Madison, Not Reagan?

George Will has a fascinating column on why conservatives should be looking to James Madison, and not Ronald Reagan, for inspiration. While Will doesn’t dismiss the leadership of Ronald Reagan, nor his greatness at that critical point in American history, he does argue that Reagan’s view of human nature wasn’t really all that conservative:

Diggins thinks that Reagan’s religion “enables us to forget religion” because it banishes the idea of “a God of judgment and punishment.” Reagan’s popularity was largely the result of “his blaming government for problems that are inherent in democracy itself.” To Reagan, the idea of problems inherent in democracy was unintelligible because it implied that there were inherent problems with the demos — the people. There was nothing — nothing– in Reagan’s thinking akin to Lincoln’s melancholy fatalism, his belief (see his Second Inaugural) that the failings of the people on both sides of the Civil War were the reasons why “the war came.”

As Diggins says, Reagan’s “theory of government has little reference to the principles of the American founding.” To the Founders, and especially to the wisest of them, James Madison, government’s principal function is to resist, modulate and even frustrate the public’s unruly passions, which arise from desires.

“The true conservatives, the founders,” Diggins rightly says, constructed a government full of blocking mechanisms — separations of powers, a bicameral legislature, and other checks and balances — in order “to check the demands of the people.” Madison’s Constitution responds to the problem of human nature. “Reagan,” says Diggins, “let human nature off the hook.”

It is a fascinating argument. Much of the Reagan nostalgia comes from the optimism that Reagan had. He believed in the American experiment with a passion that was infectious — and coming after a period of national self-doubt and hardship, his optimism was exactly what was needed. Yet, Professor Diggin’s argument isn’t without merit. Conservatism as a system of political philosophy recognizes that governments, in the words of Locke, exist to mitigate against the violence and passions of men.

What Reagan got right is that limited government is the most compatible with human freedom, but what Reagan got wrong is that populism creates more government. There has to be some check on the passions of the people in order to restrain them from creating more government to redistribute assets towards themselves and away from those they don’t like. Diggins seems to find a contradiction in Reagan’s political philosophy that argues that Reagan-esque conservatism ends up growing government rather than restraining it.

There is a lesson here. Conservatism requires the sobering reality that our desires aren’t always good. It’s the principle which informs just about everything in conservative political philosophy: we have small government because a government that is of, for, and by the people must also be restrained from acting solely upon the passions of the people. That is why we have a system of checks and balances to prevent what Madison called “factions” from destroying our political experiment. The family exists to mediate the desire to have sex with the necessity of raising children. Conservatism is all about mitigating the effect of human desires with the needs of society — which is one of the differences between conservatism and libertarianism — and certainly the primary difference between conservatism and what is today called “liberalism.”

Will and Diggins have a point, and it’s one that conservatives should consider seriously. It’s along the lines of Andrew Sullivan’s “conservatism of doubt” but free of the self-justification that Sullivan shackles to his otherwise valuable argument. If conservatism is predicated on the belief that popular passions are always justified, then conservatism becomes unmoored from its own philosophical foundation. Indeed, there’s a strong case that the situation in Iraq is what happens when a government does too little to restrain the natural partiality and factionalism of society.

There is a reason why conservatives are skeptical of the power of the state, and why we believe in the value of public morality. All of that comes down to our first principles, and while Reagan was a great man and one of the best Presidents this country has known, the conservative intellectual tradition goes back much farther and reaches much deeper than just the past 50 years of American history.

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