Stephen Michael MacLean represents the Disraeli-Macdonald Institute for Organic Toryism and tweets as @OrganicTory.
Anyone seeking an encapsulation of what faces American voters when they next head to the polls in the presidential election of 2016 — and, indeed, for British voters in the May general election — would do well to read Myron Magnet’s prescription: ‘The great task of politics at this moment is to change the American mind back to a full-throated, rather than embarrassed, belief in enterprise, creativity, freedom of thought, and individualism and its concomitant stress on self-reliance, self-control, and self-improvement.’ It is impossible not to hear echoes of Margaret Thatcher.
Magnet is editor-at-large at City Journal, the flagship publication of the conservative think-tank Manhattan Institute, and recipient of the 2008 National Humanities Medal for ‘renewing our national culture of compassion’ and examining ‘new ways of relieving poverty and renewing civic institutions’ — showing how the 1960s War on Poverty, by supplanting familial and voluntary associations of self-help for government-provided welfare, altered the lives of the poor and marginalised for the worse.
Magnet develops this theme in a recent City Journal essay, taking a broad perspective from the time of the American Founders to the present, and the prospects are not hopeful. He starts with a principle that lies at the core of conservatism — that human perfectibility is a utopian fantasy — then extrapolates into the political realm, showing both the need to restrain these impulses (through government) and how this constraint itself must be controlled.
Our Common Human Foibles…
America’s independence was founded on Enlightenment zeal for liberty and social freedom, grafted onto an older ‘tory’ sensibility of flawed humanity which needs limits — supplied by conscience (‘right reason’) and civilian order — to control its passions. This is why Magnet is sceptical of the ‘basic libertarian claim that the primary human motivation is rational self-interest, especially in economic matters’ — an optimism in man’s inherent goodness that, under the guise of anarcho-capitalism, believes private, contractual enforcement of law is a better option than the all-powerful State.
The commonplace belief among conservatives that humanity is far from perfect — that we fail to live up to the duties and responsibilities required by morality — means that we are not so blithe as to trust to our better instincts alone. Key to both the conservative and classical liberal tradition is maintenance of law and order, the State’s sine qua non. ‘Public safety, protection against aggressors both domestic and foreign, is the first job of government,’ Magnet writes; ‘and any politician who thinks that government is chiefly about redistribution or providing social services doesn’t know his job.’ Thatcher, too, understood the limits of what government could (and should) set out to accomplish. ‘Never believe that big government is necessarily strong government. The opposite is true,’ she once told the audience at a Lord Mayor’s Banquet. ‘Once Ministers meddle in everything, government has neither the time nor the means to do those things which only government can do.’
Herein lies the tension within the conservative and classical liberal political world-view: We need an authority outside our personal biases to contain our worst excesses, yet still within our control so that we remain its master. For the State was organised to promote and protect our freedoms; our freedoms do not emanate from the State. ‘In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this,’ James Madison brilliantly summarised: ‘you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.’
…And the Foibles of State Actors
Magnet devotes much of his essay to this second point, a common tenet of Public Choice theory. People will act in their own self-interest, whether in their private capacity as citizens or in their public capacity, if they are politicians or bureaucrats. ‘Political thinkers from Plato to James Madison well knew that those charged with administering the laws and keeping the peace are made of the same crooked timber as the rest of all-too-human humanity, and governments need to build safeguards against the abuse of their power,’ Magnet observes. ‘In fact, as Madison saw it, those who seek to wield government power are made of perhaps crookeder timber than the rest of humanity, so the less power vouchsafed to them, the better.’
To deny these axioms of human nature is to be beguiled into believing that ‘Government functionaries aren’t power-hungry, self-interested people like everyone else but rather benevolent experts, dedicated to turning the most up-to-date knowledge into programs for the public good.’ It is the age-old question: Who will guard the guardians?
In America, the U.S. Constitution is the principal safeguard of personal rights and liberties but as Madison well-knew, written words were but ‘parchment barriers against the encroaching spirit of power’. Magnet places the final responsibility with those from whom both the Constitution and the State derive — the people themselves. ‘The real Constitution — the one that safeguards the written one against the schemes of omnipresent, power-hungry demagogues — lives in the hearts and minds of the citizens,’ he writes; ‘and parents, teachers, and preachers must never forget their duty to nourish it and keep it vibrant. That is what makes Americans Americans.’
But principled hope endures
Addressing the Joint Houses of Congress in 1985, Thatcher told the assembled politicians: ‘Human progress is not automatic. Civilisation has its ebbs and flows, but if we look at the history of the last five hundred years, …the conscious inspiration of it all has been the belief and practise of freedom under law; freedom disciplined by morality, under the law perceived to be just.’
Myron Magnet shares her scepticism of steady, unbroken progress and her steadfast belief in the core principles which underlie any true human advancement — principles which inspired and undergird the American Constitution.
As general elections loom in the future of the United States and Great Britain (and Canada, a geographic neighbour and Commonwealth realm, respectively), it will be the task of conservatives to remind citizens from where their greatness sprang, where their future prosperity lies, and the tenuous nature of the relationship.
Speaking before another American audience, Thatcher said that ‘few things are more difficult than to inject a sense of personal responsibility in those peoples where the all-pervasive, all-providing, all-controlling state has all but obliterated such qualities.’ But it was worth the effort. ‘The preference for independence and risk, rather than dependence and security, can only be acquired over time. Indeed, freedom and responsibility have to become second nature before they are truly safe. For in the end, the institutions of freedom can only rest on the moral commitment to freedom.’