Simple question: Are you good? Ask yourself: am I a good person? Not just every now and then, but 100 percent of the time in every situation.
Before you answer, let me tell you that if you say yes, you’re lying.
Thousands of years of empirical evidence teaches us humanity is capable of great good, but incapable of sustained good at all times. It is simply impossible for imperfect human beings in an imperfect world always to be good or always to do the right thing in every circumstance every time, if for no other reason than that we are very self-interested beings.
That understanding is precisely what the American Founders also believed. It’s abundantly clear in their actions and words that they did not trust human nature with consolidated power. They didn’t even trust themselves. The leading men of the day spent months in Philadelphia that summer of 1787 constructing a form of government that would limit their control over the new republic. If they’d actually been hyper self-interested in power and control, they would have created a rigged system that benefitted themselves, one that put consolidated power into their own hands. But they did the precise opposite of that.
A Founding Conundrum—and Solution
Ultimately, the foundation and at the core of the debates in Philadelphia is this crucial understanding of imperfect humanity. But what do you do when confronted with that knowledge but also when you understand that all human beings have been endowed with inherent, natural rights by their Creator? How do you allow men and women to pursue life, liberty, and happiness while at the same time providing order in society? How do you create a government that respects and protects to the maximum degree possible the rights of the individual without infringing upon the rights of their neighbors? In other words, how do we devise a government that ensures ordered liberty with an emphasis on liberty?
The Founders believed that they had a way to work around the conundrum. It’s why I describe them as optimistic realists: they were realists about human nature with all of its flaws but optimistic that they could create a form of government that allowed human beings to be as free as possible, to become all that their Creator intended them to be.
Thus, they established the American republic with its separation of powers among the federal branches and recognized, on top of that, that some powers belong squarely with the states. In other words, federalism. They set checks and balances on those powers within the government, pitting interests against interests, so that the powers of government could not be consolidated into the hands of a few imperfect human beings.
But that was before the Progressives arrived on the scene. It was the fatal conceit of Progressives at the turn of the 20th century that humanity was ultimately good and that through the vehicle of consolidated government, in the hands of the “enlightened and educated elite,” progress could be made toward perfecting society. In short, they trusted themselves. They trusted imperfect human nature with consolidated power and made it their aim to consolidate the powers of government, not diffuse them. This is why they were, and are, utopian statists: they were, and are, dangerously naïve about human nature, believing that the all-powerful state can bring about perfect justice and equality here in our imperfect world.
The Antithesis of a Constitutional Republic
Unfortunately for Progressives (and for the rest of us) not all humans are good. Neither are they all intellectually capable to determine their destinies as progressives imagine they should be determined. To get where they want us to go, we need an entrenched cadre of elites to lead and an ever-growing bureaucracy to ensure their power is complete—so that regardless of what the people voted for in the democratic process, nothing will dilute their ability to rule. Thus the Progressives’ creation of the administrative state, which is a far cry and the antithesis of the constitutional republic.
There will always be tension between the administrative state and those who believe in its governing philosophy and those who believe the original intent of the Founder’s constitutional republic. They stem from different belief systems about humanity and the role of government. There is no mixing of them; they are like oil and water, thus the increasing friction we see on display in Washington, D.C. It is really regime politics at work with two very different governing philosophies competing against each other within the same government.
Joe Biden, unfortunately, abolished the 1776 Commission on the first day of his administration. As one of the commissioners on that distinguished panel, I had hoped we might still be able to foster a real conversation in this country, specifically in the public school system, about our republic and how this country and our government were intended to work. Of course, we are an imperfect country with our share of faults and sins: how could we be anything but imperfect in a country and government filled with imperfect human beings?
But we have corrected many of our faults. That’s why I have said, and will continue to say, the American republic is the pinnacle of Western Civilization. We shouldn’t be ashamed to say so. The question is will enough Americans be wise enough to embrace the American republic and seek a true restoration of its machinery as we move forward in the 21st century?