Sunday, November 24, 2013

Calvin inKleinAtions

Kelly ponders in his latest, cleverly-named article, Calvin and Hobbes, if the views of sixteenth-century theologian Reformation leader John Calvin toward the poor have infested modern-day America's views of the poor. The implication is, I would think, that those who do not believe government welfare programs are (1) constitutional or (2) proper functions of government do not believe that the poor are worth helping, supporting, etc.

While this proposition is tidy, it is too clever by half and paints a view of the truth both too simple and one-sided. Calvin's theological positions on predestination cannot be used to suggest that Calvin generally blamed the poor for their own plight. While he was a staunch defender of private property as a means for Christians to provide for the needs of themselves and their families, he was just as adamant that Christians should use their earnings over and above their own needs to help the suffering and dispossessed.

In his commentary on Isaiah 58:7 Calvin writes,

Uprightness and righteousness are divided into two parts: first, that we should injury nobody, and second, that we should bestow our wealth and abundance on the poor and needy. And these two ought to be joined together, for it is not enough to abstain from acts of injustice, if you refuse your assistance to the needy, nor will it be of much avail to render your aid to the needy, if at the same time you rob some of that which you bestow on others….

By commanding them to ‘break bread to the hungry’ he intended to take away every excuse from covetous and greedy men, who allege that they have a right to keep possession of that which is their own. ‘This is mine, and therefore I may keep it for myself. Why should I make common property of that which God has given me?’ He replies, ‘It is indeed yours, but on this condition, that you share it with the hungry and thirsty, not that you eat it yourself alone. And indeed this is the dictate of common sense, that the hungry are deprived of their just right if their hunger is not relieved. That sad spectacle extorts compassion even from the cruel and barbarous.

I would submit that Kelly points to a strain in Christian (Protestant) ethics that brings to light a more nuanced difference between liberals and conservatives regarding the role of government in helping the poor. The difference between them is over how to help the poor, not whether to help the poor.

The conservative position draws forth from the old Protestant work ethic that work is a vital expression of service to God and the world and that a person cannot honor who they are in God if they do not contribute to the world through their work. When coupled with the ancient biblical mandate to God's people to make provisions for the poor, we are closer to understanding the conservative position that a man is only whole when he his working in his field of calling (what he was created to do, gifted to do, passionate about, etc) and that the social safety net is there for those who stumble as a temporary hand up to get back on his feet, not a hand out that consigns him to the downward spiral of dependence. This latter destroys a man's (and woman's) sense of self and short-circuits his or her ultimate potential contributions to society. Notice here the importance of the social safety net being provided by civil society, not civil government.

The liberal view that the only way to help the poor is through the government not only works over time to destroy the man and his sense of self and sense of obligation to the community, but it also works over time to destroy the community by creating a permanent underclass of dependence and by diverting the government from its own proper role in providing for the general welfare (the good of society as a whole) and the common defense. The fact that liberals suspect conservatives - or constitutionalists - of not caring for the poor unless they support a myriad of government welfare, wealth distribution programs betrays their own skewed view of government, community and what it means to be human.

Nuclear blast or a blast of sanity?

The Democrats in the Senate this past week voted to restrict the use of the filibuster by the minority Party in consideration of presidential executive and non-SCOTUS judicial nominees. As this blog has called for since 2007, this is a move whose time is past due, especially given the increasing partisanship of Congress and Washington DC and the increased difficulty to move anything legislative along.

What is disappointing, however, is the hypocrisy demonstrated by both Parties on this matter. In 2005, Republicans were decrying the use of the filibuster to stymie President Bush's nominations while the Democrate were clutching to the sacred tool of the minority to defeat the designs of an "imperialist President." Even Senator Obama himself called for the respect of the voice of the minority party. Now that the designs of their own (imperialist? - no more so or less than Bush was) president have been thwarted by the Republicans in the Senate (who now love the filibuster as much as the Democrats in 2005), the Democrats can not believe how unfair and antiquated the filibuster is so moved to change it. "Enough is enough," as President Obama proclaimed.

Well then, fair enough as well. I trust the Democrats will be as faithful to their principled stand today when they next stand as the Senate Minority Party.


Saturday, November 23, 2013


"In the United States, the majority takes charge of furnishing individuals with a host of ready-made options, and it thus relieves them of the obligation to form their own. There are a great number of theories on matters of philosophy, morality or politics that everyone thus adopts without examination, on the faith of the public; and if one looks very closely one will see that religions itself reigns there much less as revealed doctrine than as common opinion."


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Calvin and Hobbes

Have the ideas of John Calvin influenced the current debate over the role of government in the United States?

I've been listening to a course about European history and the development of Western Civilization. It is quite eye-opening how many parallels exist between events from centuries ago and those of today's age.  In the time between the Roman Empire and World War I there was no shortage of princes, kings, empires and the privileged classes that seemingly always surround those in power.  The idea of "the divine right of kings" was accepted on faith, somewhat through theological arguments but I think mostly it was due to the simple fact that people who argue with those in power tend to lead much shorter lives (can we say, gaining an up close perspective with the business ends of blades and/or ropes), so let's call that pragmatism which over time became a matter of custom.  It was just the way things were. 

When Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan he set the world to thinking about new ways to think about the relationship between the state and the individual, like the civil society or the social contract.
So when the reform movement began it was easy to divide the groups into those who fought for change (liberals) and those who defended the status-quo (conservatives).  

While it is informative to review the list of ideas resisted by conservatives, I will leave that for another article.  I want to focus on John Calvin and Geneva. Calvin was one of the reformers who wanted to return to a simpler church, one that focused on the Bible more so than centuries of doctrine and orthodoxy.   Some of the attitudes were that the poor were that way due to some moral failing, and thus shouldn't complain but work to be more pious instead because they must be being punished by God. Calvin believed that the power of the State was needed to insure people would not sin and instituted a rigid set of policies of private behavior along with system of informers to make sure that no sin went undiscovered nor unpunished regardless how small or venial.  Another view was that since everyone's fate was predestined, one should not resist whatever plight might befall but rather embrace it as the will of God.  Both attitudes meant it became easy if not acceptable to dismiss the poor as 'not my problem' or 'they must be lazy'. Calvin's theology was strong enough to being an entire city under his influence, stifling dissent even to the point of burning critics like Servetus at the stake for heresy with very little room for tolerance(*).
That brings me to the modern day and political debates on reformist ideas like minimum wage, healthcare, food stamps, immigration, spending policies, and the like.  In the comment section of some article not unlike one about the Texas healthcare system and its poorest citizens, one commenter bravely described her 3 bouts with cancer, not being able to hold down a job, barely being able to afford cancer treatments - and the someone had the gall to reply with 'get a job!'.  Yes that person may be trolling but the sentiment seems to be a common one these days and it really exposes an attitude by a large number of people who refuse to emphasize with others. Maybe they are so overwhelmed by stories of the downtrodden that they've become convinced that the world can't be that bad and evidence otherwise must be either hoaxes or from swindlers gaming the system.  The danger with this new attitude is that it reveals a callous nature, if not outright selfishness

Here we come full circle, and the question of the day: have the beliefs of Calvin instituted in Geneva been reconstituted in America? 

(*) From the John Calvin Wikipedia article,
Following the execution of Servetus, a close associate of Calvin, Sebastian Castellio, broke with him on the issue of the treatment of heretics. In Castellio's Treatise on Heretics (1554), he argued for a focus on Christ's moral teachings in place of the vanity of theology,[97] and he afterward developed a theory of tolerance based on biblical principles.[98]

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Armies…. being necessary to to the security of a free State….

This clever juxtaposition of the Article I word of "armies" and the Second Amendment's preamble on militias by Akhil Reed Amar in his latest book on the Constitution, The Unwritten Constitution, serves to illustrate the concept of America's unwritten Constitution through deed and action ("We the People .. do ordain and establish…") that Amar seeks to impart in the second chapter of his book. In this case, the national draft is a constitutional exercise of Congress' power to raise armies granted in Article 1 because of the enactment played out in the adoption of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment. After the Civil War, the Union Army played a vital role in reestablishing republican government in the southern states that had rebelled against the constitutionally elected government of the United States and the states that had remained loyal to the Union.

Amar's argument is that the events and acts that lead up to the proposal and ratification of the Constitution and its amendments compose part of the unwritten Constitution that, interwoven with the actual written Constitution, makes up the foundational fabric of American law. He examines the principle by proposing that the Reconstruction Congress reinterpreted the expectations of the Founders underlying the militia system. The militia system had been established by the Founders to be locally-based and under the control of the States in order to preserve the People's freedoms and liberties from centralized tyrants. However, by the 1860's, the militia system had been turned into an instrument of resistance against the federal government and Civil War erupted, turning the Founder's experiment in republican government on its head. The Union Army, an Army which was composed of conscripted soldiers up until the end of the Civil War, helped to bring the Reconstructed South into the Union, and part of their readmission was the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

So because of the events and actions behind the adoption of this important Amendment, the Constitution was reconstructed and the Army, an institution of suspicion in late 18th century America, was given a new place of trust and prominence because of its role in freeing the slaves and the hold slavery had on the liberties and humanity of all Americans.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Essential Problem with the Unitary Executive

Not So Eerie Parallel

By Kelly

The analysis of John Yoo's problem with Elena Kagan reminded me of something I attribute to the Watergate scandal, specifically G. Gordon Liddy. The paraphrase was something like 'The President can not give an unlawful order'. I can't find the quote, I might have it attributed to the wrong person. To be fair I'm basing it on 30-year-old memories but I was quite struck by how there could exist a class of person who was so willing to follow a leader regardless of direction, whether into battle or over a cliff. It is these men who allow their hyper-loyalism to distort their duty to the country; if I had to guess I would say that in their minds the President _is_ the country and what is right for one is automatically right for the other.

In political discourse it has become easy for the newly elected to delude themselves with "I won therefore I must be right" which taken to the logical extreme can become 'might makes right', the damage being to the idea that the entire constituency is the source of power not just the subset of people who agree with you and vote. If tolerence is supposed to be a virtue it must be getting lonely of late. Governing without regard to the minority has long been recognized as another form of tyranny; occurring in a democracy only makes it a minor tyranny whose overthrow is only an election away - but a tyranny still.

True patriots do not ask, "If you are not with us, you are against us", which relies on demagoguery and fear to quell dissent. A true patriot asks, "Is this what is best for the country as a whole?" We are not a country of one mind in complete agreement, of which our founding father's were quite aware, and to progress down the road of history will require those who rule to show respect for the opinions and beliefs of the minorities being ruled, how else to have the respect of the people - for if you show the people your scorn for them, you no longer are deriving your power from them and have begun to take the well-worn steps down the despot's road.


Tuesday, April 03, 2012

American Localism

American Localism

In his book Timely Renewal, James W. Lucas makes a particularly effective case for decentralization of government power and placing governance as close to the people, in geographic terms, as possible. Arguing that large federal government (and its associated suffocating regulations and debt) and large corporations (and their anti-competitive monopolies) have brought declining creativity, productivity and standards of living, Lucas argues for a return of "American localism." Large-scale nationalism and mercantilism have killed the spirits of entrepreneurism and local community. The natural relationships among humans have been severed as integration at greater and ever larger scales abstract us from one another at ever increasing levels, leading to dysfunction and dehumanization. Is it any wonder Congress is so polarized and entrenched?

Politics and economics "as if people matter" demands decentralization and devolution of power. Lucas writes:

Progressive, anti-globalization activist David Korten considers it "to be a near-universal truth that diversity is the foundation of developmental progress in complex systems, and uniformity is the foundation of stagnation and decay.... Our challenge is to create a locally rooted planetary system biased toward the small, the local, the cooperative, the resource-conserving, the long-term, and the needs of everyone." Strong local economies "encourage the rich, flourishing diversity of robust local cultures and generate the variety of experience and learning that is essential to the enrichment of the whole." (David C. Korten. When Corporations Rule the World, second edition. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc. and Kumarian Press, 200-, pp. 240-241.) A key principle in achieving these ends is that "governance authority and responsibility are

located in the smallest, most local system unit possible to maximize opportunity for direct, participatory democracy." Such communities are strongest when they have strong social capital, for which locally owned businesses are a key element. (Korten, pp. 245, 251.)

The author quotes another historian William Appleman Williams, who proposed replacing the institutions of "American empire" with a federation of regional communities. "The price of liberty is not so much vigilance as involvement. If you want to rest, vote for a dictator. The crucial arena for such citizen groups is and will remain the states. That is where social movements have to be build."

(Lucas, pp. 60-61)

Lucas reminds us that simple arithmetic shows that states are more representative of and responsive to citizen needs than the federal government. "The 435 members of the national House of Representatives have on average more than 700,000 constituents in each of their districts.... In contrast, the more than 7,000 state legislators represent on average just over 50,000 constituents each."

Those who pine for government activism should return their efforts to the States. The federal bureaucracy has become so bloated and the Congress so plodding that change at the federal level takes decades of tireless lobbying, advertising, politicking, and horse-trading. It took 100 years to pass so-called "universal health-care." However, the states are close to the people, both in heart and geography, and there are less people across a state for which to account in the eventual compromise, making conversation more natural and participation for the average citizen possible (big money campaigns at the local level are not of concern). Change can be tried with greater ease and nimbleness, and any potential failure is contained in its scope to the state at hand. Success of experimentation is then rewarded by other states seeking to emulate the model, latching onto the successful government involvement.

Those who love freedom and limited government clamor for a more vibrant federal-state balance as well. Jefferson said, "unless the mass retains sufficient control over those entrusted with the powers of their government, these will be perverted in their own oppression, and to the perpetuation of wealth and power in the individuals and families selected for the trust." Remembering that the federal government was put in place for continental defense and cooperation, the balance of an energetic federalism has the added benefit of diffusing power across a broad number of institutions, separated by thousands of miles, making coordination difficult, even in this age of the Internet (state governments cannot coordinate to call a federal Constitutional Convention, it seems, never mind some effort more complex).

In his book, Lucas does a fantastic job of tracing the rise of federal involvement, control, and centralization. While his book is more focused on proposing constitutional amendments that would allow the People to take control of that document and reduce the tendency of the Supreme Court to continue sitting as a perpetual constitutional convention, Timely Renewal has highlighted the root of the current problems. I will look at some of those in the blog posts ahead, but first I'd like to take a sidebar to examine what this blog has repeatedly called out as the source of the modern-day federal-state imbalance of power - the Seventeenth Amendment.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Liberty's call: messy and the stuff of life

Our Consolation must be this, my dear, that Cities may be rebuilt, and a People reduced to Poverty, may acquire fresh Property: But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty once lost is lost forever.

--John Adams

Regarding the siege of Boston; Letter to Abigail Adams - Philadelphia [July 7th, 1775]

I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt; and not for a multiplication of officers and salaries merely to make partisans, and for increasing by every device the public debt on the principle of its being a public blessing.

--Thomas Jefferson

Letter to Elbridge Gerry (statesman and diplomat) [1799]

Democracy is messy business because humans are messy. We hear continued lamentations over how antiquated our Constitution is (although it was good enough to rise up the most powerful and prosperous nation in history) and how dysfunctional our Congress is, yet somehow we continue to govern ourselves in freedom and respect for the law. We have seen compromise win out time and again over the past ten years, in this time of supposed hyper-partisanship and "extremists" of each Party acting as terrorists (Biden's words, not mine). The debt ceiling / deficit reduction compromise is the latest case in point. It is by no means perfect, but no compromise is. No one likes it, because every side had to give up something they desperately believe in. And it is only the first step in a very painful and protracted journey to get our financial house in order. But none of this changes the fact that our Constitution and, even if somewhat belatedly, Congress works as designed (or amended - see Repeal the Seventeenth Amendment).

If the federal government's spending spree of the past ten years (and, truth be told, of the past fifty) proves anything about our Constitution, it's not how antiquated it is. The lesson to be drawn, to those with eyes to see past their own petty paradigms and presumptions, is just how right the Founding Fathers were and how relevant their counsel still is. The Constitution in Article 1, Section 8 lays out the parameters of federal power, and the specifics were limited in their application to the whole (through the general welfare clause) so that Congressmen could not play favoritism. It is our excursions beyond the bounds of the Constitution that have gotten us into financial trouble:

  • Social Security
  • Medicare / Medicaid / Universal health care
  • The Department of Education / No Child Left Behind
  • The Department of Energy

These behemoth social welfare programs have squeezed our spending for the business the federal government should be about according to the Constitution:

  • Defense
  • Regulation of interstate commerce
  • International affairs
  • Scientific exploration
  • The Post Office (and, by extension of the principle, building out and supporting the interstate infrastructure)

We have strayed from the Constitution's bounds, but it still provides the governing superstructure for us to successfully resolve our differences in a peaceful way. The fact that our political process has become more slow and more prone to gridlock is indicative only of the many different areas of governance that Congress has stuck its nose in over the years that cannot be managed on such a large level. Regulation, the police power, health care, education - these are matters for the states because these are the things people are most passionate about. These are the things that impact their lives most day-to-day and the need for decision-makers to be close to the people is real. Also, these are areas where people with different worldviews (metanarratives) most violently disagree, so providing options among states is important. If people don't like what one state is doing, they can fairly easily move to other states. It is easier to gain consensus and move into action at the state level. The machinery is more nimble and smaller scale.

The scale of the federal government is needed on matters of collective, continental interest.

To adapt the famous Chesterton quote from its original Christian context: the Constitution has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.