“I’m not a Constitutional scholar, I just play one on television.”
That might be a fitting disclaimer for recent article by David Wheeler, an Asbury University journalism professor, calling on the United States to rejoin the United Kingdom, were Scotland to go its own way.
Wheeler begins: “In the past few years, as America has degenerated into political and economic chaos, it has become increasingly clear that we would be far better off if we apologized for our revolt against the Crown and requested to rejoin the United Kingdom.”
Yes, my jaw also hit the floor.
Yet, Wheeler has his reasons: The Brits live longer, enjoy a better health care system, experience less inequality, and exude better manners and a “higher” culture. I don’t even know where to start. But as it's Constitution Day, let me unswervingly uphold the ideal of political and economic chaos, because it’s enshrined in that noble document.
I am tired of pundits blaming our political and economic ills on politicians’ inability to get along. If lawmakers would only “get together and work things out,” their line of thinking goes, the economy would improve, unemployment would evaporate, and Americans could move on with their more prosperous, more fulfilled lives
Progressives have a point when they argue that refusal to compromise on principle helped to end slavery, gain women the right to vote, and extend civil rights protections to all Americans. How, they ask, can you compromise on moral questions? And the question posed to that infamous gathering in 1789 was decidedly a moral one.
Our Founders did not pledge to each other their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor simply to read Shakespeare while sipping low-tax East India Company tea.
The Founders did not value compromise for its own sake. Rather, they put their trust in distrust. All those “shall nots” in the Bill of Rights sprang from the Madisonian premise that human nature, and its resulting political institutions, are prone to sin, rather than virtue. Sound political and economic institutions, the Founders believed, should provide an arena for healthy debate, not work toward some trumped up “consensus.”
Our history books talk of the Great Compromise that led to our constitutional republic. But that same compromise also led to a Civil War that almost destroyed our nation and cost us nearly another century of slavery.
Now, unanimity—or something close to it—may be important within a political system when it comes to serious matters like waging war. But that doesn’t translate into a need for “consensus” or ‘“compromise” in all aspects of the nation’s life.
As a result, our political culture faces an interesting dichotomy. We tell our children never to compromise their principles, but we revere it when it comes to the political arena. And that reverence is divorced from reality. Consider a few examples.
In 1798, Rep. Matthew Lyon spit in the face of Rep. Roger Griswold after Lyon called Griswold a crook and Griswold called Lyon a coward.
In 1832, Texas Governor Sam Houston beat Rep. William Stansberry with a cane right on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Stansberry tried to shoot Houston, but his gun misfired.
In 1850, the Senate adjourned for the day after Sen. Henry Foote pointed a pistol at Sen. Thomas Hart Benton. And in 1857, Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane within inches of his life.
And let’s not forget the simmering hatred between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, or the irrevocably shattered relationship between George Washington and George Mason. Their feuds were not predicated on personal injury or theft, but in passionate beliefs about the role of central government in the lives of its citizenry.
I’m not saying bring back the duel. I’m saying those who think today’s political climate is particularly poisoned have neglected their history.
Today, we argue with op-eds, policy papers, debates, and media appearances, trying to sway public opinion. The Founders would be pleased.
Politics is not about settling arguments; it’s about winning them. But winning should be hard.
The process of adding laws ought to be cumbersome and difficult and clunky. That’s one machine that does not need to be efficient.
Yes, this makes it difficult to pass big, comprehensive legislation. But considering the legislation that has passed in recent years—the Affordable Care Act, the stimulus that didn’t stimulate, the Dodd-Frank financial “reform” law that launched a thousand regulations—this ought not be viewed as a bad thing. When it comes to our political system, its propensity to catch sand in the gears is a feature, not a bug.
As for Wheeler’s proposal, I’m going with Ben Franklin’s republic on this one. And, yes, I believe we can still keep it.
Lawson Bader is president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.