Thursday, May 29, 2003

A Mild Dissent

Although Americans should be mostly flattered by the piece that Collin cites below, some of it should be taken with a grain of salt -- especially its defense of "states rights". Contrary to what Jenkins says, the Federalists did want a stronger national government, and the American Constitution reflects those wishes. The president was not supposed to be Congress's or the states' errand boy but a great source of independent energy for accomplishing "arduous enterprises." The president was also supposed to combat excessive majoritarianism that was presumed to coalesce more easily in Congress. The veto power reflects that intention. (Of course, now the president is viewed [incorrectly, according to the understanding of the founders] as a kind of national representative and not a check on majoritarianism thanks to theories espoused in the progressive era about "leadership".) Finally, the issue of "states rights" is related to the problem of slavery in America which Jenkins doesn't mention. Jenkins finds it difficult to believe that the federal government could boss around an individual state, but he forgets Abraham Lincoln.

Jenkins decries the wish for "central competence" at the root of the impulse for the EU. But this is exactly what Alexander Hamilton wanted for the United States when he advocated such a strong presidency at the constitutional convention that many delegates deemed it indistinguishable from a monarchy.

Nevertheless, much of what Jenkins says rings true. Despite our strong central government, Americans have maintained a spiritedness, a taste for republican government or self-government, that has kept tyranny at bay. Moreover, it is questionable whether Europeans have the qualities required for self-government. Indeed their desire for a stronger European Union, a transnational authority, may reflect their failure at governing themselves on the state level and a slavish desire to be ruled. Interestingly the American qualities that keep the liberal in liberal democracy may not be able to be inculcated by government; they seem to have existed in America before the constitutional convention of 1787. The question then becomes whether something else such as an independent intellectual enterprise or a kind of political science can maintain what exists in America and inculcate what doesn't seem to exist in Europe. There is no better examination of this theme than in Tocqueville's Democracy in America which was written more for Europe than America and for many of the reasons Jenkins states.


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