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Diagnosing the Eagle, Chapter III – reclaiming the Constitution

3 January 2008

Chapter II began with a question about America’s strengths by Chet Richards, which he concluded with this assertion (Chet edits the Defense and the National Interest website, now a blog, and writes at his personal blog Certain to Win):

“So my hypothesis is that as long as we tend to the health of our constitutional free enterprise system, our future as a prosperous nation is assured.”

A comforting thought, but perhaps operationally impossible.  In July 2006 I wrote Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, showing that the Constitution is dying and explaining why we do not notice.  In brief:  once we no longer revere the Constitution, or even know what it says, the Constitutional political order in America has ended.  For the past few generations we have slowly drifted towards a different and historically less radical political regime, one of passive subjects (i.e., consumers) and ruling elites.

Although our political mechanisms as yet appear unchanged, our move away from a free enterprise system is more obvious.  To mention just two symptoms…

  • Government regulation benefiting large and politically-powerful enterprises over smaller ones. 
  • Adoption of a “heads we win – tails you lose” financial system.  That is, our elites invest under a system of privatized profits, socialized losses.

As a result of these and other changes, wealth and income concentrates in few hands over time.  The middle class has survived the past few decades by borrowing, and their day of reckoning now approaches.

So I will re-phrase Chet’s question:  can we re-embrace the Constitution?  This post attempts to answer Chet using excerpts from a book I strongly recommend reading, and consider one of the best I have ever read:  The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (1987).  America is an experiment in applied philosophy, and our mistakes have their roots in these theories about the nature of men and the best regime.  The first half of Closing is easy and fun to read, with observations that will strike most readers strongly.  The second is more difficult — and more rewarding for those seeking understanding of our society.  After reading it you might see many things differently, and find evidence of its accuracy in the daily news. 

The next chapters in this series provide different perspectives on our situation.

A Summary of my argument

The Constitution is the greatest expression of the Age of Enlightenment.  At its moment of triumph, Rousseau attacked its philosophical foundation:  the work of Hobbes and John Locke.  A century later, Nietzsche applied the coup de grace to Enlightenment philosophy.  After another century of work by Nietzsche’s successors (e.g., Max Weber, Freud, Heidegger), the Founders would find our conceptual universe both unimaginable and incompatible with their own.  The contradictions between our political regime and our beliefs weaken our ability to think and to act, as individuals and collectively.

How will this situation resolve itself?  We might muddle along until a more vigorous society replaces us.  Or we might take a more difficult path, choosing one of the two possible solutions.  First, we can abandon our current beliefs, reversing two centuries of evolution in philosophy (esp. epistemology, knowledge of what is true) and returning to the Enlightenment worldview — and re-embracing the Constitution.  Second, we can move forward to find a new foundation on which to build our society — and create a second Constitution.

I doubt the former is possible today, as the preconditions for the Founding no longer apply.  That was a unique historical moment, long since passed.

The latter seems the most fruitful and exciting path — and the most hazardous.  Creating a new set of values means staring into the limitless abyss.  Weber tells us that values have no meaning, no foundation, other than what we give them.  Freud tells about the irrational sources of rational thought.  Neither provides a basis for the liberal democratic order we have come to love.  Worse, creating new values is the most dangerous of human activities.  As a cautionary note, the 20th century experiments at this resulted in Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.  But we might have no choice but to venture into this unknown and wild space of the mind, seeking a new foundation for America.

The following snippets just sketch out Bloom’s thinking, a cartoon drawing of a greater work.  Attempting a 1500 word summary of Closing is like pouring the ocean into a teacup. 

Excerpts from Closing of the American Mind.  My comments are in brackets {}.

Modernity is constituted by the political regimes founded on freedom and equality, hence on consent of the governed, and made possible by a new science of nature that masters and conquers nature, providing prosperity and health.  This was a self-conscious philosophical project, the greatest transformation of man’s relations with his fellows and with nature ever effected.  The American Revolution instituted this system of government for Americans, who in general were satisfied with the result and had a pretty clear view of what they had done.  (page 158)

After WWII, at the moment of our greatest triumph, we brought back as spoils from defeated German new ideas — much as defeated Greece brought its philosophy to Rome.

In politics, in entertainment, in religion, everywhere, we find the language commenced with Nietzsche’s value revolution, a language necessitated by a new perspective on things of most concern to us.  Words such as “charisma,” “life-style,” “commitment,” “identity” and many others, all of which can easily be traced to Nietzsche, are now practically American slang, although they, and the things to which they refer, would have been incomprehensible to our fathers, not to speak of our Founding Fathers. … Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines  … {and part of our military doctrine, in FM 3-24}  (pp 146 – 147)

We chose a system of thought that, like some wines, does not travel; we chose a way of looking at things that could never be ours and had as its starting point dislike of us and our goals. … Our desire for the German things was proof we could not understand them. (p 153)

Ideas have consequences.  Age of Enlightenment thought led to the creation and success of the United States.  How will our new beliefs affect American society?  The Left clearly sees the ill effects of this on the Right; the Right sees the ill effects on the Left.  Neither seems to note that these illiberal trends have become woven into the threads of modern America.

Reason in politics leads to the inhumanity of bureaucracy.  Weber found it impossible to prefer rational politics to the politics of irrational commitment; he believed that reason and science themselves were value commitments like any other commitments, incapable of asserting their own goodness, thus having lost what had always been most distinctive in them.  {A view held by many Professors taught or teaching in our great universities, ranging from Thomas Kuhn to many radical feminists} Politics required dangerous and uncontrollable semi-religious value positing {as in the radical Greens who consider humanity itself a blight}, and Weber was witnessing a struggle of the gods for possession of man and society, the results of which were unpredictable. (p150)

Whether this value relativism is harmonious with democracy is a question this is dealt with by never being raised. … Once one plunges in to the abyss, there is no assurance whatsoever that equality, democracy or socialism will be found on the other side. … the conditions of value creation, particularly its authoritative and religious or charismatic character, would seem to militate against democratic rationalism.  The sacred roots of community are contrary to the rights of individuals and liberal tolerance.  (p 154) 

The resulting incoherence in our thinking leads to serious contradictions, fragmenting our personal thinking as well as our society.

More interesting is the coexistence of these opposing sentiments in the most advanced minds of our day.  Nature is raw material, worthless without the mixture of human labor; yet nature is also the highest and most sacred thing.  The same people who struggle to save the snail-darter bless the pill, worry about hunting deer and defend abortion.  Reverence for nature, mastery of nature — whatever is convenient.  The principle of contradiction has been repealed. (p 172)

… we live with two contradictory understandings of what counts for man.  One tells us that what is important is what all men have in common; the other that what men have in common is low, while what they have from separate cultures gives them their depth and their interest. … One is cosmopolitan, the other is particularistic.  Human rights are connected with one school, respect for cultures with another.  … the Ayatollah was initially supported by some here because he represented true Iranian culture.  Now he is attacked for violating human rights {e.g., killing gays} What he does is in the name of Islam.  {p 191}

How did we come by our values?  Perhaps we can find new values that better suit 21st Century Americans!

{Nietzsche taught that} Authentic values are those by which a life can be lived, which form a people that produces great deeds and thoughts.  Moses, Jesus, Home, Buddah:  these are the creators, the men who formed horizons … {That is, there are a “thousand and one” tablets of goals by which one can found a people} … Since values are not rational and not grounded in the natures of those subject to them, they must be imposed.  They must defeat opposing values.  Rational persuasion cannot make them believed, so struggle is necessary.  Producing values and believing in them are acts of the will.  Lack of will, no lack of understanding, becomes the crucial defect.  Commitment is the moral virtue because it indicates the seriousness of the agent.  Commitment is the equivalent of faith when the living God has been supplanted by the self-provided values.  {p 201}

Our society results from forging in the fires of war.  The great religious wars, culminating in the Treaties of Westphalia (1648).  The English Civil War of Cavaliers vs. Roundheads.  The American Revolution.  The American War between the States.  Perhaps shaping our society to a lesser degree, WWI and WWII.

Let us hope that the process of developing our next political regime is more peaceful than that which created our current one.  Unfortunately the cost of freedom has often been quite high. 

Conclusion

Describing our dilemma and forecasting its resolution are both far above my pay grade.  I have only one useful thing to say about this:  a democracy requires trust in the American people.  That is, faith in us — collectively — is a prerequisite for belief in the American experiment.  I have this faith, and hence view the future with concern but not fear.

Please comment on this.  Or you can email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com.  I will post interesting comments, anonymously unless you explicitly give me permission to cite you.

Other posts in this series about how to reform America

For all posts on this subject see America – how can we reform it?.

Articles explaining why we need not be afraid

  1. An important thing to remember as we start a New Year
  2. A crisis at the beginning of the American experiment
  3. Washington’s Gift
  4. Good news: The Singularity is coming (again)
  5. Some good news (one of the more important posts on this blog)
  6. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW, chapter I.
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10 Comments leave one →
  1. judasnoose permalink
    13 February 2008 6:40 am

    I think Bloom often gets too much credit for repeating good ideas that he did not originate. This does not detract from the quality of the ideas, and a truth is still true even when repeated by a fool. But when Bloom complains that the lefties have repealed the law of contradiction, I feel an urge to spend several hours writing about why Bloom is in no position to throw the first stone. However, I don’t have time for that, and it wouldn’t advance the cause much.

    The post mentions Kuhn, and Kuhn is part of a very important tradition in American philosophy that includes Quine and Pirsig and involves thinkers you haven’t mentioned, such as Berkeley. (I could also spend several hours writing about why Berkeley was better than Locke in every way, but I really don’t have time and I wouldn’t convince anyone who didn’t want to be convinced.) I think that tradition is one of America’s finest cultural contributions to the world, but I am sorry to say that the torch might be dropped by Americans and picked up by some other folk. (I have heard rumors that Geo. Washington read Berkeley. I can hope that America’s founding involved a lot of Berkeley. If so, fear not: Berkeley’s contribution to thinking will be remembered and elaborated, even if every American forgets it.)

    As for faith in the American people — they are God-fearing and seek the right. But they are in demographic collapse. If, in 30 years, they are mostly dead and sickly and their land is overrun with non-integrating mestizos — how much faith ought we to have that the Americans will persist as a people? If native-born Americans collapse demographically, who exactly will carry on their reverence for the Founding Fathers? Will the gang-bangers of MS-13 suddenly imbibe reverence for Jefferson by standing on Virginian soil?

    A Second Constitution might require a Second Enlightenment — in itself not a small task — before the political upheavals can begin. Those who love liberty might well take on forms of social organization that seem very unfamiliar to modern Americans before they are ready for a Second Enlightenment.

    As for the values that built America — America was built by people who were not afraid to till the soil, chop the trees, and manufacture a wide variety of things from the primary resources. The values of the artisan and the farmer formed America just as much as war. American manufacturing is a ghost of its former glory. If you want Americans to rediscover their values, I suggest that they should rebuild their manufacturing base.

  2. 13 February 2008 2:59 pm

    Thank you for an interesting comment. A few brief replies…

    Bloom said that he was merely conveying the thoughts of others, writing for a general audience about books that his readers would never open. He saw himself as a “middleman” in the intellectual process, a teacher — respectable since creators are very rare.

    Americans are not in demographic collapse. Our fertility is aprox at replacement rate. Even for peoples in deep demographic decline (e.g., Japan, Russia) thirty years is too soon for the effects you describe to appear.

    A second American Republic requiring a second Enlightenment … that is a great insight, worth some thought. Perhaps we have reached the limits of the first Enlightenment, with the critiques of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Marx.

    I don not see why a service and knowledge-based economy cannot nourish the traditional American values. But that is also an interesting idea, worth some thought.

  3. judasnoose permalink
    15 February 2008 8:13 am

    I owe you some serious research, but for starters, let me throw out a bit of Steve Sailer and sketch out my nightmare scenario.

    Sailer:

    in the economic boom year of 2000, the total fertility of women residing in America (2.13 babies per woman) exceeded the replacement rate for the first time since 1971. The fertility rate of women who were American citizens, however, was below replacement. Non-Hispanic white fertility stood at a recent high of 1.88 – much better than the European average, but still below replacement. Hispanic women in general averaged 3.11 (the highest figure seen since at least the 1980s) and women of Mexican descent 3.27. (The fertility of women of Mexican descent is higher in the U.S. than in Mexico, and shows no clear signs of declining any time soon.) That’s 74% higher than the non-Hispanic white rate, but the effective difference is even larger because women of Mexican origin tend to give birth at younger ages, so their generation length is shorter.

    Source:
    http://www.vdare.com/sailer/buchanan_book.htm

    Now here’s my nightmare:
    Suppose America’s reverence for the Enlightenment, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers depends on a healthy, native-born, mostly white community? Suppose in ten years or twenty years, there are not enough traditionally-minded Americans left to keep the Constitution from being thrown out? What if the majority of Hispanic immigrants prefer La Raza and MS-13 to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin?

    White America appears to be in demographic decline, although hyper-conservative Mormon whites appear to like kids more than hyper-liberal culturally Marxist whites.

    Mind you, the decline of whites could signal a return to traditional Christianity if the new Hispanic majority decides it’s going to be traditionally Catholic and produce brown-skinned JFK types who see no conflict between Catholicism and Americanism. It could turn out like a dream, not a nightmare. Maybe the new Hispanic majority will idolize Ding Chavez, memorize the Declaration of Independence, and make an effort to forget Spanish in order to emphasize their identification with red-white-and-blue Americanism.

    All the above is just a down payment on the serious research I owe you. You make a good point — maybe manufacturing isn’t central — I need to see if I can write a good argument about that. I’ll try to get on that task this weekend.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: this data on US fertility is wrong (too optimistic). See my post below.

  4. OldSkeptic permalink
    15 February 2008 9:49 am

    Judasnoose, I made the same point in an earlier thread. Take out high immigrant birthrates, the extraordinarily high teenage birth rates (mostly from poorer people in Southern States) and then the birth rates of ‘normal’ US citizens are nothing to write home about (around the EU average). So much for that idiot Spengler’s obsession with religion. Iran is in the same boat as well, as they have got richer and more like us their birthrate had collapsed as well to nowe well below replacement (yet another nail in Spengler’s coffin).

    Fabius and I had a long to and fro about the reasons. I put it down to economics and the fact that our current economic system so financially penalises people for having children that the ‘economically rational’ thing to do is not have any (or no more that one or two).

    The better educated they are (particularly women), the more they realise this and the less children they have.

    Re manufacturing. Here’s a horrible fact. It’s the only area that makes any real money for society. If you don’t make things you are (or will be) a third world country.

    The reasons is that manufacturing has the highest information content or value added. The difference between a Mercedes Benz and some lumps of steel, aluminium (etc) is the information content in it, the collective skills of all the people involved in the transformation.

    There is no money in services (because labour costs absorb nearly all the profit) and very little in finance because the value added is so small (which is why ponzi schemes like the current situation get invented, to make more money in the short term).

    To put it in simple terms, as a German said to me about Australia (Germany does have large manufacturing and a trade surplus), “How many tons of iron ore do you have to export to buy one Merc. I see so many here and can’t understand why you can afford them”. The answer was, we can’t, we borrow the money (we have a trade deficit and large borrowings as well).

    The US has nearly no manufacturing now that involves exporting and import replacment (honourable exceptions are Zippo lighters and Harleys). Nearly all that survives is involved in ‘defense’ (70-80% from some accounts I have come across). Trouble is, there is no export money in the war industries either. Once you extract all the bribes, Govt grants (e.g. Israel pays nothing for weapons from the US), then every whatever exported loses the US money (which it borrows from elsewhere). They are pure corporate socialism industries that would go under without Govt largese.

    If you don’t make you are going to get poorer (note Australia and the UK are in the same boat, at least Oz has decades of resources to flog off).

  5. OldSkeptic permalink
    15 February 2008 10:11 am

    The US Constitution is dead, which is very sad, because it was a shining example to the rest of the World, that so many people everywhere aspired too.

    The US now officially a Police State (the highest incarceration rate in the world). This example shows that it has happened:

    “Geneva France of Mansfield, Ohio was a 22-year-old single mother of three small children when she met Jerrell Bray. At the time, Bray was dating one of France’s friends. Perhaps in the interest of impressing France, Bray boasted that he could stuff her in the trunk of his car and take her to Cleveland – and she’d never be heard from again. He then immediately asked France out, an invitation she quite sensibly – and predictably – declined. Using a thinly veiled murder threat is an odd come-on of the sort that would occur only to a psychopath, or perhaps to a government employee (or do I repeat myself?). Mr. Bray, a veteran drug dealer, may have been the former. He was definitely the latter, after a fashion: He was an informant working under the supervision of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Lee Lucas. On the basis of Bray’s unreliable word alone, Geneva France and dozens of others were convicted on drug-related charges. …”
    For the rest see: http://freedominourtime.blogspot.com/

    Note that she was convicted only on his say so, there was no physical evidence. Now, there is no difference between this and East Germany (as an example) before the fall of the Wall.

    Now you also have ‘thought crime’ legislation now. How many are going to be banged up because some ‘informant’ says something to someone that you ‘said’ something. You may be US citizens but you can still go to Guantanamo (or all those other places they are building now).

    There is still a chance (and I hope you can pull it off), I’ll know it’s finally over when Fabius, Antiwar.com, DI, CounterPunch and some others suddenly go offline. And Ron Paul gets arrested (or the big money make sure he loses his seat). Note the similarities, Libertarian right wing (my point of view) and the (what I call) the ‘Old Left’ have so much in common and should start working together, or go down together.

    Bad times ahead, very bad times.

  6. 15 February 2008 3:01 pm

    US fertility data — worse than I thought.

    The total fertility rate (TFR) shows the potential impact of current fertility patterns on completed family size. The TFR indicates the number of births that a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have if they experienced throughout their childbearing years the age-specific birth rates observed in a given year. Because it is based on age-specific birth rates, the TFR is age adjusted; it is not affected by changes over time in age composition. The revised TFR declined 2 percent from 2,081.0 per 1,000 women in 1990 to 2,034.0 in 2001 (tables 1 and 2). From 1990 to 2001, the overall TFR never exceeded ‘‘replacement’’ (2,100 per 1,000 women). The ‘‘replacement’’ rate is considered the value at which a given generation can exactly replace itself.

    As is the case for the other measures of fertility, the TFR differed substantially by race and Hispanic origin. Rates for Hispanic and non-Hispanic black woman from 1990 to 2001 exceeded ‘‘replacement’’ every year, whereas the rates for non-Hispanic white and Asian or Pacific Islander (API) women were consistently below ‘‘replacement’’ during that time. For the remaining groups, the TFRs were variable. Nevertheless, while the TFRs of these groups were quite distinct, the TFR declined for all groups between 1990 and 2001.

    Source: “Revised Birth and Fertility Rates for the 1990s” from the US Center for Disease Control (4 August 2003)

    The comments about manufacturing are not correct. Manufacturing as a fraction of the US economy (GDP) has been flat for decades. Both manufacturing output and exports in dollar terms have be steadily rising. What is declining — almost everywhere — is manufacturing employment. I do not have time to run down a good report, but this has some nice long-term graphs illustrating these points.
    U.S. Manufacturing: Challenges and Recommendations” (25 March 2003)

    I agree with the comments above about are fading freedoms. For instance, look at the number of murders by police conductino “no knock” raids on peoples homes — often on weak or no evidence, sometimes on the wrong home.

    To see where we might be going, look at charges against Mark Stein in Canada for accurately reporting speeches by Islamic extremists.

  7. oldskeptic permalink
    16 February 2008 2:38 pm

    Fabius, I had a disagreement with you earlier about the impact of US culture. You underestimated it, I didn’t. But I have a unique view, I’m not American, but have watched it closely for decades and seen its good (and bad) impacts on the world.

    US political culture changed the world, mostly, but of course not always, for the better.

    It’s greatest contribution was HOPE. The reason was that the US for a long time was a ‘shining light’. Not for the reasons the (current) neo-con propagandists say (some sort of Babylon or whatever), but because everyone else in the world knew that is was a country with many problems and failures, but it struggled to overcome them. In those struggles and how it worked on them it gave hope to so many.

    I remember when John F Kennedy died, when my Mother cried. Not for the US, not even for his family, but it was a death of HOPE (though those others came into it a bit because she is a very caring person).

    The US’s ‘shining light’ was because it showed a way to overcome these problems, without (too much) death, or revolution or economic destruction. As an example to the world that was breathtaking.

    I still say the US’s finest hour was when I, as a teenager, sitting up late at night in the UK watched the US senate (live) bring the President, Nixon, to task. I especially remember that wonderful old Southern Senator (Sam Ervin), with his pointed and erudite questions. And John Dean with his dry statement of facts. Watching the Nixon crowd squirm. This was real democarcy and freedom in action and shown in full view to the world. Now that’s a superpower, that’s a leader. They cried out to the world “yes we have problems, yes we have a d**kh**d as a President, but he broke the law and now he is getting justice”.

    Like the Civil Rights movement a decade before, it galvanised the world. Everyone else cried out ‘why can’t we hold our Prime Minster/Premier/etc to the same account as the the US has’. And, like a light that burns out after being used for too long it has gone out. Would be emperers, torturers, killers, they all rejoice (quite a few in the US of course, who hated this example of US freedom, their idea of freedom is ‘obey me’ or die, though tomorrow’s orders will be completely different to today’s).

    And by the way, as an aside, Bin Ladin rejoices in this current failure (he would hate the past actions happening now). One of the few, very, very few, strategists that has ever seen ALL his dreams come true (heck even the finest strategist in the last century, Allen Brooke, didn’t get everything all his own way .. after Eisenhower stuffed it totally in Sept ’44).

    “And the greatest enemies of the US are, and always have been, those Americans who do not believe in their own Constitution and do not follow it with all their hearts and loyalty.”

  8. 17 February 2008 12:39 am

    Perhaps. But there is an alternative view (perhaps a minority view). America will be remembered for the freedoms of its people, for the wealth accumulated by its people. Free in the ability to steer individual lives free of government, clan, and church rules. Freedom to protest the government, but also to work together for community and national goals — from block parties to landing on the moon or crushing the Nazis.

    Events like Nixon’s resignation are minor stops along the way. The civil rights movement of the 1960′s was important, but no more so than the equally great progress of 1940-1960. Our survival is our primary accomplishment, imo

    The “city on the hill” stuff might be true — inspiring others! Who can tell?

  9. judasnoose permalink
    17 February 2008 3:16 pm

    Whoa, sorry I missed the comments for a few days. Fabius, the report you linked at the whitehouse.gov site looks to be more than a little disingenuous. Its major recommendations are:
    1.Make tax relief permanent
    2.Reduce the burden of lawsuits on the economy
    3.Make health care costs more affordable and predictable
    4.Ensure an affordable and predictable energy supply
    5.Streamline regulations to ensure that they are reasonable and affordable (i.e.)
    1. handouts for the rich
    2. lawsuit immunity for the rich
    3. handouts for Big Pharma
    4. Blood for Oil
    5. de-regulation for the rich

    Meanwhile, America’s skilled craftsmen are literally slitting their wrists because they’re unemployed.

    Also note the perfidy of the Federal Reserve in all this. You wrote, “Both manufacturing output and exports in dollar terms have be steadily rising.” But in fact it’s just that the value of the dollar is falling! If you count your wealth in dollars, it’s easy to think your money is growing. If you count it in euros, you see a lack of growth.

    Not that I’ve had any huge insights, but I wrote a bit more about the manufacturing issue with regard to Jeffersonianism at.

  10. 17 February 2008 5:20 pm

    Please, less exaggeration. Unemployment is very low, and it is not true that “America’s skilled craftsmen are literally slitting their wrists because they’re unemployed.”

    US exports are rising even expressed in euros. As a check, manufacturing’s share of US GDP has been flattish for decades — this metric does not use a currency (it is a ratio, unchanged in any unit of expression).

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