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What 5 Books Best Describe Your Political Philosophy?

Everyone and their brother comes out with a summer reading list this time of year. I decided it might be an interesting challenge to approach a reading list a little differently. If you were to describe your political philosophy to someone unfamiliar with it, what 5 books would you choose for them to read? It's a difficult task. Here are my 5, each with a brief reasoning:

1. “The Road to Serfdom”- F.A. Hayek

2. “Capitalism and Freedom” – Milton Freidman

These are the two seminal economic texts I would use to explain the importance of the free market, and the consequences of statist interventionism regardless of the motive.

3. “The Federalist Papers” – Hamilton, Madison, Jay

There may be no greater prolonged discussion of the relationship between state and individual, and it is set in the uniquely American context of the creation of the Constitution.

4. “Democracy in America” –Alexis de Tocqueville

This is less a philosophical book in itself, and more of a study and account of the uniqueness of the world’s first modern, free (albeit still imperfect) republic. It also highlights the importance of religious virtue as it relates to a healthy, free society.

5. “Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World” – Jean Bethke Elshtain

By far the most recent work, Elshtain’s book is a wonderfully clear, moral case for the U.S. standing up for freedom against enemies, specifically the extremist wing of Islam. 


Big Government Prevents Recovery

There is a consensus among bankers in China that Chinese CEO’s are more cautious than their western peers.  Many Chinese CEO’s seem reluctant to embrace new ventures, take chances, and encourage innovation.  Despite efforts by the Chinese government to develop an innovative economy, progress has been slow as business leaders are reluctant to take risks necessary to take full advantage of China’s vibrant market.

It’s no mystery why older Chinese CEO’s move carefully.  The first generation of them lived through the turmoil of the post WWII period.  At that time, the rule of law was non-existent, and a strong central government carried out its will arbitrarily.   

Fast forward to present day where China’s government has stabilized the economy and unleashed the capitalist spirit.  Since Deng Xiaoping’s reform began in 1978, China’s GDP has grown at an average rate of 9.3 percent, thanks in part to relatively steady and incremental government policies which above all favor stability. 

The older Chinese CEO’s still have their concerns.  At worst, they fear a return to the volatility of the past.  At best, they fear even the current government could, with a single regulation, wipe out their hard-fought gains.  And so they embrace caution, believing that once they have carved a safe haven for their fortunes, there is no need to invest in unnecessary risks. 

Sadly, in the U.S. an overactive central government has given rise to the same concerns.  As policymakers try to determine why the stimulus has failed to revive the economy, some are wondering why—given the reported reserves of cash in the nation’s companies—CEO’s are not using their resources to pull the economy back.  Why aren’t they investing and putting people back to work?  Fareed Zakaria wonders the same thing.

So why are (businesses) reluctant (to invest), despite having mounds of cash lying around? I put this question to a series of business leaders, all of whom were expansive on the topic yet did not want to be quoted by name, for fear of offending people in Washington.

Economic uncertainty was the primary cause of their caution. "We've just been through a tsunami and that produces caution," one told me. But in addition to economics, they kept talking about politics, about the uncertainty surrounding regulations and taxes. Some have even begun to speak out publicly . . .

One CEO told me, "Almost every agency we deal with has announced some expansion of its authority, which naturally makes me concerned about what's in store for us for the future." Another pointed out that between the health-care bill, financial reform and possibly cap-and-trade, his company had lawyers working day and night to figure out the implications of all these new regulations . . .

Despite Democratic assertions, government meddling does not produce jobs.  Government may borrow from our grandchildren to install temporary positions, but only the private sector can produce the wealth needed for real jobs and a sustainable recovery. 

Only when the wealthy (that’s right, the evil rich) come to believe the market is stable will the economy recover.  Unfortunately, only Obama can put their minds at ease and the great interventionist-in-chief has shown no sign of pulling back on his Big Government agenda.   Until he does—or the voters force him to—expect the economy to fall even farther.



Originalism v. Judicial Arrogance

I once heard a self-described “neo-Marxist” professor complain that Conservatives are always playing the “Hitler card.”  In every diplomatic crisis, he grumbled, Conservatives immediately frame the argument as one between the appeasers of Munich and the clear-minded Churchills.

He did have a point.  Every hostile government is not the Third Reich and every diplomat is not Chamberlain.  We Conservatives would do better to refrain from the WWII rhetoric unless the situation warrants (see, Iran).   Better we understand the basic lessons of WWII and bring out Hitler in extraordinary circumstances.

If Liberals are justified in their frustration with the “Hitler card,” Conservatives can be equally justified in their frustration with the “Brown v. Board card”—the oft-cited case Liberals use each time someone suggests justices should adhere to the Constitution rather than legislate from the bench. 

The latest case in point is Justice David Souter.  As E.J. Dionne reported last week after Souter’s Harvard commencement speech:

Souter attacked the fatal flaw of originalism -- which he relabeled the "fair reading model" -- by suggesting that it would have led the Supreme Court in 1954 not to its Brown v. Board of Education decision overturning legal segregation but to an affirmation of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling upholding "separate but equal" public facilities.

The problem with this argument is that—just as foreign policy can’t rest on the lessons of one war—judicial philosophy can’t rest on the lessons of one case (or even multiple cases, for that matter).  What is important is that a philosophy proves in practical application to consistently produce right results.   A philosophy is a framework, not a rulebook.

Aldous Huxley once said that, “The only completely consistent people are dead.”  At the risk of being inconsistent, then, even the originalist can admit that in hindsight the Brown case was decided justly.  What the originalist cannot admit is that the Brown case somehow gives progressives cart blanche to ignore the framework on which our system was constructed and on which we have lived prosperously for over two centuries.  How arrogant the progressive Liberal who ignores the value of tradition and the wisdom of his forefathers!  These people have an astonishing disregard for the exceptional character of our country and a delusional belief in their own intellect.

Alas, there is a backlash coming against the ambush of “progressive values”—which by the way don’t reflect the values of the founders or the values of average Americans.  Elena Kagan’s harsh poll numbers suggest growing anger against Obama’s agenda to remake the bench and along with it America.  If only we had thought of this in 2008.


On the Constitution

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

For more than two hundred years, the Constitution of the United States has been the bedrock of the American government.  In one document, our Founders laid out their plans for an experiment in the politics of liberty, republics, and equality.  In seven Articles and twenty-seven Amendments, our Constitution expresses to the world our commitment to the ideals of the Revolution: Freedom, the Rule of Law, Equality, and Independence.  It is the document by which we empower our leaders and limit their authority.  It is the Great Treaty that unifies our States, the Guarantor of Rights that guards our liberty, and the Supreme Law that tempers the whims of our government.

The important thing about the Constitution (any constitution) is that it limits the scope of government.  Every government has a structure, even in dictatorships.  While we Americans are justifiably proud of the checks-and-balances structure of our government, no measure of institutional balance would help if even one of the branches had authority to do anything it wanted.  The measure of a constitutional government is the ability of the Constitution to place effective limits on the power of the government.  By and large, the U.S. Constitution has been effective.  Because of constitutional guarantees, our government has respected many of our rights even when it would have been politically convenient not to do so.

The Constitution is designed to guard against tyranny.  It was delicately balanced to avoid emergence of factions, states, presidents, or judges with enough power to oppress the American people as the English had or as the States had under the old Articles of Confederation.  As a result, the best way Americans can ensure their liberty is usually to advocate for a strict adherence to the Constitution.

Think of how powerful that is!  Americans are incredibly fortunate to have a pro-liberty Constitution in place, giving us a stable government and articulating so many rights at the same time.  All we have to do is hold our government accountable for the promises of the Constitution and we will be free.  Americans have an enormous advantage in the fight for liberty compared to many other nations, because our Founders had the foresight to enshrine liberty and limited government as the fundamental values of our political system.

All that being said, let me give a few words of warning to those who believe that the Constitution holds all of the answers for the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  Having a good Constitution does not, in and of itself, preserve our liberty or ensure limited government.  It is a significant step in that direction, and make no mistake, the American Constitution is wonderful.  But strict adherence to the Constitution must be subordinate to our other principles. 

The Constitution was not divinely inspired.  It has been wrong in the past, and in some ways it is not quite optimal even now.  For the first seventy-six years, the Constitution allowed slavery to exist in this country, and other racially charged provisions like the “three-fifths compromise” are still an embarrassment.[1]  Some provisions are so vague that they are almost useless, like the Ninth Amendment.  The much-lauded structure of our government is fundamentally different today than it was in 1789 – thanks to the 12th and 17th Amendments, for example, we elect the President and Vice President on the same ticket, and we elect Senators by popular vote, neither of which were part of the Constitution the Founders set up.[2]  Even with protections of liberty, there are some places where the Constitution falls short of perfect, like by failing to explicitly protect our privacy, by tying gun rights (somehow) to militias,[3] and by allowing for the suspension of writs of habeas corpus (in admittedly extreme circumstances).[4]

This is the point: for all of its virtues, the Constitution is imperfect.  Over the years we have adjusted it, changing one provision or another to deal with our changing needs.  But even with our years of development and experience, it is still imperfect.  To venerate the Constitution as an end to pursue is a mistake.  I worry that too many conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Party activists, in their enthusiasm for a return of government to strict Constitutional standards, forget that the Constitution itself is not the prize.  The Constitution is merely a means to other ends.  The Founders understood that; they wrote it into the preamble.  The Constitution was established as a tool to “secure the blessings of liberty.”  Those principles and values in the preamble are the ends for which we strive.  Liberty, justice, security, prosperity, equality – these are the values we must fight for.  When the Constitution stands for them – as it usually does – we fight for the Constitution.  But when it is wrong, we should not revere it so much as to falter in our principles.  And we must not allow ourselves to forget that the Constitution can be wrong – as it has been before.  That is why we have the amendment process, after all.

So, as we approach the mid-term elections, we should hold our candidates up to the standards of the Constitution to see how they measure up.  But even as we do that, we have to make sure that the values and principles that our candidates serve are the right ones.  The important thing is that our leaders use constitutional provisions for the furtherance of liberty, not just to attract voters who hear “constitutional government” and come running.



[1] U.S. Const. Art. I, Sec. 2.

[2] See U.S. Const. Art. II, Sec. 1.

[3] U.S. Const. Amendment 2.

[4] U.S. Const. Art. I, Sec. 9.


On The Individual

By: John W. Simmons

As this mid-term election year heats up, the political sphere is becoming more and more splintered.  New Senator Scott Brown won his seat for Massachusetts in no small part by distancing himself from the GOP establishment.[1]  President Obama’s healthcare initiative fell apart amid criticism from the left wing of his own party that it did not go far enough,[2] while the more “moderate” democrats in the Senate commanded millions in political favors and held up the bill in favor of more moderate provisions.[3]  Senator John McCain’s daughter, Meghan, is taking heat this week for calling herself a “Progressive Republican.”[4]  A controversial National Convention is threatening to split up the Tea Party movement, which has been struggling to maintain its distance from the GOP anyway.[5]  It is becoming more and more difficult to keep track of all of the different views within the two major parties.

This is the time in our electoral process when party primary rivals try to out-radical one another, with Republicans jockeying for position farthest to the Right, and Democrats racing Left.  In a few short weeks those same candidates will be running to the center, vying for independent voters with the same vigor that they pursued their party’s most ardent ideologues.  We live in a polarized America – the most polarized it’s ever been with a first-year president.  Americans are farther Right and Left than they’ve ever been, and politicians don’t even know where they are.  But the worst problem is this: we’re not even using the right scale.

Politics should not be measured by “Left” and “Right.”  The best way to understand the political spectrum is on a scale from “Individualism” to “Collectivism.”  The real question is whether a candidate wants to use political power for the protection of the individual, or for the advancement of the community.  At first glance, this question seems easy.  Why wouldn’t we work together?  Shouldn’t the greater good outweigh the interests of the individual?  Shouldn’t the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one?  The answer to all of these questions is undeniably, “Yes!”

Unfortunately, collectivism in politics is an inherently state-centered philosophy.  To say that the needs of the many should outweigh the desires of the few is to say that you know what the needs of the many are.  People who advocate for policy in the name of the community invariably are asking the government to enforce their view of what society should be and where society should go.  Efforts to plan and direct the directions of countries in the name of the common good generally lead to tyranny of everyone.  On the other hand, protecting each person as an individual leads to a freer, flourishing society.  Why?  Because using the coercive power of the state to promote any given end necessarily and artificially chills the benefits of alternative directions, but when individuals are left to themselves, they can pursue conflicting ends without arbitrary obstacles.  When you take care of the flowers, the garden takes care of itself.

There will be other places to discuss exactly how and why and individualist society is superior to a collectivist one.  Benefits of things like free markets, private property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and political participation all flow from the principle of individualism.   For the moment, it is most important to see that the state should set individual rights and interests above collective interests simply because each person is valuable as an individual, and failure to recognize that value is a threat to liberty.  We believe that “all men are created equal,” but implicit in that statement is that all men are created people.  Each person has dignity and value as an individual, regardless of his circumstances, his history, his race or his creed.  To pursue a policy in which the individual’s interests are cast aside in favor of a group interest (as determined by mere individuals) is asking for tyranny. Collectivism requires the state to determine winners and losers and to enforce that decision over everyone. 

The problem with the conventional Left-Right political spectrum is that it only asks, “What should the government place above the individual?”  Leftists would sacrifice the individual for material equality, environmental protection, and other things.  The Right is often just as ready to sacrifice the individual for security or for moral or social order.  As we move into primary and election season, we need to begin asking not just when, but how much we should value the individual.  There will always be pet projects and politically expedient policies that will tempt one side or another to put forth a collectivist policy.  There are even cases in which collective action is entirely justified.  But if we fail to understand that basic human dignity can only be measured on the individual level, we risk following the good intentions of either party down a road to oppression that cannot be reversed.