There is much more to government than administration

Yuval Levin packs a lot of PoliSci into just a few paragraphs in What is Constitutional Conservatism:

But whereas the progressives championed both technocratic government and direct democracy, the Constitution stands opposed to both. As the framers saw it, both populist and technocratic politics were expressions of a modern hubris about the capacity of human beings — be it of the experts or of the people as a whole — to make just the right governing decisions. The Constitution is built upon a profound skepticism about the ability of any political arrangement to overcome the limitations of human reason and human nature, and so establishes a system of checks to prevent sudden large mistakes while enabling gradual changes supported by a broad and longstanding consensus.Experts should not govern, nor should the people do so directly, but rather the people’s representatives should govern in a system filled with mediating institutions and opposing interests — a system designed to force us to see problems and proposed solutions from a variety of angles simultaneously and, as Alexander Hamilton puts it in Federalist 73, “to increase the chances in favor of the community against the passing of bad laws through haste, inadvertence, or design.”

That such a system is far from populist should be obvious. In Federalist 63, James Madison says plainly that the constitutional architecture involves “the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity” from directly governing. The democratic elements of the Constitution are intended to be checks on the power of government, not expressions of trust in the wisdom of the public as a whole. And even as checks, these elements are imperfect. As Madison argues in Federalist 51, “A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government, but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

But those precautions do not amount to the rule of experts. The framers were disdainful of the potential of technocratic know-it-alls whose abstract expertise was often of value only in what Hamilton calls, in Federalist 28, “the reveries of those political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.” And even men with expertise in administration should not be given too much power. In Federalist 68, Hamilton argues that, while good administration is very important, the idea that the best-administered regime is the best regime is a “political heresy.” There is much more to government than administration.

Thus expert omniscience could not be trusted to check the excesses of popular passion, and public omniscience could not be trusted to check the excesses of expert arrogance. In the view of the framers, there is no omniscience; there is only imperfect humanity. We therefore need checks on all of our various excesses, and a system that forces us to think through important decisions as best we can. This may well be the essential insight of our constitutional system: Since there is no perfection in human affairs, any system of government has to account for the permanent imperfections of the people who are both governing and governed, and this is best achieved through constitutional forms that compel self-restraint and enable self-correction.

This emphasis on moderating forms – that is, the focus on arrangements that impose structure and restraint on political life — is crucial, and it has always been controversial. Indeed, it is what troubled the progressives most of all about our system, and what troubled many other technocrats and populists before them. But as Alexis de Tocqueville noted a century before the New Deal, “this objection which the men of democracies make to forms is the very thing which renders forms so useful to freedom; for their chief merit is to serve as a barrier between the strong and the weak.” And he added, with his usual prescience, “Forms become more necessary in proportion as the government becomes more active and more powerful.” In other words, we need them now more than ever…

It is no surprise that we find the same pattern in our economic and our constitutional debates. In fact, the humble assumption of permanent human imperfections and the humble desire for forms that might prevent large mistakes are at the core of the greatest achievements of the modern age: of constitutional democracy, of the free market, of the scientific method. Yet the most ardent champions of liberalism in our politics have too often failed to see the power of such humility, instead articulating a liberalism rooted in utopian ambitions or their mirror image — naïve resentments — all dressed up as a theory of justice.

The difference between these two kinds of liberalism — constitutionalism grounded in humility about human nature and progressivism grounded in utopian expectations — is a crucial fault line of our politics, and has divided the friends of liberty since at least the French Revolution. It speaks to two kinds of views about just what liberal politics is.

One view, which has always been the less common one, holds that liberal institutions were the product of countless generations of political and cultural evolution in the West, which by the time of the Enlightenment, and especially in Britain, had begun to arrive at political forms that pointed toward some timeless principles in which our common life must be grounded, that accounted for the complexities of society, and that allowed for a workable balance between freedom and effective government given the constraints of human nature. Liberalism, in this view, involves the preservation and gradual improvement of those forms because they allow us both to grasp the proper principles of politics and to govern ourselves well.

The other, and more common, view argues that liberal institutions were the result of a discovery of new political principles in the Enlightenment — principles that pointed toward new ideals and institutions, and toward an ideal society. Liberalism, in this view, is the pursuit of that ideal society. Thus one view understands liberalism as an accomplishment to be preserved and enhanced, while another sees it as a discovery that points beyond the existing arrangements of society. One holds that the prudent forms of liberal institutions are what matter most, while the other holds that the utopian goals of liberal politics are paramount. One is conservative while the other is progressive.

The principles that the progressive form of liberalism thought it had discovered were much like those that more conservative liberals believed society had arrived at through long experience: principles of natural rights that define the proper ends and bounds of government. Thus for a time, progressive and conservative liberals in America — such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine on one hand and James Madison and Alexander Hamilton on the other — seemed to be advancing roughly the same general vision of government. But when those principles failed to yield the ideal society (and when industrialism seemed to put that ideal farther off than ever), the more progressive or radical liberals abandoned these principles in favor of their utopian ambitions. At that point, progressive and conservative American liberals parted ways — the former drawn to post-liberal philosophies of utopian ends (often translated from German) while the latter continued to defend the restraining mechanisms of classical-liberal institutions and the skeptical worldview that underlies them.

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One Response to There is much more to government than administration

  1. Paul Marks says:

    A very good post.

    However, I would not count Thomas Jefferson as a “Progressive” in spite of his democratic ideas (and, of course, Progressives only support democracy when it suits them – if most people are not in favour of bigger government Progressives dimiss the opinions of the “common herd”). Thomas Jefferson had a distrust of all government – including government elected by the people.

    However, Thomas Paine was a democrat (small d) indeed.

    For example, paper money was a bad thing if done by a monarchy – but a good thing if done by a democratic government.

    High taxes were, again, bad – but not if they were the high taxes of a democratic government.

    And on and on.

    Thomas Paine was actually a nice person (for example he was horrified by the murders of French Revolution) but he was no great political thinker. John Adams (and others) were right to dismiss his political philosophy as worthless.

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