July 6, 2010
Independence Day this year made me think about the mixed legacy of Thomas Jefferson on our political system and culture. While in Our Nation's Capital two weeks ago, I took the time to pay a visit to the Jefferson Memorial. The north side of the shrine erected in honor of our third president is presently under construction, because the sea wall facing the Tidal Basin is gradually sinking. Well, the whole area used to be a fetid swamp, so that's not too surprising, I guess.
Anyway, as I entered the main chamber and contemplated the statue of Jefferson, I was struck in particular by this quotation engraved on the interior wall:
Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.
Jefferson is often regarded as something of a "saint" among secular-minded Americans, so those words deserve careful reflection. He is considered a "Deist" who believed that God created the Universe, but does not intervene with miracles, etc. Just because he was a religious nonconformist does not mean that he was a non-believer.
It is interesting that Jefferson's name is often invoked by both parties: Democrats stress his devotion to democratic participation, and to popular education, philosophy, and science. Republicans, meanwhile, stress Jefferson's suspicion of concentrated power and insistence on constitutional restraints on power. Jefferson was not a slavish apostle of rigid, permanent laws, however, and his comments to the effect that occasional rebellions are healthy are potentially problematic. Jefferson was not one of the framers of the Constitution, and indeed he led the Anti-Federalist Party, which was usually called the "Republican Party" back then. It is often referred to as the "Democratic-Republican Party" in history textbooks, but it evolved into the Democratic Party during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Jefferson probably could not have imagined the changed circumstances in American under which a popular majority often favors stronger government and less freedom. He would be totally mortified by this erosion of our democratic civic culture, no doubt.
These are the words of Jefferson that ring the perimeter under the dome, partly visible in that photo:
I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
I'm pretty sure Jefferson would have regarded with extreme disfavor the conformist, hyper-partisan bloggers in Virginia who often invoke his name in the cause of limited republican (small r) government. That goes especially for those who were big fans of "compassionate" (big government) conservatism during the administration of George W. Bush.
Here we go again: the President declares that catastrophe is looming just around the corner unless we enact his proposals right away, and then he goes on a campaign swing cleverly stage-managed to make the skeptics look evil and greedy. This time, however, it appears that the emergency may be genuine and very serious in nature. The harder that President Obama pushes for financial "reform," however, the greater is the skepticism of economic experts, at least the non-partisan ones. Indeed, as the Washington Post reported in April, Obama has every intention of using the financial reform bill for the benefit of the Democratic Party in this fall's election campaign.
The Goldman Sachs debacle is often cited as evidence in favor of the President's reform proposals, but neither his administration nor his party are exactly innocent bystanders. The government announced it was going to sue Goldman Sachs for defrauding its clients. Interestingly, many former Goldman Sachs employees took jobs in the White House or Treasury Department; see the-classic-liberal.com. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats come off looking very good in the tragic sequence of events that has transpired over the past two years.
As for what should be done to clean up the mess, we can only hope that people have learned something from the panicked rescue bailouts of September 2008. As Stephen Pearlstein of the Washington Post makes clear, there are institutional factors behind the scenes that may foil any simplistic remedy. For anyone like me who believes in honest, open free market capitalism (as opposed to pure laissez-faire "law of the jungle"), it is obvious that banks and brokerage houses that were "too big to fail" should have been broken up by anti-trust remedies before they got that big. I just hope the Republicans can use what bargaining leverage they have to keep the intrusive, counterproductive regulations to a minimum, and to enhance the functioning of the markets. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that neither the President nor the members of his party have any real faith in free markets.
When the House recently voted to extend unemployment benefits, in a gesture of "compassion" for the working class, few among the majority party realized that what they were really doing was extending the duration of unemployment. It's a perfect example of the perverse consequences that often arise from misguided noble intentions. Read "Rethinking Jobless Benefits" by Michael D. Tanner at cato.org. Hopefully, the Republicans in the Senate will hold firm on principle, and manage to avoid being scorned as "uncompassionate."