Category: General

In his review of Sanford Levinson’s Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) in the Claremont Review of Books, Randy Barnett highlights some of the same features of the US political structure as particularly unique that Lord Acton emphasized. In conclusion Barnett writes of our Constitution:

It is counter-majoritarian by design. Precisely because the founders feared majoritarian fecklessness and abuse, they inserted the veto points to which Levinson objects. Most people today—whether left, right, or libertarian—still fear majoritarian rule. They believe they have more to fear from their political opponents gaining power than they have to gain from putting their friends in office. Indeed, many Americans revere the Constitution precisely because of its counter-majoritarianism—the checks and balances adopted by the founders.

Or in the words of Lord Acton, “Americans dreaded democracy and contrived their constitution against it.”

Here are some other relevant observations from Lord Acton on democracy, federalism, and the Constitution:

For it is a most striking thing that the views of pure democracy…were almost entirely unrepresented in [the American] convention.

Democracy generally monopolizes and concentrates power.

Federalism is the best curb on democracy. [It] assigns limited powers to the central government. Thereby all power is limited. It excludes absolute power of the majority.

Federalism: The only barrier to Democracy.

Federalism: It is coordination instead of subordination; association instead of hierarchical order; independent forces curbing each other; balance, therefore, liberty.

The great novelty of the American Constitution was that it imposed checks on the representatives of the people.

The true natural check on absolute democracy is the federal system, which limits the central government by the powers reserved, and the state governments by the powers they have ceded.

Barnett notes too the resistance to advocating the American form of federalist democracy for other nations.

“While most Americans prefer the safety of our counter-majoritarian Constitution, our constitutional ‘experts’ are happy to urge others to live the truly majoritarian ideal. Now Sandy Levinson is urging Americans as well to adopt a more majoritarian constitution. But maybe the time has come instead to let the rest of the world in on our little secret,” he writes.

Speaking of the “priestly” voice of science,

Given all the atheist militancy raising a ruckus lately, I suppose it isn’t too surprising that I am stumbling upon more regular and more baldly dismissive declarations these days about the ineradicable incompatibility of science and religion among Science’s self-appointed Elite Champions online.

I’ve been a perfectly convinced and rather cheerfully nonjudgmental atheist for well over twenty years at this point, but I must say that I think it is arrant nonsense to claim that scientific and religious practices or scientific and religious beliefs are incompatible, given the overabundant evidence of people who weave them together in their lives every day so conspicuously. A little respect for the facts you claim so to cherish, people?

Check out the rest of “Priestly ‘Science’ and Democratic Politics” from Dale Carrico, Ph.D., a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

Thomas Woods from the Mises Institute blog has posted his thoughts on the Call of the Entrepreneur. Woods praises the film saying, “For once, the moral dimension of entrepreneurial activity is brought to the fore and celebrated. For once the heroes are creators, not political hacks.”

If you haven’t yet heard about the film, check out the trailer at www.calloftheentrepreneur.com!

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Here’s a map of the US that replaces state names with the names of countries with similar GDPs. Pretty fascinating stuff in that it allows a look at just how huge the US economy really is. And it’s a gold mine for trivia buffs…

One of my favorite historians of religion, who has recently acted more as a contemporary observer of religion than an historian, is Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University. His newest book, God’s Continent, takes on the grimmer views of where Europe is headed. The focus is religion, but of course politics, economics, and foreign policy are all tied up in the issue as well. I happen to have a lot of sympathy for the darker view, represented not least ably by our own Sam Gregg (e.g., here and here). My pessimism has been tempered somewhat lately—among the reasons being comments by knowledgeable friends who see something significant in the election of Nicholas Sarkozy in France, and now by Jenkins’ book. But I remain skeptical of the optimistic view; Richard John Neuhaus’s review of Jenkins’ book in First Things gets it about right, I think.

Speaking of Milton Friedman, here’s a link to a paper that looks interesting: “Transcendental Commitments of Economists: Friedman, Knight, and Nef” (HT: Organizations and Markets).

Acton president Robert A. Sirico’s reflection on Friedman’s legacy last year noted, “Friedman was a true Enlightenment disciple and feared that truth claims could lead to coercion.”

Some time ago I posted an entry on remarks made by Fr. David Couturier that I deemed to be wrongheaded. Recently Fr. Couturier contacted me via e-mail offering a courteous and thorough clarification of his statements. By way of correction of my original post, and in light of the topic’s potential intrinsic interest to readers, I’m copying below some excerpts from that message and the ensuing e-mail dialogue.

[Fr. Couturier:] I would like to clarify that I strongly and firmly believe in the Franciscan’s direct and personal charity and love of the poor. After all, St. Francis did not kiss an institution,but a leper! One cannot get more personal than that!

My talk was not meant to suggest that Franciscans abandon charity for and among the poor by direct and personal means of self-sacrificing and theocentrically ordered love. I wanted to challenge Franciscans that we must do more, as well… While it is not our role to offer political solutions, as Pope Benedict suggests, we are to offer rational arguments and the spiritual impulse to all the faithful (including religious) to align all things to the will of Christ’s love,including those things at the social, organizational and political level.

Might I suggest that both Dr. Mirus and yourself misread me (or I was unclear)…

If today we have the means to influence the diplomats of the world when they decide the fate of the poor at the United Nations, can we not perhaps help at that level?…

You are correct in warning us that we ought not let this new level of charity dispense us from our primary obligations. I do not believe that it does and I did not mean to suggest as much…

[Schmiesing:] … Your clarification certainly satisfies me to a large extent, if not completely. I agree that there is no reason for Franciscans (or any other group) to be absent from the political process at any level, nor to refrain from offering “rational arguments and the spiritual impulse,” as you say. I do think that for Capuchins (and all other religious), the emphasis should be squarely on the direct and personal charity that you extol. Actually, the same should be true for all Christians. But the differentiation of the roles of clergy and laity outlined by the documents of Vatican II–among other sources in the Church’s tradition–does suggest that the calling to involvement in political life in general–including, I would think, UN lobbying and so forth–is more properly a lay calling…

[Fr. Couturier:] …I agree with you that religious priests do not and should not have the same role as the laity. The development of political solutions to global problems belongs properly to the laity and not to the clergy. We are not politicians or political leaders… At the same time, we do have a role in promoting peace and justice, in setting out rational arguments, in explaining the Church’s social teaching, and in advancing the opportunities whereby the laity take up their role.

That is precisely what we do at Franciscans International… We explore and explain the Church’s social teaching and reflect on the message of St. Francis and try to apply it to contemporary issues. Remember that the Franciscan Order is largely composed of lay men and women. St. Francis founded three branches of the Franciscan Order: the first Order of men, the second Order of women, and the third order of lay men and women. The majority are lay men and women. They have a right and obligation to live out their baptismal call and thus advocate for social justice and social conversion.

…Over the last number of years, we have brought hundreds of ordinary lay men and women from our poorest missions to speak to the diplomats of the world. The diplomats legislate but are often divorced from the real life situations of the poorest of the poor. We give the poor the training and the opportunity to speak face to face with diplomats. It has a profound impact on diplomats who are accustomed to their diplomatic language to hear the straight talk of the ordinary poor of this world.

I believe this is consistent with the teaching of the Church, a proper role for someone like myself, and is faithful to the roles that the Church has given us…

Over at the Huffington Post blog, David Roberts, a staff writer for Grist.org, describes the relationship between activist causes, like women’s reproductive rights and “sustainable development,” and population control.

Roberts says he doesn’t directly address the problem of over-population because talking about it as such isn’t very effective. Apparently, telling people that they and their kids very existence is the “ultimate problem of all problems” doesn’t resonate very well. It “alienates a large swathe of the general public,” you know, the ones who still have some residual moral sensibilities.

So, instead, Roberts pursues items that he think will ultimately result in lowered populations…a subordination of these causes as means to the greater end. He writes, “Each of these — empowering women and spreading prosperity — is worth pursuing in its own right. Each is a powerful political rallying cry. Each produces a range of ancillary benefits.”

But of course the greatest benefit of them both is that they help in “scaling human population back.”

And as Roberts notes, the connection between radical environmentalism and population control has been devastating for the cause, leading him to conclude that overt population control rhetoric “is political poison.”

His concluding advice? “If you’re worried about population, work toward sustainable development and female empowerment.”

And, I might add, if you are able to similarly disguise a radical environmentalist agenda and separate out the perception of pursuing population control, why not work toward that too?

John Henry Newman called him “by far the greatest thinker America has ever produced,” but I venture to say very few Americans have ever heard of Orestes Brownson. (Acton devotees, of course, are unusually well informed and have seen him featured among our “Liberal Tradition” biographies.)

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., recently deceased, wrote a biography of Brownson some seventy years ago, but there had been little interest in the nineteenth-century Catholic convert from transcendentalism since then—until recently. The unmistakable signs of a rehabilitation of the reputation of Brownson include the Patrick Carey-edited series from Marquette University Press and ISI Books’ new collection of Brownson’s thought in its Works in Political Philosophy series.

Our religious and political rights are uniquely bound up together. Most young Americans, and far too many older native born American citizens, have little or no idea how important this truth really is.

The central idea behind this unique relationship in American political understanding is limited government. This is really what classical liberalism understood and fervently practiced. Modern liberalism has little or nothing to do with this understanding, preferring to stress ideologies that are neither truly liberal nor limited.

The founding fathers fervently believed that we were all created equal, with inherent rights to life and liberty given to us by God. This belief was rooted in both Judeo-Christian beliefs and some elements of Enlightenment philosophy. The securing of these rights was the very basis for a limited government. And a limited government was based upon the understanding that true power arose from the governed who were willing to consent to a just government.

There were some very big differences of opinion among our founding fathers, such as two very different views of America’s future as represented by Jefferson and Hamilton. In some ways these two distinct views clashed in the Civil War, as North and South came to represent these two differing positions. But regardless of these early differences what clearly united the founders was a deep respect for individual rights and for limited government. (more…)