Government for the Common Good

John C. Calhoun Statue

American conservatism has come to view Constitutional originalism as a sacrament, and the ‘Founders’ as apostles of light. This view differs only slightly from the left-liberal conception. Both derive from Classical Liberalism, an experiment of theory and a revolt against tradition and convention. The recent crisis of Coronavirus, our brief glimpse at the inability of or neighbors to be citizens dedicated to the common good combined with frantic calls for government actions – all based upon fear and a lack of philosophic foundations, appealing only to progressivism and authoritarianism – demonstrate the errors of conservatism. It is perhaps time to dispense with reverence for the Neoplatonism of the Federalists and replace it with a Burkean, Aristotelian, Thomistic form of conservatism based upon the traditions and conventions of our history. Our experiment with Classical Liberalism was a mistake. It is unraveling, the center cannot hold.

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The Great Unraveling began in the 1990s, perhaps with the changing world order that resulted from the fall of communism. It is often the case that people living in a time of crisis do not fully recognize the transformative nature of the events surrounding them, and this is true today and has been true of most Americans over the last server decades. But it is not true that nobody ever recognizes the meaning; such has not been true historically and it is not true now.

What is true is that the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has highlighted, exacerbated and accelerated the unraveling; it has made it apparent for any that wish to recognize it for what it is. What has happened, government reaction, overreaction, and underreaction, public panic, selfishness, and selflessness are all merely part of a death dance of a way of life and form of government and perhaps the culture itself.

Philosophy is impotent, the prevailing worldview makes discussion of truth impossible – philosophy has failed us. Theology and religion are likewise incapable of helping, without a common language, historically provided by philosophy, the religious viewpoint is alien and unintelligible in the public square – only the Christian can understand Christianity and many of that number get it wrong it seems. Sophists rule us – influencers, ‘journalist’, and pseudo-intellectuals all hold undue sway on the public mind. Technology, social media outlets have only exacerbated this phenomenon, controlling who is validated, who has influence and who is heard. Cicero warned of the dangers of sophists [1], our culture is subjected to them twenty-four hours a day.

One might perhaps dispute the date set above. Surely, the emergence of postmodern ideology in the 1950s could be the mark, or perhaps the New Deal, or any number of other transformative and significant events. All of these played a role, each transformed the Republic in some way, moved it toward something more centralized and more powerful or weakened the Permanent Things of the culture, faith, family, reason, and resilience.  The unraveling is, therefore, not the beginning or cause of the crisis and the transformation that follows, the causality occurred over the last several centuries and was ‘baked’ in from the beginning. This is just the inevitable conclusion, the effect of those causes. The unraveling, is as Calhoun predicted, the natural result of implementing flawed ideas.

The very foundation of our ideas, the dominant political philosophy in America undergirding our system is flawed.[2] “Classical liberalism failed when philosophical thought turned away from the Scottish School toward the German school. This combined with “the acceptance of Neoplatonic ideas of Thomas Hobbes by the Federalist, and their eventual total victory in United States domestic politics and interpretation of the law, combined with other factors such as passions of the Transcendental generation and a progressive increase in bad philosophical ideas in the form of ideologies, completed the destruction of Classical Liberalism/Republicanism and lead to absurdity in economic thought and policy, as well as political theory and politics. These factors affect not only policy and history in the United States but have come to shape geopolitics and history.”[3]

John C. Calhoun was prophetic in his assessment of the ramifications of Federalists’/centralists’ ideas. As Lee Cheek observes, “[John] Randolph affirmed, as would Calhoun more elaborately two decades later, the vision of a moral regime focused upon the idea of subsidiarity (or localism) in political and religious concerns.”[4] Calhoun realized the importance of voting, and majority rule, but also the inherent flaws and deficiencies of such, particularly unanchored by the foundation of community and virtue rooted not in libertine notions of individual freedom (license) but instead upon the traditions borne of ancient liberties and traditions.[5] To Calhoun, the Jacksonian democratic dream had become the American nightmare.[6] Untethered from the tempering virtue that community and tradition might instill upon a people, tyranny, incivility, authoritarianism, waste, and decay must follow.

In his Disquisition and Discourse Calhoun accurately depicted the path the Federalist/Jacksonian and eventually Lincolnian ideologies would lead.

As the Government approaches nearer and nearer to the one absolute and single power, the will of the greater number, its actions will become more and more disturbed and irregular, faction, corruption, and anarchy, will more and more abound; patriotism will daily decay, and affection and reverence for the Government grow weaker and weaker until the final shock occurs when the system will rush to ruin, and the sword will take the place of the law and Constitution.[7]

Calhoun was, it must be admitted, America’s greatest political philosopher. Following closely the tradition of Edmund Burke and influenced by the Scottish School of philosophy and Calvinism, Calhoun stood in defiance to the flaws of Lockeanism, Kantism, Federalism and ultimately authoritarianism. There are certain schools of ideological thought that oppose this view, Jaffites, and Straussians first among those[8], these groups still attempt to vilify and misrepresent Calhoun, attempting to somehow paint him as a progressive.[9] Liberals and progressives disparage and ignore the man, equating him as a manifestation of evil, ignoring what he did and did not actually say.[10] Historians attempt to merely place him as a statesman of a particular time and place, ignoring the centuries of tradition and convention that his political philosophy represented. Modern philosophers, insofar as they seek to understand the ideas of Calhoun at all, almost universally ignore what he had to say. The same is true for academia in general, those so enamored with a narrative of America that celebrates a story of the Enlightenment, Lincoln[11], and platitudes of equity that ignore justice, the common good, individual responsibility, culture, and community.

Despite his detractors and those that have sought to either vilify him or ignore him, Calhoun singularly and above all others in American history framed the proper questions, based upon first principles and right-reason. He not only saw the near-term consequences of the Federalist/Jacksonian approach, but he also foresaw the implications of those weaknesses carried through to their inevitable and natural conclusions. Beyond framing questions and theorizing solutions, as philosophers are apt to do will little practical effect, Calhoun offered tangible and achievable solutions – solutions based upon the convention and history of the American people, not untested, untried and unproven theories of enlightenment and philosophy. Rather tradition-based, practical and workable solutions in the Burkean tradition.

Before the current crisis, America was more divided than at any point since 1850, dangerously divided.[12] The Culture War was lost to traditional-minded Americans many years ago, this became plainly obvious in 2015.[13] The U.S. is too large, too populous and geographically dispersed and diverse, to allow for a minority view. Untethered from the foundation of reason, convention, virtue, and morality and failed by a philosophy that should help disempower sophists and ideologues, the unwashed, ill-educated, un-churched, baseless masses are ill-prepared to weather and event like Coronavirus. Desperation and tyranny must naturally follow.

In the few short weeks since Coronavirus entered the American news cycle, we have observed “conservatives’ calling for government lockdowns of private businesses, the Federal government taking control of the production of industries and debt packages of a scale unimaginable passed without debate. All of this, without objection from the masses, and in most cases to applause and calls for more draconian actions. America, the land of the free and home of the brave, is now, it would appear, the land of the ill-informed and afraid – a people that cry out for authoritarianism.  These cries for government action would not be disturbing if they were based on a moral and philosophical position of justice for the common good. But as Cicero believed, “the stark and undiluted truth, the philosophic truth, may shake the very foundations of a given political order.”[14] This may indeed be true as we may soon see.

Coronavirus did not begin the unraveling, it is not the cause, it is just the conclusion. Everything has changed, the center cannot hold and nothing will ever be the same again. The progressive path we have traveled, now accelerated by Coronavirus but enabled by two centuries of bad ideology will lead to authoritarianism.[15]

If we accept that Calhoun was right in the 1840s and that Lincoln changed the very nature of the Constitution through war and unconstitutional acts in the 1860s[16], progressivism altered the national trajectory in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Roosevelt enshrined socialism into the system in the 1930s and the postmoderns killed the last vestiges of philosophy and right-reason in academia in the 1950s – how then can one claim the unraveling began in the early 1990s? Again, the unraveling is the natural conclusion to all of the events that lead to this point.

There was perhaps a moment, a brief moment in the 1990s when enough men of conscience and reason looked around and realized what was occurring – these men, these few men tried and failed to be heard and make a difference. There was a moment of hope, but the stitches were already beginning to fray.

The 1980s

Alasdair MacIntyre described the state of moral philosophy in his 1981 book After Virtue thusly;

“What we possess…are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both of theoretical and practical.”[17]

If we accept MacIntyre’s thesis, which the subsequent 40 years have proven correct, our view of the 1980s, the hope, the revival, the economic ‘boom’ – all must be reconsidered. None of it was sustainable, not of it turned the tide, it was temporary and ineffective. For many Americans, those in small towns, the reality that MacIntyre observed was less obvious. Ordinary men, “beneficiaries of a culture and community that embrace common-sense as a virtue, know truths that philosophers for centuries have tried in various ways to express. Common-sense is something all men should know; common- sense informs us of certain natural laws, common-sense is God’s gift of understanding.”[18] To these men, that still understood not only the language of morality but its underlying presuppositions, the 1980s were a time of hope, they failed to understand a vast swath of the land could no longer even understand the words they used.

We might then consider the 1980s as something of a false recovery. The United States seemed to have recovered from the doldrums of the 1970s. Boomers had come of age and many came to embrace the premises of capitalism and the American dream. Denominations like the Southern Baptist completed their conservative revivals, allegedly purging themselves liberal theology and apostasy.  But it was an illusion.

In 1980 the U.S. debt began a steep increase, an increase only experienced previously in the Depression, World Wars One and Two, the Civil War and the War of 1812.[19]Government spending increased to a percentage of GDP only surpassed during the Great Depression. Thus 1980 began the debt bubble that continued unabated until the current crisis of 2020. The 1980s appeared prosperous, but they were also destructive. Cutting income while increasing expenditures is a bad economic policy for the individual and governments.

The soul of the culture was in no better shape. Jerry Farwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition took the Christian worldview to the public square and political arena, but to what end? Neither group could cooperate, often working at cross purposes such as the 1988 South Carolina primary. Christians dutifully aligned with one camp or the other to vote for Republican candidates that promised to fight the cultural war, but nothing changed for the better. By the end of the 1980s, the coalitions were falling apart, one after another televangelist was falling into scandal and the church looked as feckless and weak as ever.

The 1990s

Patrick J Buchanan stood before the Republican convention in 1992 and offered prophetic words, “there is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war, is for the soul of America.”[20] Neither Farwell and his group nor Robertson and his cohort supported Buchanan, a Christian that happens to also be Catholic, choosing instead to support the establishment man, the decidedly not Christin nor conservative H.W. Bush. Many traditional-minded Americans heard Buchanan’s words, but not enough. The Great Unraveling had begun.

We saw tanks used on religious dissenters that were just too different, unarmed mothers and their children shot on their front porch at Ruby Ridge by federal agents, the notion of marriage and the family assaulted through don’t ask, don’t tell and America’s burgeoning involvement in global policing – Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo. It also ushered in the age of absurdity and incivility in government with stained dresses, discussions of pubic hair and coke cans in the Senate and impeachment proceedings. These were just small glimpses of the things to come.

Some Americans recognized the danger. Many young Generation Xers left traditional churches to be seduced by the snake oil Peter Drucker, Rick Warren and the Leadership were selling, forming the beginning of the megachurch movement. Southerners rallied to the colors and a revitalized fight to restore the telling of history that had prevailed before the coming of age of postmodern revisionist in the 1960s. A small paleoconservative movement persisted outside of the GOP establishment. Finally, some Americans, reading fully what the changes in the air truly meant formed and joined the growing militia and patriot movement. All attempts to confront the problems with the system that some observed while many ignored. The militia movement was misguided, it was based upon Lackean principles, the meagachurch was a mistake, based upon bad Druckerite ideology – these were misplaced efforts to correct wrongs.

Global War, Recession and the Cultural War

September 2001 changed all of that. Patriotism ran high, many abandoned their militia and patriot movement efforts to support the cause. Neoconservatism fully ascended, pulling many previously traditional conservatives into its camp – because of war. The U.S. passed the most draconian and invasive domestic spying legislation in history, without debate. We sanctioned torture, assassination and prosecuted war on a nation based upon false intelligence and lies. Christian churches never questioned the actions of the Republican party nor the nation. Of the traditional and paleoconservatives from the 1990s, few remained, the Cindy Sheehan’s of the left precluded many right-minded conservatives of principle from considering questioning the continued prosecution and expansion of the wars in the middle east – it seemed unbecoming in a time of war to many.

By 2008 many Americans had grown tired of the War and those that supported it. Christianity in America has tainted itself with the stench of War, corrupt men like Dick Cheney, blind support for big business, and had gotten into bed with the Republican party with no questions asks with the tacit promise of ‘supporting Israel’ and defending the culture. The financial crisis of 2008 was the first evident shockwave of the crisis.  The election of Barrack Obama and the complete loss of the cultural war in 2015 was predictable.

Christianity supported big business, only to be shunned as hateful and bigoted by even Chick-fil-A, blindly supported GOP politicians skilled at doublespeak and lost everything while being associated with the guilt of war greed and corruption. We gained nothing, lost everything and in the end, have been abandoned. For our efforts, nothing was won and everything lost. The system, without moral people, was destined to fail.

The End of the Culture War and the Beginning of Transformation

William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted in The Fourth Turning that in our era we would face a great crisis after the culture war ended, sometime around 2005 give or take a couple of years America would enter the Fourth Turning, initiated by a crisis.[21] It is obvious, in retrospect, that the Culture War was lost by 2005, monuments came down without objection, our speech was restricted – some still stood in opposition but it was the effort of a desperate few, never a fight that could have been won. The application of their theory to previous eras of U.S. and British history makes sense, it works and explains much that history, sociology or economics alone struggle to understand. The financial crisis of 2008 was certainly transformative and informative. It demonstrated the inherent weakness of monetary and fiscal policy, as well as individual ignorance and collective greed. It changed lives and industries and the solutions implemented deepened the weakness of the system.

If Strauss and Howe were correct, 2008 was simply the beginning, 2020 is the culminating event of the turning, the event that will fundamentally transform everything, in the same way, previous crises did. Speaking of what comes after the crisis they predicted to begin around 2020, they predicted that if “America plunges into an era of depression or violence which by then (2030) has not lifted, we will likely look back on the 1990s as the decade when we valued all the wrong things and made all the wrong choices.”[22]  Thus, the early 1990s was identified early in this discussion here as the beginning of the unraveling – we had every chance to see things as they were and make different chances, but failed.

The Zeitgeist of our Era

One need not look far on Twitter and other social media outlets to see the true nature of our fellows. Individuals that once professed conservatism actively call for ‘more government action’, for businesses to be closed by government decree, for the Federal government to do something about production and to speed through unprecedented legislation to manage the economy and send money to Americans. Christians have applauded the arrest of a pastor in Florida for conducting church services. Conservatives are doing this without understanding the philosophical presuppositions toward justice and the common good. Many of these are not calling for a better, more just system, but more of the progressive ideological solution.

We see calls to conduct rent strikes and governments across the land denying individuals the use of their property by forbidding evictions for those that do not pay rent. These same people demanding free housing from others today are the same sorts that will demand food from their neighbors if times were just a bit tougher.

A Republican president and senate lead the way to pass some of the most extreme legislation in the nation’s history. Conservatives support these folks, sustained by hope and guidance from the strangest and most inexplicable public information campaign in American history -Qannon.

These are extraordinary times, and we find, we are surrounded by folks that speak and think not from principles but emotions. Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation of the language of moral philosophy applies across the entire spectrum to ideas and thoughts. It is no longer just the ‘radical’ progressives that clamor for authoritarianism, it is most Americans.

The die is cast, Calhoun was right – we are too big to maintain virtue and tyranny has been our destiny since his fight was lost and his words ignored.

Everything will change, things will get more difficult and some things will fall apart – but this system cannot hold. The center has fallen, our foundation forgotten, the language misunderstood and presuppositions that sustained us to this point are no longer understood.

As we endure the hardships and turmoil to come, perhaps some will look back to Calhoun, perhaps when we finally rebuild and reshape ourselves in the aftermath of all of this – we will learn that locality, community, virtue, and morality are important and they must be sustained by something more than emotion and ideology.

Conclusion

It matters little if the theories of Strauss and Howe are valid in whole or part, or conversely if they are complete bunk. We know some things as fact. We know that modern monetary theory (MMT) has never been tried. However, we do know that in each case when governments have massively expanded fiat currency it had devastating effects. The Qualitative Easing (QE) infinity put in place the week of 23 March 2020 is little different than the monetary policies of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. We know that never in history has the entire world shut down its production and economy. We cannot be certain that the wheels of commerce and production start again without difficulties and consequences. However, we do know that the current shutdowns are unsustainable. We know something more of our fellow citizens, not nearly as many of them as we hoped hold conservative principled positions. Many are willing to sacrifice liberty for the idea of security at the first scare. We know that many are not the resilient sorts that weathered the Great Depression – people are more selfish, self-centered, less grounded, less moral and weaker. We know that when people of that sort are afraid, they can be dangerous.

No matter if Strauss and Howe were correct, it is almost inarguable that this is transformative. It is the logical conclusion to a flawed system that Calhoun predicted in 1842. Conservatives have for too long toiled on the plantation of liberalism. We must come to the realization the strict allegiance to notions or originalism vis-à-vis the Constitution are merely pleas to a document borne of flawed ideology, a revolution, and revolt against tradition and conservatism.[23] Calhoun’s attempts to offer remedies were patchwork offerings that may have succeeded if accepted in the early 19th century, but not now. The crisis we currently face will offer trials, suffering, and challenges, but in the end an opportunity to remake our system according to the real traditions of the founding of America.  We can no longer trust our fellows, those radical liberal divested of any connection to the Divine and unaware of Permanent Things to peddle their flawed ideas of license as freedom and self-interest and identity politics at the expense of the common good. The experiment of the evil twin sisters of Classical liberalism, progressivism, and communism is over.

The best sort of government a fallen and flawed man might craft respects Natural Law recognizes Revealed Law, ensures justice (as opposed to equality) and supports the common-good as a virtue. What we have now does none of that, this crisis and the unraveling demonstrates that indisputably. We should look to Calhoun for commentary and to Burke for inspiration in the coming months and years to craft a new way forward.

Adrian Vermeule writing recently in The Atlantic, facing much debate and reproach, suggests a very Burkean and Calhoun-like solution.

“This approach should take as its starting point substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good, principles that officials (including, but by no means limited to, judges) should read into the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution. These principles include respect for the authority of rule and of rulers; respect for the hierarchies needed for society to function; solidarity within and among families, social groups, and workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions; appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government and society; and a candid willingness to “legislate morality”—indeed, a recognition that all legislation is necessarily founded on some substantive conception of morality, and that the promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority. Such principles promote the common good and make for a just and well-ordered society.”[24]

Calhoun’s contribution to our political philosophy is not finished it seems. If we must have more government, because our fellow man is incapable of being good citizens, as so many now call for. Then let us craft a new system based upon subsidiarity, morality, justice and the common-good; formed from the vestiges of what is good of our traditions and conventions.

______________________________________________________________________

Barry Clark

31 March 2020

@onlyBarryLClark

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[1] Cropsey, Joseph. History of Political Philosophy. United States: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

[2] See, “Liturgy of Liberalism”, Adrian Vermeule, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/01/liturgy-of-liberalism

[3] Clark, Barry, The Rise of Absurdity in Western Philosophical and Political Views (January 22, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3523995 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3523995

[4] Cheek, H. Lee. Calhoun and Popular Rule: The Political Theory of the Disquisition and Discourse. United States: University of Missouri Press, 2004. p. 8. https://amzn.to/2w3agBE

[5] Ibid. p. 18.

[6] Ibid. p. 156.

[7] Calhoun, John Caldwell, and Hemphill, William Edwin. [The papers ] ; The papers of John C. Calhoun. 16. 1846. United States, University of South Carolina Press, 1996. p. 149. “Speech in support of the Veto Power” 28 February, 1842.

[8] See, “Providence and the Straussian Narrative”, https://calhouninstitute.com/providence-and-the-straussian-narrative/

[9] See, Clyde N. Wilson, “Federalists Still Attack Calhoun”,  https://calhouninstitute.com/federalist-still-attack-calhoun/

[10] See, “John C. Calhoun and Slavery as a ‘Positive Good’: What Calhoun Did Not Say”, https://calhouninstitute.com/john-c-calhoun-and-slavery-as-a-positive-good-what-calhoun-did-not-say/

[11] Fletcher, George P.. Our Secret Constitution: How Lincoln Redefined American Democracy. United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 2001. https://amzn.to/39xSTGT

[12] See, “America’s Great Cultural and Political Divide”, https://calhouninstitute.com/americas-great-cultural-political-divide/

[13] See, “The Implications of the “Cowtow” – 1984”, http://barryclark.info/the-implications-of-the-cowtow/

[14] Cropsey, p. 157.

[15] Clark, Barry, From Radical Progressivism to Authoritarianism (December 19, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3506918 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3506918

[16] Fletcher

[17] MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. p. 2. https://amzn.to/33YQW5f

[18] The Philosophy of Commonsense: A Cultural War Primer. The Calhoun Institute., Barry L. Clark, 2019. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Philosophy_of_Commonsense/CK6-DwAAQBAJ

[19] Figure 1 and 2, via http://metrocosm.com/history-of-us-taxes/

[20] PATRICK JOSEPH BUCHANAN, “CULTURE WAR SPEECH: ADDRESS TO THE REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION” (17 AUGUST 1992), https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/buchanan-culture-war-speech-speech-text/

[21] Strauss, William., Howe, Neil. The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. United States: Crown, 2009.p. 272. https://amzn.to/2UyIzu8

[22] Ibid. p. 298.

[23] See, “Beyond Originalism”, Adrian Vermeule, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/common-good-constitutionalism/609037/

[24] Ibid.

About the Author

B.
I am a Southerner, a father, husband, and Christian and retired active duty Army field grade officer; I served for just over thirty years. I spent four years of my youth at The Citadel in Charleston. I am neither a theologian nor a professional historian. I do however ask many questions and endeavor to find answers and I believe, or at least hope, that I think critically and with the understanding that God provides.

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