The Constitution of the United States is our Enduring Social Contract. Drawing on the ideas of great thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, our Founders devised a way to preserve our Liberty while surrendering as little as possible of our Natural Rights to the State in exchange for safety. They devised an excellent balance and our social contract has achieved the results the founders undoubtedly sought, yet the Constitution is under constant attack. The attack always seems to be in the direction of surrendering more of our freedom to the State in exchange for the State taking care of our every need, not just protecting our freedom.
Recently the attack is also from people who want to extend the rights we have under the Constitution to immigrants coming into the country illegally. By the very act of entering illegally such people demonstrate that they are not a party to the Social Contract. The Rule of Law is an integral part of our Social Contract.
We are compelled to ask, “What is it about human nature that encourages succeeding generations to reject the wisdom of their ancestors?” The answer may lie in a common flaw in the way people think.
Unfortunately human beings are so biased in their opinions, beliefs, and ideas that without great effort to recognize and overcome their biases, it is very difficult for most people to make rational, objective decisions. What among our many biases would prompt some citizens and even their elected representatives to call for radical changes to the foundation of our exceptionally successful civilization?
The answer may lie in a concept first made popular by C.S. Lewis in his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, published in 1955.
Lewis coined the phrase Chronological Snobbery (chapter 13, p. 207–208) to describe why he originally subscribed to atheism, believing that the science of the modern world had rendered religion obsolete. He defined chronological snobbery as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”
When Lewis recognized that his chronological snobbery was hindering his quest for meaning in his life, he sought to contain it and eventually found a joyful refuge in the religion that he earlier rejected. That Lewis found an answer to his own life questions does not mean that others would not reach different conclusions based on their own biases or rejection of recognized biases.
Chronological snobbery fools people into thinking that old ideas are obsolete. A closer examination of most subjects reveals that there are very few original ideas, just new people selling old ideas relabeled as their own. The aphorism “There is nothing new under the sun,” while not strictly true should compel people to give correct attribution to prior beliefs before claiming a new interpretation of an old idea as totally their own. It is healthy to explore mature ideas and retain what history has proven to have enduring value.
Anecdotally it appears that young people are swayed by chronological snobbery more than older people. Many are being swept up in the so-called Progressive Movement. The implication by those who have highjacked the word progressive is that progress implies change in a better direction. This is the big lie. The change they envision encompasses discredited experiments from the past. Marxism and Socialism have failed. Not only have they failed, they have brought misery and destruction to millions of people.
Democratic Socialists and “Nordic Socialism”
The current mob of progressives or “democratic socialists” as they call themselves say they want Nordic Socialism, not Venezuelan Socialism, nor any of the other failed socialist schemes. It’s Socialism “Lite!”
Their public pronouncements show that they are not students of history or economics. They naively advocate free tuition for all, single payer healthcare, and forgiveness of student loans. It sounds like a post adolescent wish list from recently graduated and under employed students who flunked economics 101.
They fail to acknowledge the degree of governmental corruption that accompanies the failed socialism of Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.
The United States is a much more diverse nation than the Nordic States. It is also the home of the world’s reserve currency, not to mention the world’s policeman. The U.S. is home to some of the world’s largest corporations with their accompanying lobbyists. And the United States ranks more than a 10 points below the Nordic States on Transparency International’s global corruption index.
We are becoming more corrupt. That itself places our Constitution in danger, but that is a discussion for another time.
The Nordic states are small with a combined population of less that 30 million people. They all have market economies, strong labor unions, and a large welfare sector including healthcare financed by heavy taxes. Corruption is low. Military spending is low. There is little social unrest. Crime is low. They share a unique social morality that is not universally shared in the United States. They are compassionate capitalists, NOT Socialists.
Wikipedia has become the gold standard of Internet definitions. (that is also a discussion for another time).
“Democratic socialism is a political philosophy that advocates political democracy alongside social ownership of the means of production with an emphasis on self-management and democratic management of economic institutions within a market or some form of decentralized planned socialist economy.”
Most of the young ill-informed people who call themselves Democratic Socialists probably do not agree with the Wikipedia definition. Bernie Sanders has had more time to think about it and should have a more nuanced view of the subject, yet his web site definition of Democratic Socialism is the same laundry list of problems that need to be solved, but fails to address the painful economic realities.
The political reality is that some people want to get elected by promising free stuff to poor people with the false promise that the rich people will pay for it.
If that happens, all will become poor, expect for the very rich who will always hide their wealth behind corporations, lobbyists, judges, and hard assets.
There is little discussion in the U.S. about the means of production coming under social ownership. Venezuela nationalized its oil industry and the result is disaster. We shouldn’t have to keep repeating the question about what happens when governments own and run the economy. HERE Steve Forbes explains why governments don’t run economies very well.
The Nordic countries have strong property rights and an economic environment that encourages free enterprise. This is done in the face of very high taxes. That is what Bernie and his acolytes have in mind.
The Founders Knew that Change Would Be Necessary
Benjamin Franklin was one of the principle architects of the Constitution. He did not see the venture through rose colored glasses. He knew that changes would be made to adapt to the times.
His greatest concern was the character of the people charged with making the changes. That should be our concern also.
In arguing for ratification of the Constitution, Franklin wrote as follows:
“I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said “I don’t know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right-Il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison.”
In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administred.” (Constitutional Convention – 1787)
George Washington also knew that things would need to be changed over time. He was also acutely aware of the danger of ideologically driven political parties. In his Farewell Address Washington gave several insightful warnings:
“Here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But a solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments; which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all important to the permanency of your felicity as a People. These will be offered to you with the more freedom, so you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel. “…
“However combinations or associations of the above description [political parties and other combinations] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reigns of government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”…
“Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles however specious the pretexts.—One method of assault may be to effect in the forms of the constitution alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown.”
James Madison also had warning about how Congress could spend money and eventually corrupt the system if left unchecked. The so-called Welfare clause of the Constitution originally place restraint on Congress. The Supreme Court subsequently ignored Madison’s warning. We now have 20+ trillion in debt with no end in sight except for ominous implications of disaster.
“If Congress can employ money indefinitely, for the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every state, county, and parish, and pay them out of the public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, the establishing in like manner schools throughout the union; they may assume the provision of the poor…. Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.”
Chronological Snobbery Revisited
Chronological Snobbery, like the rest of the cognitive biases, encourages us to make bad decisions while all the time letting us think that we are absolutely correct and our way is the only way. While we celebrate our modernity and think we have all the answers, half of all the studies you read may be wrong.
John P. A. Ioannidis wrote an excellent essay about the subject, which does not tell you which studies or news is correct, but it does raise the warning that we are all probably wrong about a lot of things we believe, So before imposing our ideas on others, maybe we should resist hopping on the most popular current bandwagon. We should resist giving good money to finance some pressing issue. Step back and remember that just because we exist at this moment in time (if such a thing as time is real), we are no more relevant that smart people in the past, who are now dead as we all soon will be.