“Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” — Abraham Lincoln (HT: PBS)
Whittaker Chambers began Witness, the classic account of his time in the American Communist underground, with the declaration: “In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return.” The line was most of all a deep recognition of the power of God to redeem what was once dead. Witness was a landmark account of the evils of Communism but most importantly a description of the bankruptcy of freedom outside of the sacred. “For Chambers, God was always the prime mover in the war between Communism and freedom. If God exists then Communism cannot,” says Richard Reinsch II. And it is Reinsch who reintroduces us to Chambers, the brilliant intellectual, anti-communist, and man of faith in Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary.
After his exodus from the Soviet Communist spy network in Washington, Chambers then outed U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss as a communist, setting up a dramatic espionage trial played out before the nation. Chambers became a household name thanks to a trial that was wrapped in intrigue, treachery, and Cold War drama. Chambers would become a hero for many in the conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. called him the greatest figure who defected out of communism. But Chambers’ pessimism about the future of the West led him to be dismissed by many others, conservatives too.
This pessimist view of the survival of the West against Marxism stems from Chambers’ understanding that the West was abandoning its sacred heritage of Christian thought, and within it, the proper understanding of man. A supposedly free but rampant secular and materialistic society still leads to the same ending as Marxism, outside of God, and unable to explain its reason and purpose for life.
One of the chief takeaways from this book is that there must be more to conservatism than free-markets and limited government. For liberty to be prosperous it must be oriented toward greater truths. Reinsch points out that Chambers understood that the “West must reject Communism in the name of something other than modern liberalism and its foundation in the principles of Enlightenment rationalism.”
Reinsch delves into Chambers prediction of the eventual collapse of the West and his belief that there was a lack of moral fortitude to combat the communist surge. The apparent unwillingness of the free world to sacrifice and suffer for freedom troubled Chambers. He also surmised that the intellectual class possessed a waning ability to articulate a meaningful defense of the ideas and value of the free society.
The United States did indeed emerge as the leader of the free world after the Second World War, rebuilding its former enemies with the Marshall Plan and other programs. Early on, the United States and Western Europe showed a stoic and moral resistance throughout the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and 1949. Future presidential administrations would pledge support for free people who toiled anywhere across the globe. President Ronald Reagan emerged in the latter half of the 20th Century, unveiling his own crusade against communism, making many of the deeper spiritual contrasts with the Soviet system first articulated by Chambers.
Reinsch also notes that while Chambers perhaps underestimated some of the spiritual will and capital to resist and overcome the Marxist onslaught, most of Chambers’s identification of the sickness of the West remained true. Reinsch declares of an America in the 1960s and 1970s:
Racked by mindless violence, strikes, rampant inflation, economic torpidity, and the rapid unfolding of sexual liberation, liberal democracy seemed to display, in acute form, the crisis of a material progress that had been severed from faith and freedom. Thus, the spirit of Chambers’s brooding over the fate of the West retained relevance.
This is evidenced in part by the immense suffering of Hanoi Hilton POWs like Admiral Jeremiah Denton, who in his captivity memoir When Hell Was in Session, described the disconnect of a man who sacrificed so much for freedom and who came out of the dark night with a deep sense of spiritual renewal only to come home to unearth an increasingly secular nation that was also retreating in its ability to defend and define its greatness.
Reinsch even points to further evidence that Chambers was right about the dangerous trajectory of the West when he cites the victory of the Cold War and how that surge of freedom did not posit any great change or realization of a higher transcendent understanding and purpose. While the superiority of markets was temporarily buoyed by the events, socialism has shown a staying power in the West.
Reisnch has crafted an important and essential book for anybody fatigued with the daily grind of hyper-partisan politics. By reintroducing conservatives to a deep thinker like Chambers, he reminds us of the limits of politics as well as the frustrating shallowness it can embody.
Just as markets and small government offer little ability in offering peace and happiness, though they certainly create greater space for a working towards that end, this account is a reminder that the best of conservatism is at its core within the ancient truths that tower above the vain materialism and individualism of secular Western democracy.
Believers can see this clearly when they look at the vanity of a society that prods, primps, and chases after meaning outside of God. Thus, as Reinsch adds, Chambers so wholly understood that “man’s problem was the problem of understanding himself in light of his fundamental incompleteness.” And that problem exists under communism just as it does in democratic capitalism, with its temptations to consumerism and selfishness.
The Marxist Utopian dream was man’s attempt at trying to fulfill its incompleteness with all the wonders and technology of modernity and materialism. The free world still is unable to relocate itself in the proper order. And, as Reinsch declares, this is a great warning to us all. Chambers so thoroughly understood and knew that “man was never more beastly than in his attempts to organize his life, individually and collectively, without God.”
I think that the oppression threatening democracies will not be like anything there has been in the world before….
I see an innumerable crowd of men, all alike and equal, turned in upon themselves in a restless search for those petty, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls….
Above these men stands an immense and protective power which alone is responsible for looking after their enjoyments and watching over their destiny. It is absolute, meticulous, ordered, provident, and kindly disposed. It would be like a fatherly authority, if, fatherlike, its aim were to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood; it prefers its citizens to enjoy themselves provided they have only enjoyment in mind. It works readily for their happiness but it wishes to be the only provider and judge of it. It provides their security, anticipates and guarantees their needs, supplies their pleasures, directs their principal concerns, manages their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances….
Thus, it reduces daily the value and frequency of the exercise of free choice; it restricts the activity of free will within a narrower range and gradually removes autonomy itself from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all this, inclining them to tolerate all these things and often even to see them as a blessing.
Thus, the ruling power, having taken each citizen one by one into its powerful grasp and having molded him to its own liking, spreads its arms over the whole of society, covering the surface of social life with a network of petty, complicated, detailed, and uniform rules through which even the most original minds and the most energetic of spirits cannot reach the light in order to rise above the crowd. It does not break men’s wills but it does soften, bend, and control them; rarely does it force men to act but it constantly opposes what actions they perform; it does not destroy the start of anything but it stands in its way; it does not tyrannize but it inhibits, represses, drains, snuffs out, dulls so much effort that finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as shepherd.
I have always believed that this type of organized, gentle, and peaceful enslavement just described could link up more easily than imagined with some of the external forms of freedom and that it would not be impossible for it to take hold in the very shadow of the sovereignty of this people.
Alexis De Tocqueville, 1840.
Democracy in America, pp. 805-6.
Thomas Jefferson’s long-forgotten theory of state nullification may have found an ideal time for a resurgence, as the Tea Party and other groups advocate limited government as a solution to many of our current problems in health care, the economic crisis, our broken educational system, and the relentless expansion of government. The concept of nullification is simple, yet powerful: That individual states can and should refuse to enforce unconstitutional federal laws; and that the states, not the federal government, should have the final word on constitutional interpretation. The return of this “forbidden idea” (as its contemporary advocates sometimes describe it) represents not only an opportunity for small-government groups like the Tea Party to enact substantial change, but it also provides a unique opportunity those who are serious about a Christian social witness in public life to implement the principle of subsidiarity.
It is in this spirit that Dr. Thomas E. Woods, Jr. writes his newest book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century. Dr. Woods, who has authored two publications for the Acton Institute (the award-winning The Church and the Market and the monograph Beyond Distributism), as well as two New York Times bestsellers, now brings back the tradition of nullification into the public eye.
The seemingly radical idea of nullification flies in the face of nearly everything we have learned about the federal government and the Constitution: that federal authority always supersedes that of the states, that the Supreme Court has the final say on interpreting the Constitution, and that the only way to get rid of undesirable federal laws is to either have Congress repeal them or the Supreme Court overturn them.
However, Thomas Jefferson was convinced that if the federal government had a monopoly on interpreting the meaning of the Constitution, then there would be no certain way to constrain an unconstitutional expansion of its power. What if the constitutional system of checks and balances were to fail? What if, counter to the wishes of James Madison, ambition fails to counteract ambition, and the different branches of the federal government are able to cooperate in increasing the central government’s reach? Rather than wait two, four, or six years until the next election cycle, Jefferson thought, a more “rightful remedy” would be for states to simply declare that the laws in question violated the Constitution, and would not be enforced in said states.
He was not alone in this belief, as one can find the practice of nullification in the earliest years of the Republic. Kentucky and Virginia famously nullified the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. During Jefferson’s own presidency, northern states employed nullification against the total trade embargo imposed by the federal government. During the War of 1812, northern states once more passed resolutions nullifying any potential federal conscription acts. South Carolina passed resolutions nullifying the 1832 “tariff of abominations.” And in the 1850’s, free states frequently invoked nullification in an effort to combat unconstitutional aspects of the fugitive slave laws. Also interesting to note is that southern states did not invoke nullification to defend slavery.
To some extent, this practice continues today. As the Tenth Amendment Center thoroughly documents, dozens of states seek to propose legislation that would prohibit the federal government from enacting health insurance mandates, enforcing some federal gun laws, abusing the interstate commerce clause, and imposing cap-and-trade regulations, among other things. And though these efforts are still underway, supporters of nullification can already point to one success story: over two dozen states openly defied the Real ID Act of 2005, which imposed federal standards on state drivers’ licenses. Though the law is still “on the books,” so to speak, the federal government has given up on enforcement, due to the widespread and extremely overt opposition.
But what does all of this have to do with subsidiarity? At their core, the ideas of nullification and federalism that Dr. Woods invokes echo many of the same concerns that the Church raises in speaking of subsidiarity and the role of the state in society: that there needs to be a just division of responsibilities between different social orders. Social problems should be addressed at their lowest possible level. An unnecessary usurpation of power by, for example, the federal government, undermines the role that state governments should play in resolving some of their own domestic problems.
This principle is often invoked in religious discussion of public policy. The Catholic Church places such great emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church lists subsidiarity as one of the four foundational principles of social teaching. The Church not only exhorts us to respect human dignity, respect the common good, and have solidarity with the poor, but also teaches that we should pursue these social goals in the proper context of subsidiarity:
It is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family, groups, associations, local territorial realities; in short, for that aggregate of economic, social, cultural, sports-oriented, recreational, professional, and political expressions to which people spontaneously give life and which make it possible for them to achieve effective social growth [….]
On the basis of this principle, all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (“subsidium”) – therefore of support, promotion, development – with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place. (185-186)
One can certainly see a similar spirit in the intentions of the framers of the Constitution: the purpose of this founding document was not to provide a new kind of all-powerful entity lording over the states; rather, the states created the federal government in order to serve them as an instrument for promoting the common good – as the Compendium says, to provide “support, promotion, and development.” To discover this, one need look no further than the preamble of 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 defence, 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.”
In the same way, subsidiarity dictates that higher orders (e.g. the federal government) exist to promote and assist lower orders (e.g. states) in developing and protecting the common good. But a political system in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity should have appropriate mechanisms to ensure that the abuse and usurpation of power does not take place. This makes the need for a revival of nullification all the more urgent.
Today’s Tea Party-ers eye with skepticism the intrusions of the federal government into all sorts of matters: guns, education, charity, health care, business regulation, etc. They clamor for change, and will certainly have a substantial impact on the coming electoral cycle. But advocates of limited government should also reflect on which strategies are most effective at introducing real and substantial change. Both Thomas Woods and Thomas Jefferson contend that waiting for a benevolent Supreme Court, President, or Congress is not the right way. States cannot trust the federal government to police itself. They must take a direct role in reeling back federal power. Nullification is the best way to concretely implement the principle of subsidiarity, restore true federalism, and strengthen a truly Constitutional rule of law.
Wired magazine had a lengthy feature in 2004 on a new brand of transit design, specifically the kind that eschews signage and barriers, preferring instead more subtle signals.
Monderman’s point of departure is that human interaction (e.g. gestures, eye contact) are preferable to explicit signage or signals that indirectly excuse us from conscious concern about our fellow travelers. “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”
Monderman’s design philosophy is to embrace chaos, and it’s effective because it allows for a kind of spontaneous ordering to occur. As McNichol writes, “The approach is radically counterintuitive: Build roads that seem dangerous, and they’ll be safer.” It is counterintuitive, but it is in accord with what we know about human nature.
Human beings, when faced with danger, instinctively and naturally slow down and assess the threats with heightened sense and attention. Indeed, self-preservation is a constitutive element in the natural law.
There is still an element of planning in Monderman’s designs, but what is remarkable about them is that they embrace what we know about human beings in toto and not for the purposes of some engineered abstraction (such as homo automobilus or some such).
The kind of planning that allows for free and spontaneous interaction and creates space in which this can happen within the larger framework of the rule of law, in markets as well as traffic intersections, end up being the best because they account for the complexities of human nature. The kind of planning that relies on rigid rules and regulatory edifices, whether on Wall Street or surface streets, tend to incentivize the objectification of human interaction, in which we treat each other as simple means, obstacles, impediments, or resources to be plundered.
Recognition of the other as having dignity, as well as the corresponding power to do us good or ill and their own responsibility to act accordingly, is constitutive of a superior design approach.
This kind of approach works, as I’ve said, because we instinctively recognize the worth of other human beings. The same reason that a bus filled with people must wait for a single person to cross an intersection is the same reason that the rule of law must limit majority rule, or absolute democracy. The rights of the individual must be respected, even when the majority must otherwise wait or acquiesce. A bus full of people on their way to a destination must often first wait for a single individual to go on their way.
In political economy, as Lord Acton writes, “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.” And in traffic economy, the true natural check on absolute democracy might well be the spontaneous order arising out of a seemingly chaotic intersection.
At Public Discourse, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg examines why many European governments are so hesitant to engage in much needed but painful economic reforms – especially reforms that involve diminishing the size of expansive welfare states. The causes are many, but in “Fatal Attraction: Democracy and the Welfare State,” Gregg zeroes in on a potentially damaging linkage between democratic systems of government and the growth of large welfare states that seek to provide economic security to ever increasing numbers of people. Substantive economic reform becomes extremely difficulty in these circumstances. Gregg writes:
No doubt, this reflects a disinclination of many European politicians—on the left and right—to concede that the post-war European effort to use the state to provide as much economic security as possible has encountered an immovable obstacle in the form of economic reality. Yet it is arguable—albeit highly politically incorrect to suggest—that it also reflects the workings of a potentially deadly nexus between democracy (or a certain culture of democracy) and the welfare state.
One justification for democracy is that it provides us with ways of aligning government policies with the citizenry’s requirements and of holding governments accountable when their decisions do not accord with the majority’s wishes. But what happens when some citizens begin viewing these mechanisms as a means for encouraging elected officials to use the state to provide them with whatever they want, such as apparently limitless economic security? And what happens when many elected officials believe it is their responsibility to provide the demanded security, or, more cynically, regard welfare programs as a useful tool to create constituencies that can be relied upon to vote for them?
Read more of “Fatal Attraction: Democracy and the Welfare State” on Public Discourse.
I did an interview with the Harvard Political Review several weeks ago. The story is largely a paean to secularism. Steven Pinker even takes credit for democracy as an achievement of secularists. I know. That’s the history you get from an evolutionary psychologist.
To the author’s credit, I was certainly treated fairly. I only wish she’d offered more of our interview to her readers. For those who would like to read it, I have posted it in full over at First Thoughts.