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First Principles

A Constitution for Ambitious Men

The Constitution’s genius lies chiefly in its reliance upon a trait rarely in short supply: Ambition.


- October 7th, 2019
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Long revered by their grateful countrymen, the Founders recently have become more ambiguous figures in American life. A central premise of the Left is that American history is a story of oppression and that the Founders are tainted, being memorable chiefly because some of them owned slaves. In opposition, the NeverTrump GOP imagines itself to revere the Founders, but they substitute a made-up, saccharine version of them, mistaking the marble temples made in their honor for the actual flesh and blood men.

In revering these imaginary Founders, NeverTrumpers superimpose the more modern and feminine virtues of “niceness” and “being a team player” upon a generation of war heroes, who died with some frequency in duels. They imagine people like themselves: bookish and delicate, the sort easily ruffled by tough language and conflict. Chuck Todd’s cri de couer is a good example of the genre, as is the umpteenth Bill Kristol attack on the President.

The Founders undoubtedly were great men and gentlemen—wise, sensible, energetic, and public spirited. They had a realistic appraisal of man and politics derived from deep knowledge of recent and ancient history. The Constitution they adopted has proven durable because it deals with multiple problems at once, permitting the people a voice in their government, while also restraining the government and its officials.

Human Nature and the Constitution

The functioning of the Constitution did not depend upon a superior class possessed of super-human virtue. The Constitution’s genius lies chiefly in its reliance upon a trait rarely in short supply: Ambition.  As Madison famously wrote in Federalist 51:

[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Just as free markets allow the individual pursuit of profit to secure a collective benefit—the “invisible hand”—the Constitution directs the energies of ambitious men to check the inevitable encroachment of their counterparts. Thus, the Founders built the edifice of government on the sturdy foundations of the self-interest of those occupying elected office.

There is no shortage of ambition in politics—not yesterday and not today, both with Trump and among his many critics. But this type of conflict, far from being an indictment of our Constitutional system, is its triumph. While Trump faces incessant criticism from Congress, the media, and even his own party, his actions in defending his office have ample precedent. The Obama administration stone-walled congressional investigations, George W. Bush resisted congressional and judicial control over the war on terrorism, and Reagan famously fired striking air traffic controllers. Each acted within the presidency’s inherent power, and each was motivated by some combination of popular acclaim, the desire for reelection, and protection of the powers of the office, exactly as the Founders planned.

Party Politics and the Government Party

Far from championing the spirit of the Founders, the governing class’s hostility to Trump is a reflection of the degraded state of popular control in our government today. This devolution has many sources. One development the Founders didn’t fully anticipate was the rise of party politics, wherein a branch of government would fail to defend its institutional power in favor of some abstract ideological goal. Congress, for example, has long granted extensive rule-making authority to executive branch administrative agencies, contrary to the “ambition” theory of the Founders. And presidents have variously submitted to Congress or the Courts, even in core areas of responsibility.

The Founders certainly accounted for factions, the analog of which is today’s various interest groups. But they didn’t completely anticipate the restriction of political disagreement to a two party structure, nor the various branches’ abandonment of their intrinsic institutional power. Madison scoffed at this prospect in Federalist 55 as follows, “The improbability of such a mercenary and perfidious combination of the several members of government, standing on as different foundations as republican principles will well admit, and at the same time accountable to the society over which they are placed, ought alone to quiet this apprehension.” Like the Founders themselves, we should be willing to learn from history, including the ways our actual constitutional practice has departed from theory.

The Founders also didn’t fully anticipate that a class of mandarins immune from control by any branch would arise, and that both parties would come to protect this class under the rubric of “bipartisan consensus.” The Founders certainly accounted for ambitious men—indeed, the constitutional structure depended on them—but they expected this ambition would be channeled into electoral politics, rather than the court politics of the bureaucracy. Instead, a whole class has emerged that is largely immune from the control of either party, and this class is protective of its status—opportunistically cleaving to whichever of the branches of government seems most likely to advance their interests.

Cleaning House is Ambitious, Constitutional, and Healthy

Increasingly, the elite’s resistance to Trump has been terrified and frantic. Consider the recent Ukraine charge. While the Founders were wary of foreign influence, one sees little indication that uprooting such influence would be deemed an impeachable offense or a misuse of power merely because it might be motivated by a desire to embarrass one’s political opponents.

Indeed, the natural course of such an ambition and its application against one’s opponents was anticipated and actually practiced by the Founders while in power. As in all cases, critics obscure the key ways that the president’s power is limited. Anything Trump has done in the way of an investigation must be rooted in an actual legal offense, must be funded through congressional appropriations, and any prosecution must proceed through neutral courts. But the first step—investigations and prosecutions of one’s corrupt political predecessors—is perfectly natural under the Constitution as an expression of the honor motive inherent in ambition.

The status quo ante represents the seizure of the constitutional machinery chiefly to benefit the unelected ruling class themselves. Instead of fierce ambition and fidelity to voters that might engulf one’s opponents in a competition for favor, the rotating power of the Republicans and Democrats more recently has manifested a politics of consensus, where neither side acted too aggressively against the other by prosecuting its predecessor’s wrongdoing and certainly never contemplates moving against the unelected bureaucracy.

Operating in this fashion, each side also worked to enhance its opponent’s dignity through various symbolic gestures while out of power. Over time, stability has become more critical than honest, responsive government. The constitutional system of “ambition counteracting ambition” is justly compared to the “invisible hand” of market competition; but, as in economic markets, competition fails to secure the common good when the participants collude.

In practice, the power of ambition to secure the public good has been muted by a combination of party politics, cooperation among powerful political families, and increasing insularity of the government bureaucracy. As Trump said in his inaugural address, “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” Indeed. This is what NeverTrump types still do not understand: Even when Trump voters are not fully satisfied with Trump’s policies, we rally to him when he is attacked by the establishment because his election was an expression of the will of the people, and his enemies express the will of a hostile ruling class.

The ruling class’s contempt for Trump is not unlike that levied by the British King against the Founders themselves. Criticism of Trump has easily bled into vitriol against those who elected him, the “deplorables.” An army of mediocre bureaucrats have schemed with one another to overturn an election in the name of a “higher loyalty.” Far from being disturbed, I should think the Founders would be buoyed by the spirit of vitality, independence, and collective pride that brought Trump into office.

The Constitution does not provide for an FBI, the CIA, nor an army of permanent bureaucrats. Instead, the Founders provided for a single executive, the choice of which was entrusted to the judgment of the people. When the overwrought rhetoric and shifting rationales for opposing Trump are laid bare, what emerges is a profoundly unconstitutional claim for permanent rule by self-serving spies and bureaucrats, the textbook case of “faction” that the Constitution was designed to thwart.

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