It’s All the Fault of ‘Those Foreigners’

Brilliance, in governance, is expressed in one’s ability to take the long view, and few Americans have ever surpassed a certain old political scientist’s gift for abstracting and deriving lessons from current events:

…perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad. [James Madison, as quoted by Ralph Ketcham in James Madison: A Biography, 393.]

The context of Madison’s remark was the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts which directly attacked that critical definition of American values, the Bill of Rights, by seeking to destroy freedoms of speech and assembly by making illegal democratic activism against “measures of the government” or bringing the Federal Government “into contempt or disrepute” [see Ketcham, 394]. Democracy (the method of governance) as well as liberty (the goal and value) were imperiled right at the start of the new American experiment in free government by one of autocracy’s favorite weapons, the assertion that “I, Autocrat, cannot be criticized…and am thus above the law.”


The True Nurse of Executive Aggrandizement

In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture of heterogeneous powers: the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man: not such as nature may offer as the prodigy of many centuries, but such as may be expected in the ordinary successions of magistracy. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war a physical force is to be created, and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war the public treasures are to be unlocked, and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions, and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace….

The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue, which would make it wise in a nation, to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world, to the sole disposal of a magistrate, created and circumstanced, as would be a President of the United States. [James Madison, Helvidius No. IV, Sept. 14 1793.]

If “unanimity is not to be expected in any great political question” because of the fallibility of man, then the power to start a war should surely, above all other powers, be protected from the control of any single person.

Reasoned Compromise

Commenting on the debate over ratification of the proposed U.S. constitution, James Madison observed:

…the diversity of opinion on so interesting a subject among men of equal integrity and discernment is at once a melancholy proof of the fallibility of the human judgement and of the imperfect progress yet made in the Science of government….Companies of intelligent people equally divided…[urge] on one side that the structure of the government is too firm and too strong, and on the other that it partakes too much of the weakness and instability of the Government of the particular states. What is the proper conclusion from all this? That unanimity is not to be expected in any great political question. [As quoted in James Madison: A Biography, Ralph Ketcham, 237.]

As bitter as the pill of compromise may be to swallow for those genuinely aspiring to achieve progress, as opposed simply to personal advantage, the existence of opposition from both extremes simultaneously may be taken as evidence that progress is indeed being made. Unfortunately, the sad tendency of humans to achieve compromise by first compromising principles in a shortsighted descent into lowest-common-denominator deals of convenience that undermine rather than facilitate genuine progress should give pause to one facing such temptation. Madison’s own crucial mistake of accepting slavery as the price of union, the horrifying bill for which came due four score and seven years later and continues in the 21st century to be paid by American society in its seemingly endless fight against the poisonous and still rampant closed-mindedness of the white South powerfully exemplifies the danger of such unprincipled compromises of convenience (rather than compromises of reason based on the modest admission that no one, it seems, is ever likely to understand things perfectly).

If humans are fallible, and every politician who has ever lived has demonstrated this eternal truth, then we should not just anticipate but welcome compromise; when all are fallible and all agree, then the chosen path can only be in error. The danger is not compromise, for the very existence of disagreement should but underscore the inevitable need for course correction; the real danger is the basis on which we find compromise. A reasoned compromise that offers fundamental benefit to both sides by means of creative redefinition of the problem should strengthen the moral foundations and practical durability of the adopted course of action. Madison’s breakthrough insight that a republic need not sacrifice liberty as it gained in size–because greater size would increase the likelihood  of having many factions balancing each other off such as to minimize tyranny of the majority [see Ketcham, 241]–illustrates the potential of a compromise of reason (instead of a compromise of convenience, e.g., agreeing to limit liberty or limit the maximum size of the new U.S. republic, devise a compromise of reason that accepts great size but with the strongest possible structural defenses of liberty, e.g., a powerful and independent Supreme Court, a bill spelling out the implied rights of citizens).

The debate every four years in U.S. presidential elections between those who aspire to elect a true reformer and those who cynically if accurately warn that failure to support “better than nothing” will simply give power to “worse than nothing.” Clearly, we are making very little progress toward the invention of a “Science of government.”


They Will Welcome Us With Flowers

And on Day 1, they did, indeed, welcome the invaders with flowers, but the invaders came not as liberators but drunk with hubris, so on Day 2, the people revolted.

今 燕 虐 其 民, 王 往 而 征 之, 民 以为 将 拯 己 于 水火 之中 也, 箪食壶浆 以 迎 王 师。 若 杀 其 父兄, 系 累 其 子弟, 毁 其 宗庙, 迁 其 重 器, 如之 何其 可 也! 天下 固 畏 齐 之 强 也, 今 又 倍 地 而 不行 仁政, 是 动 天下 之兵 也。[司马光 (2012-11-23). 资治通鉴(1) (Kindle Locations 446-448). Kindle Edition.]

Just now the ruler of Yen was repressing his people. Your Majesty went and punished him. Assuming you were about to deliver them from disaster, the people welcomed your army with food. But you killed their fathers and elder brothers, imprisoned their sons and younger brothers, pulled down the state ancestral temple, and took the ceremonial vessels back to Ch’i. How can this be! The whole world fears Ch’i’s power. Ch’i’s having doubled its territory and still not instituted good governance is what sets in motion the world’s troops. [My rephrasing of Legge’s more literal translation in Ch. 12, 172.]

In Denial






王顧左右而言他。[Liang Hui Wang Ch 13 in CText.]

  1. Mencius said to the king Hsuan of Ch’i, “Suppose that one of your Majesty’s ministers were to entrust his wife and children to the care of his friend, while he himself went into Ch’u to travel, and that, on his return, he should find that the friend had let his wife and children suffer from cold and hunger;–how ought he to deal with him?” The king said, “He should cast him off.”

  2. Mencius proceeded, “Suppose that the chief criminal judge could not regulate the officers under him, how would you deal with him? ” The king said, “Dismiss him.”

  3. Mencius again said, “If within the four borders of your kingdom there is not good government, what is to be done?” The king looked to the right and left, and spoke of other matters. [The Works of Mencius, Bk. 1, Ch. 6 in James Legge, The Chinese Classics pp. 164-5.]

Masters and Slaves

During the Roman Empire there lived a slave who was freed from slavery to a self-styled “master” and became a philosopher. He was later kicked out of Rome by a higher “master,” one of the lesser Roman emperors, for being an academic (something all self-styled masters–be it of household slaves, employees, or the common man—greatly fear…and justly so for none so threaten a master as a thinker). Epictetus, the name by which we know this thinker, went on to free himself from the ties that bound him and left behind some very dangerous thoughts.

Zeus said to Epictetus: “I have given you…this faculty of desire and aversion…and if you will take care of this faculty and consider it your only possession, you will never be hindered, never meet with impediments; you will not lament, you will not blame, you will not flatter any person….”

when it is in our power to look after one thing, and to attach ourselves to it, we prefer to look after many things….Since, then, we are bound to many things, we are depressed by them and dragged down.

“[the goal is] “to have studied what a man ought to study; to have made desire…free from all that a man would avoid….Like a man who gives up what belongs to another. [The Discourses of Epictetus Book One, Ch. 1 in Britannica Great Books 12: 105-6.]

Evidently, the Roman Empire discovered the ills of the consumer society two millenia before us! Too bad that the modern rulers of the universe have not yet acquired the maturity to avoid grabbing “what belongs to another.”

The Islamic State’s Victory in Vienna

Judging from the official document released by the participants in the Vienna talks on Syria, the Islamic State won a smashing victory simply by sitting on the sidelines watching the international cockfight.

The first two conclusions of the “mutual understanding” resulting from the October 30 Vienna peace talks on Syria expose the fundamental flaw: both points say the same thing – that the “state” is more important to these officials than the “people.” Point 1 calls for preservation of Syria, even though it is precisely the existence of that post-colonial institution that lies at the root of the endless mistreatment of the minorities shoved into it. Point 1 serves the convenience of global leaders eager for stability and influence rather than helping the people who live there. Point 2 calls for the preservation of “state institutions;” in so far as I am aware, the only state institution that currently functions in Syria is Assad’s barrel-bomb war machine. Only with Point 3 is any attention granted those poor people in what used to be called “Syria” who have not yet succeeded in emigrating. And who in this world ever remembers “point 3” of any list?

Whatever may have been accomplished with a wink during lunch, the document these diplomats released gives no hint of anything more than a tragic lowest common denominator sellout of the Syrian people by governments trying to maximize short-term benefits and apparently incapable of imagining creative, positive-sum solutions. The participants in this little meeting should contemplate this: the failure of the Vienna meeting to demonstrate progress constitutes a huge victory for the Islamic State.

This is a curious outcome. If the Islamic State threat does not suffice to focus the minds of global leaders, then exactly what will it take? Certainly, Putin is riding high for the moment, but he could have been happy with consolidating his links to the Allawites, keeping his naval base, and taking home his new position as one of the arbiters of the Mideast. Iran could have been satisfied with its new acceptance by everyone as a member of that arbitration committee, a huge step forward for Iran’s prestige and national security, plus a clear message from Washington that its military presence in some portion of post-Syrian space would be acceptable; from that the U.S. and Iran and Russia could have proceeded to elimiinate their common Islamic State enemy, with the now non-existent Syrian state replaced by Russian, Iranian, Saudi, Kurdish, etc. spheres of influence.

Indeed, this outcome is so obvious given the fear inspired in everyone (except of course the odd couple Erdogan and Assad) by the increasingly well entrenched Islamic State that perhaps, with a wink and a nod, the participants indeed did agree to exactly that but are all just too embarrassed to admit it in public. Well and good, except that agreements kept secret when they should be trumpeted as historic successes just set up the good guys for becoming the road kill of extremists. So, tragically, at the moment, the Islamic State appears to have won a very dangerous victory that can only fill its propaganda machine with new energy.

Whatever the real story of the Vienna meeting, it was handled badly and for that the world will pay.