Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Did the Framers Work to Avoid "Hypertrophy" of National Government?

I'm looking at yet another book by conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America, based upon his 1988 Jefferson Lecture to the National Council of Humanities for which he was invited in the Reagan era by the then Chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, Dr. Lynne V. Cheney (yes that Lynne Cheney--this gives an idea how the ideological right got such a foothold in the Reagan-Bush 12 years). In this book Nisbet is imagining what would most strike the Framers if they could see the America of today. His imagination leads him to guess they would be most struck by the "prominence of war in American life", "the Leviathan-like...national government", and how "loosely attached to groups" of kinship and community instead of by "the cash nexus."

This list gives an idea why I tend to see Nisbet as in many ways a genuine conservative but one whose analytic powers were blunted by his recognition by and association with modern right-wingers like Reagan and Lynne Cheney. His analysis is suggestive of the themes of a genuine conservatism but he fails to really draw the conclusions an authentic conservative like Peter Viereck would draw because he was too busy consciously or unconsciously protecting his modern sponsors. His mention of "the cash nexus" as the main glue of contemporary America should have led him to oppose someone like Reagan who absolutely glorified business and the search for profit, indeed, the 1980s were dubbed the era of 'greed'. A genuine Burkean conservative would have to be a thorough-going critic of America's devotion to revolutionary industrial capitalism which was the prime force that destroyed local face-to-face groups and made the 'cash nexus' one of the sole social connectors in modern America. If one is worried about the prominence of war in modern America who is more to blame than super-patriotic, hyper-nationalistic Ronald Reagan who devoted so much money to the 'defense' and 'security' establishment? And it is probably the growth of the power of 'defense' and 'security' that have contributed most to the growth of our "Leviathan-like" national government.

Here I want to stress just one point that Nisbet made which I think is flawed: in writing about the "hypertrophy" of our national government (p. xi) he said: "The Framers had worked most diligently to prevent any future hypertrophy of the federal government." Having done a lot of reading lately about the Constitutional period this strikes me as a rather partial and inaccurate generalization. The very purpose of the Constitution was to create a more powerful federal government because of the disatisfaction of 'the Framers' with the perceived decentralization of the Articles of Confederation. Many, if not most, of the arguments at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were over just how strong and centralized the federal government would be. Recall that it was "Federalist" centralizers vs. "Anti-Federalist" decentralizers that marked the parties of that era and it was the "Federalist" centralizers, with a lot of help from 'republicans' like James Madison who won out. In Leonard D. White's The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History he wrote (pp. 13-4):
The event which was seldom absent from memory [in the minds of the Framers at the Constitutional Convention] was Shays' rebellion. The ruling consideration was not the revolutionary ardor of the 1770's but the sober necessity of order, commercial recovery, and fiscal rehabilitation.... A strong executive was attained in the Convention only by the hardest and most persistent fighting. At the outset Edmund Randolph had proposed an executive of three, in order to represent the major geographical divisions and to put the "remote parts" on an equal footing with the center.
As we know this proposal of a three person executive was defeated because the Federalists believed that conflicts and animosities between the three would make for too much conflict and result in inaction. James Wilson "preferred a single magistrate, as giving most energy, despatch, and responsibility to the office [White, p. 14]." Roger Sherman of Connecticut argued (p. 14) "An independence of the executive on the supreme legislature was, in his opinion, the very essence of tyrrany...."

In other words, many at the Constitutional Convention argued against a single executive who would be too independent of the legislature because they feared that would lead to "hypertrophy" of central power and to "tyranny". The power and relative independence and "energy" with which the President might act were precisely the issues fought over at the Constitutional Convention and, as we know, the relatively more centralizing views of the "Federalists" prevailed. This history, it seems to me, cannot support Nisbet's careless generalization that: "The Framers had worked most diligently to prevent any future hypertrophy of the federal government." If they had been diligent about hypertrophy they would have kept the Articles of Confederation or at most amended them (which is actually what the Convention's original instructions requested; they decided themselves to write a whole new Constitution). Or they could have accepted some of the many suggestions made at the Convention which would have weakened the executive and truly tried to "prevent any future hypertrophy of the federal government."

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