Power without limits: the allure of political idealism and the crumbling of american constitutionalism.

Author:Ryn, Claes G.

For the framers of the U.S. Constitution no task seemed more important than to limit and tame power. The chief reason why they established a government of divided powers and checks and balances was their view of human nature, which was primarily Christian and classical. It seemed to them self-evident that human beings are morally cleft. They are potentially decent, even admirable, but also have darker inclinations that pose a great threat to themselves and others. Human beings cannot be trusted with unrestricted power. The constitutionalism of the framers assumed that the drive for power had to be contained first of all through the self-discipline of individuals, but corresponding external restraints, including constitutional checks, were necessary to protect the public.

Since the adoption of the Constitution American government and society have changed radically. The Constitution still enjoys a kind of ceremonial respect. It is cited as if it possessed an august authority. In actuality, political practice is today so different from the intent of the framers that, in substance, the original Constitution has been virtually suspended. Over the years sometimes tortuous and highly tendentious constitutional interpretation has combined with powerful political and intellectual trends to produce an enormous expansion and centralization of the federal government and a concomitant erosion of checks and balances. The claim that these developments have realized the hopes of Alexander Hamilton is blatantly anachronistic. The American federal National Security and Welfare State with its presidential system bears little resemblance to the scheme of the framers.

The reasons for the change are many and complex. They include the effects of wars, economic and scientific developments, and globalization. The change can also be traced to moral, cultural, and social developments that have had profound, transformative consequences. Briefly put, the way in which Americans today view themselves and the world is very different from what was the case at the time of the framing of the Constitution. That change is far-reaching and goes a long way towards explaining the mentioned political change. One major consequence is a muting of the old American fear of power and the creation of vast new opportunities for politicians who desire more power. Although these developments have distinctively American characteristics, they reflect trends throughout the Western world. Those trends have, in fact, been even more pronounced in Europe.

Although traditional religion and morality have long been in retreat, moralistic language seems more pervasive in American politics today than ever. Few public policy stands are advanced that are not said to be demanded by "justice" or "fairness." To oppose them is to be "greedy," "callous" or "intolerant"--to be morally inferior, even despicable. Moral indignation is, it seems, the favored posture of politicians and pressure groups.

But the moralism of today is very different from the notion of morality prevalent at the time of the writing of the Constitution. The purpose of this article is to identify a powerful strain within this new moralism and to elucidate its role in engendering the transformation of American society and politics. While sharply lessening the old American fear of power, the change has facilitated and even stimulated a desire for power. According to the new conception of morality, it is virtuous to want government, almost always the federal government, to expand its reach. In foreign policy, it is common for American leaders to claim, sometimes with great ideological fervor, that America is exceptional and has a moral mission in the world. American leadership is needed to remake insufficiently "free" and "democratic" countries. According to assertive nationalists, neoconservatives, and liberal interventionists in both parties, America should seek armed global hegemony--not, of course, to indulge a desire to dominate but to fulfill a morally noble destiny. The advocates of uncontested hegemony will deny that they desire, for its own sake, the enormous military power that would be necessary to achieving the stated goal; the need to wield enhanced American power is only incidental to the moral imperative of creating a better world. In domestic politics, many politicians similarly assume that their wish greatly to expand the scope and functions of government has solely moral motives. Here, too, the need to accumulate power at the political center is viewed as merely incidental to wanting a more just society. Yet one might wonder why the desire for moral public policy rarely, if ever, issues in calls for reducing the power of political leaders. So striking is this pattern that it raises the question whether the moralism in question and the wish to expand and centralize power might somehow be integrally connected. Whatever else this moralism might be, is it a subtle way of justifying a desire to rule others?

The purpose of this article is to analyze the "idealism" that has helped transform America and, in particular, to demonstrate that its moral-imaginative dynamic is quite different from its reputation. It would appear that indistinguishable from its ostensible caring for the welfare of others is a desire to direct their lives, indeed, the deepest source of idealism's appeal may be that it is a sense of moral superiority that implies a right to dominate.

To argue this thesis it will be necessary to revisit points that this author has made in other contexts and to recast, combine, and supplement them for the present purpose.

The Old Morality and Its Social and Political Entailments

The traditional Western view of man's moral predicament carried with it a deep ambivalence about power. On the one hand, no political objectives could be achieved without the exercise of power. On the other hand, the prominent lower proclivities of human beings made power potentially dangerous, so that people in political authority had to be subjected to restraint. Both in personal and political life, it was important to foster moderation and a sense of limits. Even the political theory of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), which breaks with the Western tradition with regard to both moral philosophy and the idea of restraints on power, offers a kind of confirmation of an older sense that governments must recognize limits. It never occurs to this advocate of supposedly absolute political rule to extend the sphere of sovereignty beyond matters touching law and order. He is in this respect a kind of forerunner of classical liberalism. In his view of human beings Hobbes rejects much of the older heritage, but in stressing man's wholly egocentrical nature he might be said to advocate a simplified and extreme Augustinianism.

Representatives of the dominant modern notion of political morality do not much worry about possible egotism and ruthlessness in people who seem to them to have the right ideals. They tend to place any dark inclinations outside of the supposedly idealistic and hence benevolent politician, place it among those, especially, who oppose the supposedly moral cause. One of the reasons why virtuous politicians are thought to need great power is to be able to overcome the opposition of recalcitrants.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were acutely aware that the responsible exercise of power had moral preconditions. They feared original sin in themselves as well as others. They hoped that in personal life moral character would restrain the desire for self-aggrandizement, just as in national political life the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution would contain and domesticate the all-too-human desire for power as an end in itself. Personal self-control and constitutionalism were but different aspects of the need to subdue the voracious ego. Freedom and rule of law required republican virtue. They had to be achieved by the members of society over time through protracted inner and outer moral struggle. Freedom and rule of law could not be bestowed as a gift on a people that had not undertaken any of this work. Constitutionalism could be safeguarded in America only through the continuation of the kind of culture that fostered it.(1)

The Framers assumed that for the Constitution to work its institutions had to be manned by individuals who embodied its spirit of restraint. That spirit stemmed from America's unwritten constitution, that is, from the religious, moral, cultural, and social life that had inclined Americans to constitutionalism. To be capable of sustaining the constitutional order those working under its provisions had to be predisposed to virtues like moderation, respect for law, and readiness to compromise. They had to have what this author calls the constitutional personality. The main reason why the U.S. Constitution has become a mere shadow of its old self is that it cannot function as intended without the aforementioned personality traits.

It is important to understand that the moral character that the framers saw as the ultimate protection against arbitrary power and as the source of the constitutional temperament also generated a society of a certain type. Most Americans will vaguely remember that at the heart of Christian morality is the admonition to "love neighbor as thyself." What is commonly forgotten or is not very well understood are the far-reaching social implications of that moral vision. By "neighbor" is meant individuals within the person's own sphere of life, people of flesh and blood with names and faces. We are to treat them as we would like to have them treat us. Note carefully that traditional Christianity does not call upon us to love "mankind" or "humanity," which, by modern, idealistic standards, looks more generous and ambitious. What sounds so nice in modern ears--loving "humanity"--is very different from loving "neighbor" in that its object is not some...

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