04 December 2015

Thoughts Occasioned by a Phrase of John Adams

(For the past few days I have been struggling to string together some thoughts on American government and the "rule of law".  So far I have only been able to come up with the following fragments.)


In the thirtieth article of the first part of the Massachusetts Constitution written by John Adams (one is almost inclined to write "Saint John Adams"), the founder states the aspiration that the government of Massachusetts "may be a government of laws and not of men".

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The idea of the rule of law expressed by Adams in that wonderful phrase is an old idea.  We can find it in Aristotle and Plato, in the Old Testament, and everywhere human civilization has achieved sufficient peace to cultivate a concern for justice and right order.  The body of laws, whether natural or positive, contingent on social arrangements or universal among all men, serves as a general description of what is right.  By enumerating the laws of public life, or private behavior, and of the sacred rites, authorities in society show us the contours of interpersonal relationships, the communities which arise from them, and the peace or common good which perfects them.  Law teaches us how to live well with each other.  Law is reasonable and universal and founded on the general welfare of society, and therefore stands in contrast to the irrational cupidity and brutal whims of despots.

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The central economic problem of post-industrial society is the problem of the distribution of wealth.  The ever-increasing efficiency of human labor leads to the inevitable concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, as competition leads to the emergence of small numbers of dominant corporations in each area of production.  Because of extreme economies of scale and the obviation of labor through the introduction of mechanical replacements, the result is a situation in which the outward flow of wealth from the production process to laborers and employees is much more narrowly confined than the inward flow of revenue from consumers who need the products sold by the major corporations.  This creates a problem: those involved in the production of consumer goods make money, and increasingly massive quantities of it, but consumers, stripped of any economic connection to the production process, are left receiving goods they can't pay for from an alien production process with no need for their skills or labor.  In post-industrial capitalism, the solution to this problem is to boost the number of commodities consumed by the average person, so that the number of high density production nodes is increased, and more people are more likely to be engaged directly or indirectly in the economy of production, and therefore made capable of participating in the consumption of goods necessary for life.  (Is this a sustainable solution?)

The central political problem of post-industrial society is analogous.  Instead of being a matter of the distribution of wealth, the political problem concerns the distribution of information.  ...

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Constitutional government is what?

A written constitution vs. an "unwritten" constitution... An "unwritten" constitution is still written but exists as a series of principles and precedents established over time, rather than as a single governing charter.  The advantage of such a system is that it gives increased weight to laws in general as being of the same sort as constitutional provisions.

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Focusing on the construction of a system of action rather than in the positive content of decrees.  So that, for example, the adversarial struggle between factions is conducive to compromise and the advancement of the common good.

But — isn't it possible to have such a system without giving up on the notion of authentic natural and divine rights?  Yes, of course.  In fact, I see no clear reason why, if we distinguish between the fixed laws of natural justice and the mutable laws of society based on circumstance and convention, there should not be such a system.  After all, in most cases of positive law, either side is possible with respect to justice, but the adversarial nature of such a system would advance discussion, enhancing the clarity of each side's position and its implications for the common good.

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Isn't Hume's basic idea that the best sort of government will be a government which harnesses men's avarice, pride, and belligerence in service of the common good?  Is there something so wrong with this idea?

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The laws teach us what is right in general.

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What is right vs. What is desired.  One of the problems of modern democracy is that law has become an expression of desire rather than of right.  There is an old truism, that a democracy cannot function properly unless the citizens are well-educated.  This is obviously true, but the education in question is not simply learnedness or even critical thought, but moral education.  A democracy in which the citizenry lacks a sound formation in the principles of right and sound morals will fare poorly, because the moral ignorance of the people will lead them to impose their own spiritual deformity upon the government and the laws, perpetuating the cycle.

Representative Democracy in abstract is a very noble system, because its ability to function well depends not just on the regnative prudence of one man and the obedience of everyone else, but on the prudence and habitual justice of the enfranchised citizenry as a whole, and their willingness with understanding to submit to the decrees of the men among them known to be the wisest.

Again, the destruction of the notion of wisdom, or its corruption into a caricature (the old man with his gnomic utterances) is bad for democracy, because it deprives the people of a common ideal to search for in their leaders.

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What was it Augustine said, in the voice of pagan Rome? "This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquility; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependents, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden."

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The anti-metaphysical thrust of Darwinian evolution—order spontaneously emerging out of disorder by virtue of disorder—is at the heart of Hume's idea, which is the idea of American government: that in deliberations over the best course in positive law, the conflict of desires and interests manifested in the battles among elected representatives in a legislative assembly will spontaneously produce the laws most conducive to the advancement of the common good of society.  The art in designing such a system, then, is to counterbalance many different sets of voices against each other so as to frustrate the attempts of any mob or demagogue to drive the state in some wild and imprudent direction...