In “Jonathan Swift’s Travels,” by Lemuel Gulliver, we learn of the Grand Academy of Lagado, an institution committed to intellectual folly. It is a place where professors diligently attempt to extract sun-beams from cucumbers, reduce human waste to its original food and build a house starting from the roof and working downward.
But this is not all.
“In the school of political projectors,” wrote Swift, “I was but ill entertained, the professors appearing in my judgment wholly out of their senses, which is a scene that never fails to make me melancholy.”
In what way were these professors of political science out of their senses?
“These unhappy people,” wrote Swift, “were proposing schemes for persuading monarchs to choose favorites upon the score of their wisdom, capacity, and virtue; of teaching ministers to consult the public good; of rewarding merit, great abilities, eminent services; of instructing princes to know their true interest by placing it on the same foundation with that of their people; of choosing for employments persons qualified to exercise them; with many other wild impossible chimeras, that never entered before into the heart of man to conceive, and confirmed in me the old observation, that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some philosophers have not maintained for truth.”
Swift has hit the nail on the head. Yet most Americans would be shocked by his pessimism (which is actually realism). Our political thinking is now so tainted with utopianism – our political judgments so debauched with rationalist formulas – we predicate everything on what Swift would call “chimerical conceptions.” The great error we continue to commit is the unspoken assumption that politics is perfectible.
It is not.
The chief virtue of limited government is that such limitation amounts to a limitation of gross stupidity. The proper objection to the welfare state is not that it assists the poor to the disadvantage of the rich. What is most objectionable is the sheer stupidity which governs the aforesaid distribution: A system of rewards and benefits, exactions and taxations, according to rigid and irrational bureaucratic formulas. While it is true that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, it is more correct to say that power makes stupid, and absolute power makes absolutely stupid. Such power accentuates and extends stupidity into something that might be described as “The Empire,” which is a highly-bloated, concentrated and calcified state of political drooling and chest beating – which typically rots away from within.
In Gulliver’s Travels Swift did approve at least one political recommendation of the Grand Academy of Lagado. He thought it apt to sic physicians on a nation’s senators, to pinch and poke at them to discover the true causes of the nation’s ills. Swift was particularly pleased with the remedy for violent party strife:
“You take a hundred leaders of each party, you dispose them into couples of such whose heads are nearest of a size; then let two nice operators saw off the occiput of each couple at the same time, in such a manner that the brain may be equally divided. Let the occiputs thus cut off be interchanged, applying each to the head of his opposite party-man.”
In this way the thinking of each party would be united into one skull. As for complications arising from differences in brain quantity or quality among those who direct political factions, “the doctor assured us from his own knowledge,” wrote Swift, “that it was a perfect trifle.”
And so it is.
The fault in our political discourse today, whether we are talking of the left or the right, is the constant expectation that stupidity will some day rise above itself. But beware, my friends, the noble ideal. Heaven help us if stupidity succeeded in scaling the sheer cliff of its own blind ignorance. In that event, folly would rise above itself and overtake the wide world as never before.
Take, as an example, the ideological folly of building a Tower of Babel out of political theory.
Recently, we have been treated to various Fourth-of-July pronouncements regarding liberty and the principles thereof. But those expounding “liberty” are often mere preachers of anarchism who advocate the right of the state to secede from the Union, the county from the state and the citizen from the county. Grosser seditious advocacy is not to be found, even among communists.
And this advocacy is purported to align itself with the Constitution of the United States (as opposed to the imaginary Constitution of the Disunited States). For those who do not know the facts, Union was a rock-bottom principle of the Founders of the Constitution. Disunion was not in their advocacy. Our modern libertarians and Confederates, among the worst of our latter-day utopians, imagining a more perfect disunion after their own fashion, merely follow in the footsteps of the old enemies of the Constitution.
In “Federalist No. 26,” Alexander Hamilton pointed to the anarchism inherent in the anti-federalists when he wrote: “It may be affirmed without the imputation of invective, that if the principles they inculcate on various points could so far obtain as to become the popular creed, they would utterly unfit the people of this country for any species of government whatever. But a danger of this kind is not to be apprehended. The citizens of America have too much discernment to be argued into anarchy.”
Yet the anarchists, the anti-federalists of yesterday and libertarians of today, do not see the danger of their theory. George Washington was very clear and firm in his statement against such theories and theorists. In his Farewell Address in 1796, Washington noted that “unity of government” was the “main pillar in the edifice” of America’s “real independence.”
Washington advocated a hard line against those who would undermine the country’s unity. Referring to Union as “your political fortress against the batteries of internal and external enemies,” he added, “it is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”
The principles of good government, of successful government, are very simple. The only problem is, we can never stick to what is correct and simple. Our native stupidity and blockheadedness always leads us to some extreme or other. Even as we quote the first advocates of the Constitution, we forget their main intention, i.e., to build a country (as opposed to several countries).
The government of the United States was not the creation of utopian dreamers. It was the creation of men who, like Jonathan Swift, had a low estimation of human wisdom and virtue. The Founders knew that a regime of dolts would arise in this country. Therefore, they idiot-proofed the U.S. government as best they could. After all, they could look around and see the rows of bunglers and misfits pushing up against common sense.
Think of the many theories that are proposed to solve our political ills today. Do you think it was any different when Washington was president? In 1794, the great federalist orator, Fisher Ames, said on the floor of the House: “That rage for theory and system, which would entangle even practical truth in the web of the brain, is the poison of public discussion. One fact is better than two systems.”
It is when we think (or suppose that we do) that we get into the most trouble. The human race is not competent when it comes to abstract political notions. This is the terrain on which we are easily lost – the wilderness of ideology, the nowhere of utopias and the playground of the political madman.
You want a political cure?
“If you want war,” wrote William Graham Sumner, “nourish a doctrine. Doctrines are the most fearful tyrants to which men are ever subject, because doctrines get inside of a man’s own reason and betray him against himself. Civilized men have done their fiercest fighting for doctrines.”
One fact is better than two systems, said Ames. And one imperfect Union is better than shards and splinters adhering to the colors of the rainbow, imagining itself a more perfect Disunion.