Reflection and Choice or Accident and Force

, David Corbin and Matthew Parks , Leave a comment

This is the first in a series of essays examining and applying the timeless principles and truths of the Federalist Papers to the political events of our day.

Two hundred twenty-six years ago today [May 14], the Constitutional Convention was scheduled to open in Philadelphia. While it took eleven more days for a quorum of delegates to assemble, it took those delegates less than four months to answer the question that had brought them together: what can be done to make the Articles of Confederation “adequate to the exigencies of the Union”? Their answer: nothing. And so they proposed an entirely new frame of government, justifying this revolutionary act with an appeal to the document that justified the original American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government….”

But since this was the people’s right, not the Convention’s, and since the Declaration had also asserted that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed,” nothing would be settled until the public at large, acting through specially-called state conventions, ratified the new Constitution. And since ratification was by no means certain, the authors of The Federalist Papers, over eight and one-half months, made the case for the Constitution in eighty-five carefully-reasoned essays. Theirs is perhaps the world’s finest example of rhetorical statesmanship: morally responsible, intellectually profound, and practically-oriented. It is also profoundly republican.

Whatever their claims to political preeminence–and they were great–Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay made no appeal to authority in laying out their case for the Constitution. Publius, their collective pen name, would be only as persuasive as the reasons he gave. This was natural, since from the opening paragraph of the first essay, they recognized that the debate was not just about whether the United States would adopt the Constitution or even whether the union of the states would continue, but also, and most fundamentally, whether “societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

Too often our leaders are not so magnanimous today. A poster in the New York City subway tells it all. Beside a stick figure picture of a man slumped against a support column, the text instructs: “See someone in need? Get help!”and then directs the hopeless citizen to the nearest subway employee or police officer. Let the professionals handle things. From the subways to the State Department, our modern bureaucratic state has been designed to make popular reflection less and less meaningful and choice less and less real. As President Reagan said, “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program”–guarded by a phalanx of experts impervious to all November election arrows.

As we pay deference to their authority, we hand over more and more power to a ruling class that considers itself too sophisticated to talk about “good”government, a quaint or perhaps nefarious notion from a bygone age. What we need today, they believe, is not good government, but effective government. Over the last two centuries, politics has grown up, setting aside childish debates about philosophical abstractions like justice to confront the real scientific facts of social life. And since the most universal fact of all is that our existence is a matter of metaphysical accident, modern statesmanship amounts to artfully applying intellectual force against those who still believe that their reflection and choice is a matter of consequence–against, in other words, the members of the political flat earth society. Thus, President Obama promised in his First Inaugural that his administration would “restore science to its rightful place” and supplied all the necessary graphs to demonstrate the wisdom of his stimulus bill, health care overhaul, and energy policy.

Not surprisingly, then, the biggest players in today’s political arena are the fact-checkers. And they are everywhere–essential members of every post-speech or -debate cable news panel and the best-placed columnists in the best print and online journals. Apparently inspired by the reverence with which media elites receive a judgment of “two pinocchios,” one debate moderator in the last presidential season even took it upon herself to do some real-time fact-checking (at the expense of the unfortunate Republican candidate, as last week’s hearings on Benghazi made abundantly clear). Along the way, the definition of political facts has expanded with the profile of the fact-checkers. As a result, more and more judgments about facts are really just another form of ideological warfare. We naturally wonder: is there any room left for reasonable debate on contestable questions?

There is good reason to dispute the “just the facts” approach to politics–and not only the remarkable distance between the lines on the graphs and the real facts of our experience. The founders, as it turns out, were not as unscientific as we presume. Hamilton’s Treasury Department, composed of the Secretary and a few clerks, gathered and analyzed detailed data on the new nation’s debt, international trade, and manufacturing base. But Hamilton never supposed, as Secretary of the Treasury or advocate of the Constitution, that well-tabulated numbers carried with them necessary policy prescriptions. The national debt was $76 million, but whether and how that should be paid down were moral questions that required careful reasoning from first principles. And since human beings are, in fact, responsible moral agents ultimately accountable to the God who made them, it was not just meaningful, but necessary, to distinguish good government from bad and to challenge the belief that all politics is a matter of accident and force.

What would be required to reintroduce reflection and choice into the public square–and, perhaps more importantly, deliver us from the arbitrary power (“accident and force”) of the ruling class? We would do well as a political community to consider Publius’s opening argument in  Federalist 1 and model our politics accordingly. There he states simply: (1) You have been called to choose; (2) Yours is a fundamental choice between (rare) good government and (common) bad government; (3) Your choice will make a difference for you, your descendants, and the world at large; (4) The flaws of human nature make good choices difficult, but not impossible.

Such a political reclamation project would require leaders who were willing to make arguments, and citizens who were willing to consider arguments and empowered to make choices. The reward for the revival of this type of politics would be the satisfaction of having resurrected reflection and choice as an alternative for mankind, along with all of the associated benefits of peace, prosperity, and human flourishing that typically result from them.  The risk of not reviving this type of politics is the frightening prospect that the kinder, gentler, more palatable employment of accident and force in politics will not remain so; that having lost the taste for governance rightly understood, both rulers and ruled will become more and more accustomed to imposing their will upon one another, making arbitrary government, along with death and taxes, the most reliable fact of all.


David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation (2011).”