Patrick Deneen recently posted his argument that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution designed a regime predicated on problematic modernist assumptions. This is a corollary to Deneen’s broader argument that “conservatives” and “liberals” are really all just modernists of one wave or another (see here and here).
This selection from Federalist 10 is one of his exhibits of the Framers’ problematic modernism:
“[R]epresentation is intended in the Constitutional system ‘to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen, that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for that purpose.’”
To be fair, there might be some problematic modernist elements in the Framers thinking.
However, I believe Deneen places too much blame on the Framers for our present day technocratic politics, increasing centralization, and weakened local community life while also misunderstanding the aims of their political project and the philosophy behind it.
Deneen apparently objects to the Federalists’ view of human nature. Specifically, he identifies their belief that humans are more dependably self-interested than they are virtuous. He also criticizes their method of moderating the influence of the electorate’s self-interest.
The punch line of his argument is that the Federalists’ view of human nature (e.g. man is selfish) in combination with their political response (e.g. representative government) necessarily leads to increasing centralization of power and greater detachment from politics on the part of the citizenry.
Deneen’s analysis hints at a better alternative, but he does not readily admit that human self-interest is as significant of a problem for pre-moderns or Anti-Federalists.
The Framers did not think that the Constitutional regime would be easy to keep. Yet Deneen argues that they either had a severe lack of foresight or held dubious Machiavellian intentions. I would argue that they sincerely believed that man had a latent capacity for virtue and that significant portions of political life are best dealt with at the local level.
For all the potentially overlooked similarities between classical liberals and progressives, Deneen under emphasizes their disagreement about the national government’s proper scope of responsibility.
Just because Madison and Hamilton sought to minimize factions on a national level by “extending the sphere” doesn’t mean they were also hoping radical disinterest would take place on a local level.
I hope Deneen will fill out a counter-factual of what the United States might look like today if the Founders’ wrong views of society, man and the purpose of government had been corrected.
As I said in the comments on his post, I have a hard time imagining an alternative to our Constitutional regime that wouldn’t devolve into a bunch of squabbling city-states fighting over North America’s vast natural resources, perpetuating their own mini-manifest destinies.
Adam D’Luzansky lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.