickedness in uncertain shapes. Hopeful rules these, for the governing of mankind, and making them happy! Rules which are none, since they cannot be depended upon for a moment; and generally change for the worse, if that can be. A subject worth twenty thousand pounds today, may, by a sudden edict issued by the dark counsel of a traitor, be a beggar tomorrow, and lose his life without forfeiting the same. The property of the whole kingdom shall be great, or little, or none, just at the mercy of a secretary’s pen, guided by a child, or a dotard, or a foolish woman, or a favourite buffoon, or a gamester, or whoever is uppermost for the day; the next day shall alter entirely the yesterday’s scheme, though not for the better; and the same men, in different humours, shall be the authors of both. Thus in arbitrary countries, a law aged two days is an old law; and no law is suffered to be a standing law, but such as are found by long experience to be so very bad, and so thoroughly destructive, that human malice, and all the arts of a tyrant’s court, cannot make them worse. A court which never ceaseth to squeeze, kill, and oppress, till it has wound up human misery so high, that it will go no further. This is so much fact, that I appeal to all history and travels, and to those that read them, whether in arbitrary countries, both in Europe and out of it, the people do not grow daily thinner, and their misery greater; and whether countries are not peopled and rich, in proportion to the liberty which they enjoy and allow.

Arbitrary rule is, in a sense, no rule at all. It is governance by the arbitrary whims of the king or prince rather than by the rule of law. Arbitrary rule being no just rule at all, once again, men are simply under no obligation to obey such a rule.

All men own, that it is the duty of a prince to protect his people; And some have said, that it is their duty to obey him, when he butchers them. An admirable consequence, and full of sweet consolation! His whole business and office is to defend them, and to do them good; therefore they are bound to let him destroy them. Was ever such impudence in an enlightened country? It is perfectly agreeable to the doctrines and followers of Mahomet: But shall Englishmen, who make their own laws, be told, that they have no right to the common air, to the life and fortune which God has given them, but by the permission of an officer of their own making; who is what he is only for their sakes and security, and has no more right to these blessings, nor to do evil, than one of themselves? And shall we be told this by men, who are eternally the first to violate their own doctrines? Or shall they after this have the front to teach us any doctrine, or to recommend to us any one virtue, when they have thus given up all virtue and truth, and every blessing that life affords? For there is no evil, misery, and wickedness, which arbitrary monarchies do not produce, and must produce; nor do they, nor can they, produce any certain, general, or diffusive good.

TL:DR version: Men do not have to obey the ruler who is harming them.

Having said all this, it would seem Gordon and Trenchard have delivered an open invitation to perpetual strife. As witnessed in our modern age, it is easy enough for individuals to claim they are being unjustly ruled. This would make all defiance of the law permissible so long as the individual claimed conscience protection.

Not quite. Gordon and Trenchard expect people to reach reasonable conclusions, and therefore they must be guided by right reason before deciding to rebel. More than a year after the letters outlined above were written, there was a period of turmoil as certain clergy and other disaffected religious minorities began clamoring for change within the Established Church. In his 129th letter, Cato firmly slams the door on the idea that any of their murmurings for revolution were in any way justified.

For God’s sake, Gentlemen, think what you are doing: Your lives, your estates, your religion, your conscience, your trade, your country, your honour, are all at stake, and you are wantonly throwing them all away; you are pursuing a false and miserable shadow; and it would be happy for you, were it only a shadow: In reality, you are going to catch in your embraces, superstition, beggary, and servitude. I approve your love and pursuit of liberty, which ever was, and ever will be, a grateful and charming sound in my ears; and I will be always ready to lead you, or to follow you, in that virtuous and noble pursuit. This is wisdom! This is honour! But honour is to be acquired by honourable means, and not by rapine, perjury, and murder.

In this particular case revolution would subject the people of Great Britain to worse rule. He urges the audience to recognize how blessed they are to be citizens of a free and prosperous country.

You are born, Gentlemen, to liberty; and from it you derive all the blessings which you possess. Pray, what affection have these your leaders ever shewn to the cause of liberty? It is plain that they have never taken the sacred sound into their mouths, but to profane it; nor pretended to cherish it, but in order to destroy it, and make it an unnatural ladder to tyranny. As often as dominion has been in their own hands, liberty became a crime, and a sign of sedition; and as often as they wanted to destroy power, that is, as often as they were out of it, they prostituted the spirit of liberty to the service of treason. Hence their late cries for liberty, to animate you against a government that protected it; and under the pretence of affecting liberty, to introduce a tyranny that would destroy the soul, body and property. They could, however, have made no dangerous progress in this mischief and hypocrisy, if those who have always professed, and whose interest it would have been always to have supported and practised, free and beneficent principles, had not deserted those principles, and armed by that desertion the enemies to all that is good and virtuous, with an opportunity of turning liberty upon herself. Let the real friends to the government support the maxims upon which it stands, and upon which only it can stand, and they have nothing to fear from the well or ill-grounded popularity of its enemies.

Though addressing a specific situation, Cato tempers the revolutionary spirit. It is not enough to merely feel downtrodden. One must soberly reflect upon his current situation. Then, and only then, can an individual or a people make a reasoned decision about revolution. Given the context of Great Britain at the time, any calls for revolution were thus unreasonable.

It can certainly be objected that Gordon and Trenchard have not adequately addressed concerns about the abuse of this right of revolution. They are leaving too much up to the arbitrary whims of subjects themselves. I would suspect that they would respond that a consequence of liberty is for people to get it wrong, but that the alternative would be far worse as it would be an invitation to continued tyrannical rule with no opportunity for redress.

Having said all that, I would argue that these words, more than any except those written by Thomas Paine, are the most important inspiration for the American revolutionaries.

Cato and the Origins of Government

Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, aka Cato, covered a lot of ground in three years, but several themes kept-emerging, and would sound familiar to students of early American political thought. This post will cover Cato’s musings on the origins of civil society, and the purposes for which man consents to be governed by others.

There are certainly echoes of John Locke in Cato’s writings, though neither Gordon or Trenchard delve as deeply into the concept of the state of nature as does Locke or even Hobbes. But Cato sees the origins of government in Lockean terms. In the 11th letter, Cato (here Gordon) writes*:

Salus populi suprema lex esto: That the benefit and safety of the people constitutes the supreme law, is an universal and everlasting maxim in government; It can never be altered by municipal statutes: No customs can change, no positive institutions can abrogate, no time can efface, this primary law of nature and nations. The sole end of men entering into political societies, was mutual protection and defence; and whatever power does not contribute to those purposes, is not government, but usurpation.

This minimalist interpretation of the origins of political society is certainly in accord with a Lockean conception of government. Yet Cato concedes that governments may retain the power to punish transgressions which are not statutorily unlawful. Rogues may devise ways to violate “the laws of God and nature” that nations do not have the foresight to prevent. Nations should not be powerless to punish these transgressions, as England’s legislature has done, though only in extraordinary circumstances. “Jove’s thunderbolts were only launched against such as provoked the thunderbolts of Jove.”

Nonetheless, punishing transgressors of the law is the primary purpose for which governments are instituted, a sentiment repeated in the 20th letter: “Parcere subjectis & debellare superbos; to pay well, and hang well, to protect the innocent, and punish the oppressors, are the hinges and ligaments of government, the chief ends why men enter into societies.”

Considering the limited aims of government, personal liberty is at a maximum in Cato’s conception of civil society. In future posts we’ll look more closely at Cato’s views on freedom of speech and religion, but for now we’ll just look at the principles Cato lays down, best expressed in letter 62:

By Liberty, I understand the Power which every Man has over his own Actions, and his Right to enjoy the Fruit of his Labour, Art, and Industry, as far as by it he hurts not the Society, or any Members of it, by taking from any Member, or by hindering him from enjoying what he himself enjoys. The Fruits of a Man’s honest Industry are the just Rewards of it, ascertained to him by natural and eternal Equity, as is his Title to use them in the Manner which he thinks fit: And thus, with the above Limitations, every Man is sole Lord and Arbiter of his own private Actions and Property.–A Character of which no Man living can divest him but by Usurpation, or his own Consent.

The entering into political Society, is so far from a Departure from his natural Right, that to preserve it was the sole Reason why Men did so; and mutual Protection and Assistance is the only reasonable Purpose of all reasonable Societies. To make such Protection practicable, Magistracy was formed, with Power to defend the Innocent from Violence, and to punish those that offered it; nor can there be any other Pretence for Magistracy in the world. In order to this good End, the Magistrate is intrusted with conducting and applying the united Force of the Community; and with exacting such a Share of every Man’s Property, as is necessary to preserve the Whole, and to defend every Man and his Property from foreign and domestick Injuries. These are the Boundaries of the Power of the Magistrate, who deserts his Function whenever he breaks them. By the Laws of Society, he is more limited and restrained than any Man amongst them; since, while they are absolutely free in all their Actions, which purely concern themselves; all his Actions, as a publick Person, being for the Sake of Society, must refer to it, and answer the Ends of it.

This is perhaps an even more libertarian conception of government than Locke’s. Indeed, later on this letter Cato develops a very narrow view of permissible governmental action.

And it is as foolish to say, that Government is concerned to meddle with the private Thoughts and Actions of Men, while they injure neither the Society, nor any of its Members. Every Man is, in Nature and Reason, the Judge and Disposer of his own domestick Affairs; and, according to the Rules of Religion and Equity, every Man must carry his own Conscience. So that neither has the Magistrate a Right to direct the private Behaviour of men; nor has the Magistrate, or any body else, any manner of Power to model People’s Speculations, no more than their Dreams. Government being intended to protect Men from the Injuries of one another, and not to direct them in their own Affairs, in which no one is interested but themselves; it is plain, that their Thoughts and domestick Concerns are exempted intirely from its Jurisdiction: In Truth, Mens Thoughts are not subject to their own Jurisdiction.

Idiots and Lunaticks indeed, who cannot take Care of themselves, must be taken Care of by others: But whilst Men have their five Senses, I cannot see what the Magistrate has to do with Actions by which the Society cannot be affected; and where he meddles with such, he meddles impertinently or tyrannically. Must the Magistrate tie up every Man’s Legs, because some Men fall into Ditches? Or, must he put out their Eyes, because with them they see lying Vanities? Or, would it become the Wisdom and Care of Governors to establish a travelling Society, to prevent People, by a proper Confinement, from throwing themselves into Wells, or over Precipices; Or to endow a Fraternity of Physicians and Surgeons all over the Nation, to take Care of their Subjects Health, without being consulted; and to vomit, bleed, purge, and scarify them at Pleasure, whether they would or no, just as these established Judges of Health should think fit? If this were the Case, what a Stir and Hubbub should we soon see kept about the established Potions and Lancets? Every Man, Woman, or Child, though ever so healthy, must be a Patient, or woe be to them! The best Diet and Medicines would soon grow pernicious from any other Hand; and their Pills alone, however ridiculous, insufficient, or distasteful, would be attended with a Blessing.

It’s easy to see why the Cato Institute may have chosen its name. Essentially, according to Cato, as long as a man is not harming anyone else, government should not interfere in his actions. Considering this narrow prescription, governments that step outside of their lawful authority become illegitimate. Circling back to the 59th letter, Cato writes:

All governments, under whatsoever form they are administered, ought to be administered for the good of the society; when they are otherwise administered, they cease to be government, and become usurpation. This being the end of all government, even the most despotick have this limitation to their authority: In this respect, the only difference between the most absolute princes and limited magistrates, is, that in free governments there are checks and restraints appointed and expressed in the constitution itself: In despotick governments, the people submit themselves to the prudence and discretion of the prince alone: But there is still this tacit condition annexed to his power, that he must act by the unwritten laws of discretion and prudence, and employ it for the sole interest of the people, who give it to him, or suffer him to enjoy it, which they ever do for their own sakes.

Man is naturally born in a state of liberty, and he cannot alienate this freedom by consent. The magistrate has a narrow scope under which he can punish.

The right of the magistrate arises only from the right of private men to defend themselves, to repel injuries, and to punish those who commit them: That right being conveyed by the society to their publick representative, he can execute the same no further than the benefit and security of that society requires he should. When he exceeds his commission, his acts are as extrajudicial as are those of any private officer usurping an unlawful authority, that is, they are void; and every man is answerable for the wrong which he does. A power to do good can never become a warrant for doing evil.

This is, once again, a fairly Lockean conception of government. We enter into civil society and convey to the magistrate the right to punish transgressors of the law – those who violate the property and personal rights of others. Beyond this, the magistrate’s power is quite constrained.

This brings us to the precipice of a central question: what recourse do citizens have if the magistrate exceeds his rightful authority? Cato’s answer to this question is one which would reverberate decades later in colonial America, and we’ll address that in the future as well. In the meantime, observe what Cato has to say on restraining the natural impulse of magistrates to exceed their authority in letter 60:

The only Secret therefore in forming a Free Government, is to make the Interests of the Governors and of the Governed the same, as far as human Policy can contrive. Liberty cannot be preserved any other Way. Men have long found, from the Weakness and Depravity of themselves and one another, that most Men will act for Interest against Duty, as often as they dare. So that to engage them to their Duty, Interest must be linked to the Observance of it, and Danger to the Breach of it. Personal Advantages and Security, must be the rewards of Duty and Obedience; and Disgrace, Torture, and Death, the Punishment of Treachery and Corruption.

Cato will repeat this theme frequently in his letters. If rulers govern for their own sake, and care only for their own gain, then they will be prone to abusing their authority. As long as magistrates are concerned primarily with the common good, then the governed will have less to fear.

What’s notable about these letters and their conceptions of the origin of government is how much they presage the Framers. It is impossible not to hear echoes of Publius in these words, or in the words quoted further up above regarding “checks and restraints appointed and expressed in the constitution itself.”

These are radical words: perhaps more radical than Locke, and certainly more radical than Hobbes. This is a libertarian vision of government in which the sovereign authority is extremely constrained, and where checks and limits of said authority are ingrained in the constitution. Hobbes would not have countenanced such a limit on the sovereign’s authority, whereas Cato has made clear that abuses of the sovereign authority justify revolution. But more on that next time.

* The text I am using has kept much of Cato’s original grammatical structure.

China Disappears Interpol ex-Chief

As if to confirm what I said in my previous post about disparate treatments of Saudi Arabia and China, you’ll note how this news is greeted by radio silence.

The wife of Meng Hongwei, incumbent president of Interpol who has been detained in secret by China, says she is not sure her husband is alive after he disappeared mysteriously last month, to turn up under investigation in China.

In an emotional interview with the BBC, Grace Meng said she and her children have been waiting for news of Meng Hongwei, who has not been seen or heard from since 25 September when he flew from France to China. “I tell them Daddy is on a long business trip … We want to hear his voice,” she said in an interview published on Friday.

In September she reported her husband missing after he sent her a cryptic message on WhatsApp saying: “Wait for my call,” followed by an emoji of a knife. After French police opened an investigation and Interpol appealed to Beijing for answers, Interpol received his resignation and Chinese authorities announced on 7 October that he was in their custody and under investigation for bribery.

Meng Hongwei was the first Chinese national to become president of the international law enforcement agency, and had been living in France with his wife and two children. He appears to be the latest victim of a years-long anti-corruption crackdown that most observers say is a thinly veiled political purge to root out rivals and officials disloyal to President Xi Jinping.

If you hear about this incident beyond this blog post, it will be a minor miracle.

The Federalist Solution?

It’s never not appropriate to post a scene from the only screen adaptation of a Clancy book that didn’t veer wildly from the novel*, but it seems especially apropos in this current environment.

* Except for the not entirely insignificant difference that in the book the US knows Ramius is defecting, whereas in the movie it’s a good guess on Jack Ryan’s part.

So, things are pretty nuts out there, huh? If you’ve had conversations with just about any other human being who is even remotely tuned in politically, it seems the country is bursting at the seams. Some think we’re on the precipice of a civil war, while others (or at least one other in my comments section) have compared it to the environment leading up to the American Revolution.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think these dire assessments are wide of the mark. Our political discord has been getting testier by the year, and no, it did not begin with the ascension of Donald Trump, nor do I think he necessarily hastened developments (though he certainly didn’t help). Violent fantasies about killing George W. Bush made their way to print and film, and life did not get quieter during Obama’s presidency. A quick perusal of twitter comment threads are a good reflection of the anger boiling over in every direction.

The Kavanaugh confirmation hearing has brought together several different threads, and that is why I believe it has been especially rancorous. Kavanaugh has been nominated to replace Anthony Kennedy, who has been a swing vote on the Supreme Court. Kennedy’s votes on cultural/social issues (which tended towards a leftist/broad interpretation of the constitutional text) and economic/regulatory issues (tending more towards a conservative/textualist approach) are themselves flashpoints in the political and cultural cold war we’ve been living with. And of course Kennedy’s appointment was the result of perhaps the most contentious Supreme Court confirmation battle before this one, when Robert Bork’s nomination was, well, borked by Senate Democrats. Ted Kennedy famously bellowed “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is — and is often the only — protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”

So you can see we’ve had a lot of anger billowing underneath the surface for quite awhile now. Kennedy’s nightmare vision of Bork’s America – to be contrasted with Ted Kennedy’s America, where helpless women are permitted to drown in automobiles just feet from shore – helped sink Bork. After Reagan’s next pick, Douglas Ginsburg, was sunk because of revelations of pot usage (oh for more innocent times), Kennedy became the compromise pick.

And so here we are. The proper role of the Supreme Court, the proper method of interpreting the Constitution, the appropriate scope of the federal government, and dealing with the question of sexual assault and abuse and the levels to which alleged victims should be believed unconditionally: these are just some of the small, minor issues this process has brought to the fore. I can’t imagine why we’re all at each other’s throats over this.

The question all this poses for us is whether we can actually function as something like a united nation in light of all this, or have our politics diverged to such an extent that there is no living with the other side?

Charles Murray was posed a question like this on an episode of Jonah Goldberg’s Remnant podcast, and he hinted at an answer: federalism. Actually, Murray dug a little deeper. He noted that there were liberal (and majority white) urban enclaves such as Portland, Burlington, and Austin who have essentially adopted the “we just want to be left alone” mantra typically ascribed to southern and more conservative outposts. “Keep Austin Weird” is, after all, a popular bumper stickers around that town. The idea is that there is a unique local culture, and outsiders should not come and mess things up.

A good compromise to my ears is that we’ll keep Austin weird as long as we keep the rest of the state an outpost for individual liberty. Refugees from California ought not flee from their state because of the onerous regulatory environment only to come to Texas and vote for the same types of politicians who made them relocate in the first place. In other words, states and localities should be given wide latitude to govern as they see fit without a larger group forcing change upon them.

In a sense this not far from the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity,  which encourages decision making at the lowest (or smallest) level possible. In a nation of 320+ million souls, subsidiarity and its political cousin, federalism, are likely the best answer.

Moreover, this approach would solve the dilemma of one of the other concurrent heated debates: the role of the courts. We’re only having this moment right now because of the awesome power of the courts, and in particular the Supreme Court. The nationalization of every issue and the over-sized role of the Court in arbitrating constitutional disputes are self reinforcing problems. Simply because the other two branches have allowed it to happen, the Supreme Court has become a super-legislature, handing down binding decisions that impact every facet of American life. This is, shall we say, not optimal, and certainly not what the Framers envisioned.

And yet, it feels a bit like saying the solution to our fractured politics is to be a constitutional, federalist America. To save America, America must become America again. While this restoration of the American ideal might sound attractive to me and many of those reading this, it doesn’t exactly satisfy everyone. Furthermore, unless we’re willing to be proponents of the “constitution in exile” theory, it begs the question of how this awesome constitutional design left us where we are today. In other words, maybe bad actors didn’t subvert the constitutional design, but rather the constitution itself was fraught with unresolvable conflicts. To put it in ways that might hurt delicate ears: maybe the constitutional design itself is flawed. Maybe the anti-federalists had it right from the beginning.

When I started this blog post, there was no question mark at the beginning of the title. There is now because as I think through these problems, I’m less certain there is a solution.Then again, as Darwin Catholic put it, catharsis isn’t coming, so maybe we shouldn’t be aiming for it.

I put these questions out there not as a rhetorical ploy. This isn’t a case where I’m throwing out a question about the anti-Federalists only to reply strongly in the negative (or affirmative). I’m genuinely puzzling through these questions even as I type.

It’s easy to sit here and say the Supreme Court should not be the ultimate arbiter of constitutional questions. It is much more difficult to propose ways to curtail some of its authority in ways which would preserve the delicate checks and balances of our constitutional system in a way satisfactory to all – or heck, most. Pundits are supposed to confidently posit world-stopping solutions to all our problems. At this moment in time, I am not afraid to say that I have no easy solution to resolving the growing tensions in American society.