Democracy is less a system of government than it is a system to keep government limited, unintrusive: A system of constraints on power to keep politics and government secondary to the important things in life, the true sources of value found only in family and faith. 
—Ronald Reagan

The most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that, on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does most good or harm. Great good, no doubt, philanthropy does, but then it also does great evil. It augments so much vice, it multiplies so much suffering, it brings to life such great populations to suffer and to be vicious, that it is open to argument whether it be or be not an evil to the world, and this is entirely because excellent people fancy they can do much by rapid action—that they will most benefit the world when they most relieve their own feelings.
—Walter Bagehot

Any discussion of “The Wisdom of the Founders” and the ideal of limited government has to begin by acknowledging a certain irony.[1] There is no doubt that the Founders were deeply concerned to protect individual and states’ rights against the prerogatives of the federal government. For example, James Madison, in Federalist 45, explicitly declared that the powers delegated by the Constitution to the federal government were “few and defined,” having to do mostly with “external objects” like war, peace, and foreign commerce. The powers delegated to the individual states, however, were “numerous and indefinite,” extending, said Madison, to “all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.” Think about that the next time you try to start a business, choose (or refuse) health care insurance, plan for your retirement, or, indeed, buy an incandescent light bulb. The insinuation of the federal government into the interstices of everyday life over the last several decades is something that would have appalled the Founders and confirmed Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous analysis of democratic despotism.

Still, it is worth acknowledging that the Founders, although deeply concerned with limiting the sphere of government power, were also determined to forge a strong and effective federal government. The Federalist, after all, took aim at the abundant anti-Federalist commentary that opposed the proposed U.S. Constitution precisely because, so thought the anti-Federalists, it arrogated too much power to a central authority at the expense of the states. But just this, the Founders argued, was the price of creating and maintaining that “more perfect union” of which the Constitution speaks in its Preamble. “The vigor of government,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the very first of The Federalist Papers, “is essential to the security of liberty.” The goal, he put it later on in The Federalist, is “a happy mean” which combines “the energy of government with the security of private rights.” As the legal scholar Jeremy Rabkin reminds us in his response below, that energy is particularly critical when it comes to issues of national security and defense. The Manhattan Project was not, and could not have been, a local initiative.

Nevertheless, there is widespread, if hardly universal, acknowledgment that our problem today is not to assure the “energy of government,” but quite the opposite, to redress the balance, to re-establish that “happy mean” Hamilton spoke of, by asserting the legitimate jurisdiction of private rights against a rampant and engorging bureaucratic Leviathan.

As I thought about this essay, a couple of lines kept recurring to me. One line came towards the end of October 2008 when the then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama addressed a throng of supporters and told them they were only a few days away from “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

“Fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” What could that mean? At the moment he spoke, the United States was the mightiest, richest, most secure, and most freedom-welcoming republic in the history of the world. If someone were to come along and effect a fundamental transformation of this country, could he succeed without impinging on one or more of these achievements? Of course, people say a lot of things on the campaign trail that they do not really mean. So one question would be, how serious was Barack Obama when he spoke about “fundamentally transforming” this country? I believe that the last two years demonstrate beyond cavil that he was utterly in earnest.

What the Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels calls Obama’s “shock and awe” statism has gone a long way towards transforming this country: towards changing its status as a world power, its economic vibrancy, its hospitableness towards business and entrepreneurship, and above all, perhaps, its commitment to limited government and individual freedom, to what the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States called “the blessings of liberty.” How astonishing, for example, that the state should propose to fine you if you do not choose to purchase a health insurance policy deemed suitable by the state. How amazing that the state in America should oust the head of a private corporation, that it should tell banks how much they may pay their employees, or use the taxpayers’ money to reward people for buying certain brands of automobiles produced by companies of which the state is part owner. These are extraordinary innovations, dangerous to the ideal of limited government and dangerous, too, to the life of freedom.

The critical issue—and the primary spur to the discussion that underlay our deliberations in “The Wisdom of the Founders”—revolves around the proper relationship between the individual and the state in a modern democracy. That relationship is now up for fundamental renegotiation. How the negotiation between individual liberty and state power is resolved will determine the sort of polity we bequeath to posterity.

Rahm Emmanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, made headlines when he declared, in the midst of the recent economic meltdown, that, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” What he meant was that a crisis makes people anxious and vulnerable and that it is easier in periods of crisis to exploit that vulnerability and push through initiatives to enlarge government. Which is why in periods of crisis one should, if one is prudent, exercise double diligence about acting hastily. As the British politician and journalist Daniel Hannan recently observed in The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America, “most disastrous policies have been introduced at times of emergency.”

Consider the precipitate actions of New Deal Democrats under FDR. Today, many commentators acknowledge that the sudden expansion of the government and proliferation of burdensome new business regulations hampered business, retarded new hiring, and prolonged the Depression. FDR and his minions, Hannan notes, were in the grip of “one of the most dangerous of political fallacies: the idea that, at a time of crisis, the government’s response must be proportionate to the degree of public anxiety.”

A prudent government, on the contrary, ought to temper that anxiety with dispassionate judgment. How often have you heard a politician or government bureaucrat tell you that “Doing nothing is not an option”? In fact, as Hannan rightly observes, “Doing nothing is always an option, and often it is the best option.” This was something that Calvin Coolidge—perhaps America’s most underrated president—acknowledged when he said to a busybody aide: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” Amity Shlaes has more to say about Coolidge below.

The point is that it is far, far easier to establish than to rid oneself of any bureaucracy, and, of all mankind’s bureaucracies, the hardest to kill are government bureaucracies. When the economic crisis broke in the fall of 2008, the United States was quick off the mark to spend more, borrow more, intervene more in business, and impose a raft of paralyzing new regulations. In the past year and a half, President Obama has greatly expanded the size and intrusiveness of the federal government, has spent trillions of dollars—trillions—and has, under the rubric of health care “reform,” put another nearly 20 percent of the American economy under the control of Washington. I think ruefully of Thomas Jefferson’s advice: “To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.” Which will it be?

In the aftermath of November’s election, President Obama several times pleaded with opponents to “put politics aside.” I know there is a cynical interpretation according to which this admonition was merely Chicago-style political hypocrisy. Perhaps that is part of the story. But I think there was something more or other than hypocrisy involved. I think that President Obama was sincere. Like many friends of humanity, Barack Obama believes that politics are what his opponents—those whom he in an unguarded moment recently referred to as “enemies”—engage in. His occupation is less politics than benevolence. Essentially, he believes, he has already “put politics aside.” Sure, it might be necessary to indulge in politics occasionally to get things done, but his goals, he believes, transcend that grubby, partisan business. They occupy, he thinks, a realm of virtue that may guide politics but is not subject to politics’ selfish imperatives.

Thus when it comes to tax policy, President Obama has said that the chief issue is not raising revenue, but “fairness.” He just wants, as he famously told Joe the Plumber, “to spread the wealth around,” never mind that the wealth in question is not his to spread.

Let me return to that word “benevolence.” It is critical to an understanding of the assault on limited government we have witnessed in recent decades. Barack Obama is a type of the benevolent ruler. Not the most thorough-going type—America has thus far been spared that—but a recognizable specimen nonetheless. This may seem paradoxical. Isn’t benevolence a good thing? Let’s think about that for a moment. Benevolence is a curious mental or characterological attribute. It is, as the philosopher David Stove observes in What’s Wrong With Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment, less a virtue than an emotion. To be benevolent means—what? To be disposed to relieve the misery and increase the happiness of others. Whether your benevolent attitude or action actually has that effect is besides the point. Yes, Stove says, “benevolence, by the very meaning of the word, is a desire for the happiness, rather than the misery, of its object.” But here’s the rub: “the fact simply is that its actual effect is often the opposite of the intended one. The adult who had been hopelessly ‘spoilt’ in childhood is the commonest kind of example; that is, someone who is unhappy in adult life because his parents were too successful, when he was a child, in protecting him from every source of unhappiness.”

It’s not that benevolence is a bad thing per se. On the contrary, it’s just that, like charity, it works best the more local are its aims. Enlarged, it becomes like that “telescopic philanthropy” Dickens attributes to Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. Like other such benefactors, Mrs. Jellyby’s philanthropy is more ardent the more abstract and distant its objects. Africa excites her benevolence. When it comes to her own family, however, she is indifferent to the point of callousness.

The sad truth is that theoretical benevolence is compatible with any amount of practical indifference or even cruelty. You feel kindly towards others. That is what matters: your feelings. The effects of your benevolent feelings in the real world are secondary. Rousseau was a philosopher of benevolence. So was Karl Marx. Yet everywhere that Marx’s ideas have been put into practice, the result has been universal immiseration. His intention was the benevolent one of forging a more equitable society by abolishing private property and, to adapt President Obama’s famous phrase, by “spreading the wealth around.” Every Marxist society has spread it wide and spread it thin. Hence Ronald Reagan’s observation that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

An absolute commitment to benevolence, like the road that is paved with good intentions, typically leads to an unprofitable destination. My epigraph from the great nineteenth-century English essayist Walter Bagehot underscores the point: it is a melancholy occupation, observed Bagehot, to ask whether the benevolence of mankind actually does more good than ill. It makes the purveyor of benevolence feel better—where by "better" I mean "more smug and self-righteous." But it is unclear whether the objects of benevolence are any better off.

Just so with the modern Welfare State: a sterling incarnation of the sort of abstract benevolence Stove anatomizes. It doesn’t matter that the welfare state actually creates more of the poverty and dependence it was instituted to abolish: the intentions behind it are benevolent. Which is one of the reasons it is so seductive. It flatters the vanity of those who espouse it even as it nourishes the egalitarian ambitions that have always been at the center of Enlightened thought. This is why Stove describes benevolence as “the heroin of the Enlightened.” It is intoxicating, addictive, expensive, and ultimately ruinous.

The intoxicating effects of benevolence also help to explain the growing appeal of politically correct attitudes about everything from “the environment” to the fate of the Third World. Why does the consistent failure of statist policies not disabuse their advocates of the statist agenda? One reason is that statist polices have the sanction of benevolence. They are “against poverty,” “against war,” “against oppression,” “for the environment.” And why shouldn’t they be? Where else are the pleasures of smug self-righteousness to be had at so little cost?

The intoxicating effects of benevolence also help to explain why unanchored benevolence is inherently expansionist. The party of benevolence is always the party of big government. The imperatives of benevolence are intrinsically opposed to the pragmatism that underlies the allegiance to limited government.

Stove’s argument is that the union of abstract benevolence, which takes mankind as a whole for its object, with unbridled moralism is a toxic, misery-producing brew. “It is only the combination of these two elements,” Stove observes in a powerful essay called “Why You Should Be a Conservative,”

which is so powerful a cause of modern misery. Either element on its own is almost always comparatively harmless. A person who is convinced that he has a moral obligation to be benevolent, but who in fact ranks morality below fame (say), or ease; or again, a person who puts morality first, but is also convinced that the supreme moral obligation is, not to be benevolent, but to be holy (say), or wise, or creative: either of these people might turn out to be a scourge of his fellow humans, though in most cases he will not. But even at the worst, the misery which such a person causes will fall incomparably short of the misery caused by Lenin, or Stalin, or Mao, or Ho Chi Minh, or Kim Il-Sung, or Pol Pot, or Castro: persons convinced both of the supremacy of benevolence among moral obligations, and of the supremacy of morality among all things. It is this combination which is infallibly and enormously destructive of human happiness.

Of course, as Stove goes on to note, this “lethal combination” is by no means peculiar to Communists. It provides the emotional fuel for utopians from Robespierre to the politically correct bureaucrats who preside over more and more of life in Western societies today. They mean well. They seek to boost all mankind up to their own plane of enlightenment. Inequality outrages their sense of justice. They see tradition as the enemy of innovation, which they embrace as a lifeline to moral progress. They cannot encounter a wrong without seeking to right it. The idea that some evils may be ineradicable is anathema. The notion that the best is the enemy of the good, that many choices are to some extent choices among evils—such proverbial wisdom seems quaintly out of date. The result is a campaign to legislate virtue, to curtail eccentricity, to smother individuality, to barter truth for the current moral or political enthusiasm.

For centuries, political philosophers have understood that the lust for equality is the enemy of freedom. That species of benevolence underwrote the tragedy of Communist tyranny. The rise of political correctness has redistributed that lust over a new roster of issues: not the proletariat, but the environment; not the struggling masses, but “reproductive freedom,” gay rights, the Third World, diversity training, and an end to racism and xenophobia. It looks, in Marx’s famous mot, like history repeating itself as farce. It would be a rash man, however, who made no provision for a reprise of tragedy.

The attitude of abstract benevolence is all but ubiquitous in modern Democratic societies. Although of relatively recent vintage, it has insinuated itself deeply into the tissues of the body politic. The modern Welfare State is one result of the triumph of abstract benevolence. Its chief effects are to institutionalize dependence on the state while also assuring the steady growth of the bureaucracy charged with managing government largess. Both help to explain why the Welfare State has proved so difficult to dismantle.

Is there an alternative? Stove quotes Thomas Malthus’s observation, from his famous Essay on Population, that “we are indebted for all the noblest exertions of human genius, for everything that distinguishes the civilized from the savage state,” to “the laws of property and marriage, and to the apparently narrow principle of self-interest which prompts each individual to exert himself in bettering his condition” (my emphasis). Stove observes that Malthus’s arguments (one might quote Adam Smith to the same effect) for the genuinely beneficent effects of “the apparently narrow” principle of self-interest “cannot be too often repeated.”

In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill argued that “justice” required everyone to be “as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator” about his own happiness. But Mill’s great critic, James Fitzjames Stephen, is the wiser psychologist: “If this be so, I can only say that nearly the whole of nearly every human creature is one continued course of injustice, for nearly everyone passes his life in providing the means of happiness for himself and those who are closely connected with him, leaving others all but entirely out of account.” And this, Stephen argues, is as it should be, not merely for prudential but for moral reasons:

The man who works from himself outwards, whose conduct is governed by ordinary motives, and who acts with a view to his own advantage and the advantage of those who are connected with himself in definite, assignable ways, produces in the ordinary course of things much more happiness to others . . . than a moral Don Quixote who is always liable to sacrifice himself and his neighbors. On the other hand, a man who has a disinterested love of the human race—that is to say, who has got a fixed idea about some way of providing for the management of the concerns of mankind—is an unaccountable person . . . who is capable of making his love for men in general the ground of all sorts of violence against men in particular.

The partisans of limited government are suspicious of moral Don Quixotes. They want to preserve a space for private initiative. But private initiative is by its nature inequitable. Some individuals will succeed better than others. That indeed is the point: to encourage innovation and hard work by crowning it with success. Writing in 1800, Thomas Jefferson extolled that “wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, [but] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” A benevolent government, on the contrary, would impose its own restrictions on the “pursuits of industry and improvement,” sacrificing the rights of freedom to the demands of equality.

The larger the stage upon which the melodrama of benevolence operates, the more dangerous its potential. This is something that Henry Kissinger ackowledged when, writing about the new tendency to subject national politics to international tribunals, he warned about the “risk [of] substituting the tyranny of judges for that of governments.” “Historically,” he noted, “the dictatorship of the virtuous has often led to inquistions and even witch-hunts.” The “dictatorship of the virtuous” is a reign created by and supported by benevolence.

I said above that candidate Obama’s promise to set about “fundamentally transforming the United States of America” was one line that often recurred to me when thinking about this essay. Another is an observation from David Hume that Friedrich von Hayek used as an epigraph to The Road to Serfdom. “It is seldom,” Hume wrote, “that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.” America’s drift away from the ideal of limited government as envisioned by the Founders has been gathering force for decades. The fate of limited government and the fate of liberty are deeply intertwined: as one fares, so fares the other. And it is a melancholy fact that the loss of freedom is not only something that is visited upon us from outside: it is something we visit upon ourselves.

Hayek said that one of the “main points” of his argument in The Road to Serfdom concerned “the psychological change,” the “alteration of the character of the people” that extensive government control brought in its wake. The alteration involves a process of softening, enervation, infantilization even: an exchange of the challenges of liberty and self-reliance for the coddling pleasures of dependence. Breaking with that drift becomes more and more difficult the more habituated to dependence a people becomes.

Difficult, but not impossible. It is too early to say for certain, but I like to think there are signs that more and more people are waking up to the wisdom of Madison’s observation, in Federalist 44, that “in the last resort a remedy must be obtained from the people who can, by the election of more faithful representatives, annul the acts of the usurpers.”


[1]“The Wisdom of the Founders: The Fate of Limited

Government in an Age of Uncertainty,” a conference organized by The New Criterion, took place in New York on November 9, 2010. The essays and responses that follow are revised versions of the papers presented at that conference. The editors are deeply grateful to the Thomas W. Smith Foundation for its critical support and also to the Hon. Bruce Gelb, Kenneth Gilman, and Lionel Goldfrank for their support of this conference and the publication of these reflections.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 6, on page 3
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