Wise men and clever men
The spirit of ’76 continues to be snuffed out.
JB: I originally wrote and published this in 2021 as the UK government began easing its COVID restrictions. The only update is to the subtitle and the Independence Hall photograph.
As we emerge from the COVID crisis, we have a good opportunity to reflect on the past year. During the crisis, I often wondered why so many of us were willing to go along with lockdown orders and the other policies used by governments to deal with COVID. I’m not against the measures used, nor do I wish to debate the particular merits or demerits of any specific measure used.
But I am a bit concerned about how easily we submitted to stringent government control over our lives. Unfortunately this may be the sign of a trend that has continued since the beginning of the twentieth century. This is a trend away from individuals making autonomous decisions, towards those decisions being pre-empted by centralised authority. In simpler terms, clever busybodies are sticking their hands into vast areas of people’s lives, ignoring the costs to society at large.
Twenty-five years before he delivered the Gettysburg address, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech that is much less known but painfully relevant to our times. In an 1838 address in Springfield Illinois, Lincoln pondered where the greatest threat lay to the freedom and security of the American people. It was not from external threats, he said, but from internal threats. If the fundamental principles of the American government should fall prey to attack, then “men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity” and “strike the blow” against free government.
Lincoln continued his warning against “towering genius” which “disdains a beaten path,” “seeks regions hitherto unexplored,” and “thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”
That such a leader, or a generation of leaders, would arise at some point in America’s future, Lincoln thought inevitable. The only safeguard against this would be a public sufficiently united, wise, and conscious of where its freedoms came from, “to sufficiently frustrate his designs.” Lincoln was not only referring to political leaders, but intellectual leaders, who have a vested interested in opposing the existing framework—the “beaten path”—precisely because it does not offer a path to the kind of glory or unfettered control that they seek.
These existing frameworks in Western countries expressly deny any individual the power to reorder other people’s lives in accordance with their visions. Leaders seeking the triumph of their visions, or a display of their intellectual prowess, may not necessarily see the such frameworks as targets for destruction, but find them as an incidental obstacle. And if the public, as Lincoln warned, are not sufficiently aware of their liberties, then they will cheer, not shriek, when such frameworks are destroyed in the name of some noble-sounding goal.
It is now a little-known fact that much of the United States Constitution was based on legal and philosophical concepts with long histories in England and the Western world. One of these long-forgotten concepts is the rule of law. This is the stipulation that all laws must be known in advance, and that the authorities may not strike a citizen like a bolt from the blue for breaking a law that he could not have known of in advance.
A good metaphor is a sports game, where the referee applies the laws of the game as they are written, not allowing any of his own opinions or preferences into the decision. He may have a great personal liking for a particular player, or wish to see one team triumph over the other, but he is only a good referee as long as he ignores these preferences in favour of the law.
In countries that hold the rule of law as a central principle, the law itself rules over any particular man or woman who happens to be in a position of power. It is a guarantee of equal processes, no matter what one’s position in society may be—“a republic of laws and not of men,” as John Adams put it when the Continental Congress debated independence in 1776.
But the rule of law has increasingly been eroded in favour of “social justice,” a vision that demands a results-oriented approach. That is because the guarantee of equal processes necessarily precludes any guarantee of particular results. The legal, social, and cultural movements of the twentieth century have generally trended towards the vision of social justice, and have all served to erode the rule of law in the United Kingdom, the United States, and other nations founded on similar principles.
Companies have received penalties for the racial makeup of their employees not matching the preferences of third parties, even if no specific harassment or discrimination can be identified. These penalties may come from a benign desire to ensure companies do not discriminate on the basis of race. But there is no specific action which a company’s managers could have stopped themselves or each other from doing to prevent the accusations of bias and resulting penalties.
Nevertheless, third parties decide that a violation happened in retrospect, by looking at statistics arranged in an arbitrary fashion. It is easy for someone to avoid making offensive remarks or to avoid the rejection of a job applicant based on what they look like, because these are individual actions that a person may be reasonably aware of doing. Courts of law nevertheless condemn people for discrimination because the even distribution found in theory cannot be found in reality. This is not the rule of law. It is the subjection of ordinary people to the rampaging presumptions of their betters.
Some may see such arbitrary judgements as necessary sacrifices for their vision of the greater good, accompanied by lofty phrases such as “that is the price we pay for freedom,” or “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” But there is a lot of evidence that such an attitude points in a bad direction, especially when that attitude spreads through an entire society.
At the heart of the attitude is that all grievances past and present must be addressed, even if the people who actually suffered those grievances died centuries ago. The feeling of being at the head of a moral crusade can make any talk of the costs involved seem unworthy. But as exciting as such crusades may feel, “justice at all costs” is not justice, and calls of “no justice, no peace” from the braying mob indicate a dismissive attitude towards other people’s freedoms.
The French Revolution hinged upon the belief in reason, getting the “right” people into power, and not limiting those power-holders with checks and balances. The end result was the despotism of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, which gave out arbitrary edicts that could override laws, and sent thousands to the guillotine. The leading thinkers of the French Revolution explicitly strayed from ideas central to the American Revolution, such as the rule of law and the separation of powers, seeing them as unnecessary obstacles in the path of reason and progress.
The French Revolution lasted a decade before descending into anarchy and tyranny, while the American Revolution resulted in a country that has lasted for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. The rule of law and the separation of powers have placed a brake on whatever ideology happens to be in the ascendancy, ensuring that people are left alone to live their lives, free from the tyranny of a distant power.
The Constitutional Convention of 1789 was not a seminar on moral philosophy or social justice. It was a meeting of men who were wise enough to see what had caused other republics to fail before they got off the ground. The past century has seen the principles of these wise men superseded by the plans of clever men, demanding more central authority, pre-emption of people’s decisions, and general meddling in the name of social justice.
The lockdown orders of 2020 confined us to our homes and kept us from seeing each other. What could be more authoritarian than that? One can only hope that we remember what makes a society free and just. Growing anger against the meddling social justice types is encouraging. But we must stay vigilant lest we go the way of the French Revolution and not the American Revolution. We can’t afford to let the smug, lofty rhetoric of the clever men drown out the eternal freedoms we inherited from the wise men. Everything depends on it.