Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The GOP "Pledge": Business as Usual

Indications continue to multiply that this could be a big electoral year for the Republicans. The Democrats are in disarray. The rise of the Tea Party has added a strong tail wind behind the Republicans. A large segment of the country is confused, cynical, and frightened of a government that has seemingly broken completely free of all constitutional and moral constraints. I believe the time is right for a strong defense of individual rights and Capitalism to counter the Left’s collectivist/socialist juggernaut. An unprecedented opportunity has arisen for the GOP to offer an historic “choice, not an echo”. The question I posed in my post of 10/6/10 was: “Is the GOP up to the ideological task”? We now have an answer. It is not a promising one. It’s business as usual. It’s called the GOP’s “Pledge to America”.

In the introduction, the Pledge recites the words of the Declaration of Independence, without explicitly defining the principle of individual rights that it upholds. Defending individualism, the foundation of America and of Capitalism, begins with a complete understanding of individual rights. The Pledge offers no beginning, middle, or end.

The Pledge is vague and inconsistent, and sprinkled with what in today’s usage are collectivist terms. The “common good” and the “will of the people” are common refrains used to justify statism. They meant something different to the Founding Fathers, who understood that the individual’s sovereign right to freedom of action in pursuit of his own life’s goals and happiness was outside of the scope of power of any electoral majority. The ballot box can not trump the individual’s rights, and promoting the common good meant protecting those rights.

As proof of my claim that the Republicans desperately need a clear and principled statement – a Philosophical Contract with America - I cite this:

“An arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites makes decisions, issues mandates, and enacts laws without accepting or requesting the input of the many.”

Does this mean that the government can make any decisions, issue any mandates, and enact any law it pleases as long as it gets the input, and approval, of “the many”? It sounds a lot like unlimited majority rule, or democracy. Does that statement mean socialism is OK, as long as a majority – “the will of the people” – approves? How does that square with “the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? We’ll never know, because a view of the proper relationship between the individual and the state is never defined. How does democracy square with the idea of America as a constitutionally limited republic? Are rights unalienable, or are they gifts dependent upon “the input of the many” … i.e., “the will of the people”? Which is it? We are promised that “American values” will be restored. But what are they: a hodgepodge that mixes vague undefined references to “liberty” with explicitly collectivist catchphrases?

The Pledge is laced with this kind of philosophical contradiction and confusion. How does one build “a new governing agenda for America” out of that? History provides the answer: It doesn’t. What it does do is to paralyze the opponents of statism, and embolden the statists.

Citing just one concrete proposal listed in this document highlights its dangerous vagueness. Under healthcare, the GOP promises to "repeal and replace the government takeover of health care". In the same breath, it promises to “ensure that those with pre-existing conditions gain access to the coverage they need”. How? It doesn’t say. The implication is that government will mandate that coverage, in one way or another. It sounds like ObamaCare light. A government that respects and protects individual rights would never be granted the power to issue mandates to insurers. The “pre-existing conditions” plague is a government-created problem, and can be eliminated by ending the government-imposed employer-based, or third-party-payer, system of health insurance. But, among the free market solutions offered up, this big kahuna is avoided. Pre-existing conditions is one of the main justifications for ObamaCare, is prime fodder for free market champions as a failure of statism, and should be front and center of the ongoing healthcare debate. Yet, the Republicans punt, and simply adopt the Democrats’ premises, instead of removing the cause.

Worse, the Pledge embraces some of the Religious Right’s statist agenda:

“We pledge to honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values.”

Where does the individual fit into this litany? The holding of the family as the foundation of society hearkens back to Middle Age Feudalism, or to modern Islamic culture, where the individual is subordinate to the Clan. The family institution obviously has a vital and valuable function, but only within the context of a rights-based, secular legal structure. Bans on gay marriage and abortion are blatant violations of individual rights, properly understood. The separation of church and state is the bulwark against religious tyranny: It leaves everyone free to hold and practice his or her private religious or non-religious beliefs without interference from the state. But the Pledge seems to challenge that bulwark. President George W. Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiatives”, continued and supported by President Barrack Obama, violates that separation doctrine through government support of private religious organizations – in direct defiance of the First Amendment’s “establishment” clause, and of individual rights.

In what could be the most disastrous clause in a generally disastrous manifesto, the Pledge contains this plank:

“We will adhere to the Constitution and require every bill to cite its specific Constitutional Authority.”

Why disastrous? It’s a double-edged sword, with the sharpest edge aimed not at statism, but at freedom. As originally formulated, the Constitution was designed to protect the individual rights of the nation’s citizens, and to establish a government whose sole purpose is to protect those rights. On the face of it, one might think that tying legislation to the Constitution would stop the statist trend in its tracks. That would be true, if there existed a real champion of those principles in the political arena. A full ideological battle over the Constitution is desperately needed if America is ever to reestablish its Founding ideals.

But, the Constitution has been thoroughly shredded, both legally and especially philosophically. Its meaning has been destroyed by the “living constitution” doctrine, which holds that its tenets must be adaptable and ever changing. It must be “relevant” to the times. It is, as a living document, empty … empty of any principles or absolute, universal truths. Thus, to cite just a couple of examples, the “general welfare clause” has morphed from a mandate for government to establish the social conditions necessary for all people to exercise their liberty to live their lives, to a justification for the destruction of property rights (wealth redistribution). Similarly, the “commerce clause” has morphed from a ban on trade restrictions between states (protecting the right of free commerce nationally), to a license for the federal government to regulate and control nearly every economic aspect of our lives.

In his must-read Objective Standard article, Justice Holmes and the Empty Constitution, Thomas A. Bowden tells us how and why our Founding principles have been abandoned even by our judiciary. Importantly, that abandonment has been embraced not only by liberal, but by conservative intellectuals as well. As Bowden writes:

"[T]he emasculated Supreme Court now spurns virtually every opportunity to search the Constitution for underlying principles that place limits on state power."

Under the “empty” and “living” Constitutional premises accepted today, there is no piece of legislation that can not conceivably find “specific Constitutional Authority” to justify it. The Constitution, after all, contains no absolute or universal truths. The words of a document whose essential principles have been abandoned or evaded even by its alleged defenders can not be anything but a ball of putty moldable into any shape-of-the-political-moment.

As the Pledge to America clearly reveals, the Republican Party is ill-prepared to do theoretical Constitutional battle with the Left. It has no understanding, lacks the courage to uphold, or outright opposes the ideas that made the Constitution possible. Furthermore, the Constitutional pledge would require the Republicans’ to break with the conservatives’ strict adherence to “tradition”, and acknowledge that the original document, as great as it was, had flaws that served as poison pills that led to its undoing. It is obviously not prepared to do that. Lacking any explicit, uncompromising, and coherent defense of individual rights, the GOP is opening the door to an insidious inversion: Rather than stymie the statists, they could be handing them a gift. The Left, assuming they’re smart enough to grasp it, are being granted the opportunity of a lifetime to cloak their collectivist legislation in a Constitutional sanction, based upon the emptiness of the living document premise.

In my previous post, I wrote:

“It’s not that the Republican Party embraces bad ideas, in the sense of consistent principles. The truth is much worse. It stands for nothing: except moderation, bi-partisanship, and compromise as the only absolutes. Not only do they evade any principled stand on any issue, they often openly embrace the Left’s basic premises.”

The Pledge to America is a monumental blown political opportunity. The criticisms presented here do not exhaust the flaws in the Republican Pledge. There is no coherent message to rival the Democrats’ unabashed collectivism. There is no coherent message at all, except for a pledge to bear “true faith and allegiance to the people we represent”. What’s needed is true faith and allegiance to principles, not public opinion polls. Give the Democrats their due. They stayed true to their principles, despite “the will of the people”. That may cost them quite a few seats in the short term, but look what they’ve accomplished. If only the defenders of capitalism had such guts.

Should the Republicans sweep congress, the Pledge to America will stand as a self-imposed set of shackles that will hinder them. Worse, because of its vagueness, the Republicans will have ridden to power on an anti-Democrat, anti-incumbent wave only. This does not necessarily preclude them from developing into an effective force for pro-individual rights political governance. Once in power, if they gain power, they can still be steered in the right direction. But this will be hard - in fact nearly impossible - because they have once again shown that they stand for nothing.

This is true of the current Republican leadership. But, a lot of freshman blood will be swept into congress, and therein lies reason for guarded optimism. As an example of why there is hope, I refer you to this interview with Stephen Bailey, a young and promising House candidate challenging an incumbent in a strong liberal enclave. Mr. Bailey won the Republican nomination with 70% of the vote, by offering a good concrete model for what a generally consistent pro-individual rights political agenda looks like. Notice, as you listen to the interview, how his positions on a wide range of specific issues are anchored to a common principle. If he wins – and it appears to be a long shot, although this year one can never tell - he can be a force for philosophical “extremism in defense of liberty” within the GOP.

I don’t know how many other GOP upstarts share his views, but if Stephen Bailey represents the vanguard of a new Republican Party, then the future is considerably brighter than it now appears. The Pledge could be a last gasp for the me-too Republican old guard. The Tea Party has its intellectual firepower, and it will continue to roil the waters. It will not sit still for any kind of business-as-usual GOP majority, as we have seen in the primary season. We may yet see “extremism” on the Right.

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