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Re-Politicizing American Politics

What a "living Constitution" really means.

12:00 AM, Jul 29, 1996 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Second, opponents of Big Government argued that because entitlements include everyone, and do so under uniform rules, they turn citizens into dependents. The opportunity to earn your own keep by your own labor is converted into a guarantee that you will receive your keep passively from a centralized power much greater than you. If you have only the opportunity, and no guarantee, then you have to get off your duff, develop dependable habits, show some initiative, and be able to work with others. In sum, you must show some virtue. The virtue shown is responsibility, that specially American and particularly democratic virtue. The case against Big Government is that it taxes your money and still doesn't leave you with your virtue.

Strangely enough, the Republican party is now the party both of money and of virtue. If you are uncommonly interested in money, you are probably a Republican; and if you are concerned for virtue, you are today even likelier to be one. This is true despite the fact that economists and moralists alike tell us that money and virtue are incompatible.

The Democrats, of course, do have their virtue, which is compassion. But their compassion does not discriminate between the worthy and the unworthy; it is a virtue that cares nothing for virtue. The Democrats even take the virtue out of compassion by making it compulsory. And they forget that no one wants to be an object of compassion, and that no citizen can be free while suffering the indignity of being patronized. Big Government crowds out virtue and freedom together.

The problem for Republicans is to find ways to bring together those who are interested in money and those who are interested in virtue without confusing the two. The party can start by making the point that earning money requires virtue as a means -- the virtue of diligence -- and by creating self- sufficiency it promotes the virtue of responsibility as an end. In this way, the love of money is not ennobled, but it is elevated above mere greed and selfishness. Meanwhile, the desire to acquire money forces us to come to terms with the self-interested character of a free society, and that in turn makes the pursuit of virtue less self-righteous, less hypocritical, more self- aware. And so the partisan combination of money and virtue can be good for the followers of each. Most of us want both, so the combination offers psychic harmony too.

Big Government essentially aims at eliminating risk from our lives. That goal inspires its intrusiveness. Big Government assumes the risks of taking care of you, your family, your friends, your community, your country, your environment. It will save you from every injustice arising from an inequality in which you are on the short end (and in so doing creates injustice to those of outstanding merit). But an aversion to risk puts freedom and virtue in jeopardy, for any investment of time or money or effort, no matter how sound, means you have to risk failure. Every politician knows this, because his business is one of the riskiest there is, what with its ups and downs, its sudden turns.

And that is why politics is the path of redemption from Big Government. I use the word "redemption" advisedly, because Big Government is a substitute for what men used to hope for from divine providence. Self-government, by contrast, requires and inspires self-governing citizens.

So our whole society should be repoliticized and made capable of politics. This politics should not have the aggressive manners of Big Government. It should expect to be instructed rather than instruct, and it should try to inspire the superior responsibility that lets others exercise responsibility on their own.

And to revive our politics, Republicans should return to being the constitutional party, the party that defends the limited government of the Constitution. Big Government, they should note, is unpopular, but the Constitution is not. The Democrats care little for the Constitution, and their attitude toward it is instrumental. They use it when it enables them to get what they want through judicial activism, without stopping to persuade their fellow citizens or going through the formality of winning an election. When the Constitution gets in the way, they ignore it, override it, or expand it.

It was a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, who was the first president to criticize the Constitution, and his fellow progressives invented the noxious notion of the "living Constitution" -- a phrase that really means the Constitution is dead. Defending the Constitution as the form of our self-government, Republicans can be led by conservatives. For conservatives know that the Constitution is the one thing most worth conserving in our society, the source of a government that can protect, instead of stifle, free citizens, institutions, and associations.

Harvey Mansfield is William R. Kenan, Jr. professor of government at Harvard University.