Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Federalist No. 1

An interesting point from Federalist No. 1:
An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of the public good. It will be forgotten, on the one hand, that jealousy is the usual concomitant of love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust. On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.
I am generally skeptical of technocrats, yet zeal for firm and efficient administration are pretty technocratic things.  On the other hand, the technocrats I deal with always claim to be promoting scalable Best Practices for achieving some egalitarian goal.  Perhaps it's egalitarian demagoguery under a mask of dry technocracy.

For all the problems of technocrats, I'll take the real ones over demagogues any day of the week.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Next book: The Federalist Papers.

My next book will be the Federalist Papers.  I'm reading this edition, because I like to read things on paper, but you can get them for free online.  This is a departure from the usual genre of books that I read, but I'm fascinated by the American civic religion.  I spend a lot of time reading about the unique secular religions of American academics (progressive pedagogy, Diversity And Inclusion, etc.), and it would be nice to compare with a very different strand of secular religion.  (Though the secularism of the religion around the Constitution is sometimes tenuous; at least one American-born religion considers the Constitution a divinely-inspired document.)

Points I'm particularly interested in:
1) How a product of messy compromise was somehow sold as a seamless garment to clothe a new Republic.
2) How Americans persuaded themselves that the form of government outlined in the Constitution is the only way to maintain a stable, prosperous, and liberal representative democracy.  A quick look around the world should show that there are plenty of parliamentary systems that do just fine despite not sharing our notions about separation of powers.
3) How people persuaded themselves that the most important cleavages in America are large states versus small states.  Vermont, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nevada all have very different social, political, and economic interests, yet we preach the importance of protecting "small states."  This becomes especially salient when (as has happened twice in this century) a President takes office despite losing the popular vote.
4) Are there seeds of the strangely American idea that the military isn't "Big Government"?  I know that many of the Founders were skeptical of standing armies, yet the people who revere the Founders most loudly also loudly proclaim their love of a large standing army.  Were there seeds of this even then?

One interesting thing I've learned just from the introduction is that the term "Federalist" for those who advocated ratifying the Constitution was something of a rhetorical coup.  Federalism is a system of government where authorities of constituent units (states, territories, provinces, cantons, or whatever other name) retain substantial autonomy from the national government.  Systems that aren't called "federalist" generally have much stronger central governments (and correspondingly less autonomy for the lower levels) than those called "federalist." Yes, a political scientist could add quite a bit to that definition, but it's at least a decent starting point.  The US Constitution provided a stronger central government than the previously-operating Articles of Confederation had, so the strongest objections to the Constitution should have been the ones called "Federalists."  However, Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay stole the word "Federalist" for themselves, forcing the opponents of the Constitutions (and advocates for a looser confederation) to call themselves anti-Federalist.  Whoever lays the first successful claim to a potent word will enjoy a potent advantage.