A writer can’t blame his readers if they fail to understand him. The fault rests with the author. Let me thank Robert Curry for taking the time to think on an old piece I wrote at Law and Liberty and for the opportunity to try again to clarify my meaning.
I actually agree with Curry’s belief in the primacy of ideas. I also agree that progressive ideas were at the forefront of many of the most egregious assaults on the American constitutional understanding in modern times. I even agree that much of this has come from certain unsavory aspects of German, and I might add, French, social thought and have written on those aspects elsewhere.
But I stated the case badly when I composed the words so flatly and, apparently so deterministically, as to say, “technology has happened.” It was, I thought at the time, an attempt to use hyperbole to make a point sharper, not really to assert monocausality. In that way I was hoping to strike a sense of irony. The rest of the essay I believed, and the context of my other writings, would have made that clear, or so I had hoped—but that was apparently not the case in this instance. So let me confess, clarify, and try to make amends.
My orientation to the study of institutions and society is that of a historian. I wanted here to highlight a key aspect of our modern life that has posed a challenge to American political understanding, a problem of our modern context, and in doing so, overstated my point. Let me try again.
On the one hand, there is the intricate and often complex legal ordering of a system of checks and balances, of individual rights and federalism, that has imposed such a unique and often daunting responsibility on Americans to obtain a proper appreciation of the tradition of liberty in the United States.
On the other hand, there is the undeniable fact that whenever the capacity or perceived capacity for intervention in society and economy is enhanced, from whatever source, the temptation to exercise power is likewise increased.
As technological capacity has progressed, often incredibly fast, it has emboldened us as a people, and certainly many of our elites, to try to do things previous generations simply could never have dreamed of undertaking. It has also tended to make us less patient and certainly less willing to take the time to consider why the vital limits to political power were set down as they were in the Constitution. And I applaud all authors who have tried to help clarify those points, including Curry.
In my own defense, the point was to stimulate thinking about how one goes about addressing the new forms of corruption that come with the temptations of power, not to promote fatalism. But we should also not deceive ourselves about the naturalness of our political order. We need to grasp the realities as they are and, as Madison noted, not simply trust in parchment barriers. Recognizing the conceptual challenges and temptations to power in our modern existence is a necessary part of addressing those issues.
Let me say one final word about Liberty Fund.
It was established to give individuals the opportunity to engage in self-education. Most of what we do then is undertaken not so much to “explain liberty” as it is to invite others to begin the process of discovery by which they will hopefully come to know and understand it for themselves. For that very reason, I raised the essay as a question, not an answer, and but for my lack of clarity, I still think it raises a vital concern. How do we foster the virtues necessary to maintain the limits to power needed to remain a free people in the face of such huge temptations to interventionary action?
I thank you, Mr. Curry, for pointing out where my composition went awry and shall endeavor to be clearer in the future.