The Magazine

Mr. Sununu Goes to Washington

The political philosophy of an actual politician.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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American political methodology is an ontological construct. No, I don't know what I'm talking about, but it's true anyway. Political "science"--like that puppy from the same litter, the dismal science of economics--is not science; it's a branch of moral philosophy. Yet try talking moral philosophy with a politician. Politicians will talk strategy and tactics and policies and programs until they're blue in the face, or you strangle them and they turn blue.

The problem on the left is, now that Karl Marx has forsaken them, they have no philosophy. Thank goodness. Think what evil creeps liberals would be if their plans to enfeeble the individual, exhaust the economy, impede the rule of law, and cripple national defense were guided by a coherent ideology instead of smug ignorance. As for our side, conservatism is a gut reaction for most of us, and a done deal for the rest. The moral philosophy of American politics can be explained briefly and clearly, and, the Constitution being written, it has been.

Where is there a philosopher in Washington?

Actually, I was pretty sure I knew where, and never mind that like any intelligent person he didn't major in philosophy. Senator John Sununu (Republican of New Hampshire) earned a BS and an MA in mechanical engineering from MIT, an MBA from Harvard, and a living as a design engineer and manufacturing consultant. His reputation is .  .  . well, as one of his fellow senators said to me, "Don't let anything happen to this boy in the New Hampshire election, otherwise we'll have to argue about who's the smartest person in the Senate." I was willing to bet that Senator Sununu knows that if a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, the government will tax the timber industry and subsidize the purchase of Miracle Ears.

I went to see Senator Sununu at his office in the Russell Building and said that I assumed he had a political philosophy. "I like to think so," he replied. "But it's not something I have written down on an index card."

As a gut reaction conservative myself, I take the senator's point. In fact, however, Senator Sununu could write his political philosophy on a small piece of paper: "I have a deep-seated belief that America is unique, strong, great because of a commitment to personal freedom--in our economic system and our politics. We are a free people who consented to be governed. Not vice-versa." (Italics added for the sake of the multitudes in our government's executive, legislative, and judicial branches who need to fill out that index card and keep it with them at all times. And if the multitudes are confused by "Not vice-versa" they may substitute, We aren't a government that consents to people being free.)

"It's important for politicians to understand," Senator Sununu said, "that the Founders' writings reflect that point of view. From Jefferson to Hamilton, freedom was the special ingredient in human prospects, moral prospects, political prospects. The argument was over what government mechanism would ensure common good and guarantee freedom. There was no argument about whether we were free people. In most parts of the world there never has been an appreciation for that perspective. Governments have evolved to provide greater freedom, to reduce the power of monarchies, to reduce absolute power."

When, indeed, governments have evolved at all. Darwin, if he'd studied Russia instead of Galapagos finches, would have come up with the theory of "survival of the filthiest." Senator Sununu wants a government mechanism without the innumerable moving parts that collect goo and sludge: "Just because something is a good idea doesn't mean it should be a law--let alone a federal law. That's where I begin," he said, "with a firm belief that people in the United States are best served by limited and effective government."

He gave the example of low taxes, but from a philosophical angle--low taxes respect the prerogatives of free people. "Taxes," Senator Sununu said, "are a confiscation of economic power."

Another of the senator's examples was "local governance to the greatest extent possible." The importance of local governance may not be obvious to an America accustomed to treating city and state downfalls with doses of federal comeuppance. Sometimes there's a reason for that--the Civil War. More often, all reasoning seems absent--No Child Left Behind.