Wednesday, June 08, 2005

D'Souza on America's Founding:

I've read some of Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About America in bookstores but finally got it through Amazon.

D'Souza is a conservative with a libertarian streak. There's some really good stuff in the book. He has a strong understanding of "The Religious Problem" that our American Founders set out to solve and our subsquent Founding as a Commercial Republic (and how the Islamic concept of government differs from America/liberal democracy).

Before we wax too indignant about Islam's intolerance, let us remember that Christianity traditionally was even more intolerant. Medieval Christians generally had no compunction about expelling Jews, burning heretics, and obtaining confessions with the sword. Muslim rulers may have forced Christians and Jews to be second-class citizens, but some Christian rulers refused to permit Muslims and Jews to be citizens at all. And when Christianity split into Catholic and Protestant, the two camps set upon each other with a sanguinary vengeance. The American founders were all too familiar with the history of religious wars, which wreaked havoc and destruction in Europe, and they were determined to avoid that bloodshed here.

...[T]he founders were determined not to permit theological differences to become the basis for political conflict. The solution they came up with was as simple as it was unique: separation of religion and government....

One reason that separation of religion and government works is that from the beginning the United States was made up of numerous, mostly Protestant sects. The Puritans dominated in Massachusetts, the Anglicans in Virginia, the Catholics were concentrated in Maryland, and so on. No group was strong enough to subdue all the others, and so it was in every group's interest to "live and let live." The ingenuity of the American solution is evident in Voltaire's remark that where there is one religion, you have tyranny; where there are two, you have religious wars; but where there are many, you have freedom.

A second reason the American founders were able to avoid religious oppression and conflict is that they found a way to channel people's energies away from theological quarrels and into commercial activity. The American system is founded on property rights and trade, and The Federalist tells us that the protection of the unequal faculties of obtaining property is "the first object of government." The logic of this position is best expressed by Samuel Johnson's remark, "There are few ways in which a man is so innocently occupied than in getting money." The founders reasoned that people who are working assiduously to better their condition, people who are planning to make an addition to their kitchen, and who are saving up for a vacation, are not likely to go around spearing their neighbors.

Capitalism gives America a this-worldly focus, in which death and the afterlife recede from everyday view....The gaze of the people is shifted from heavenly aspirations to earthly progress. This "lowering of the sights" convinces many critics that American capitalism is a base, degraded system and the energies that drive it are crass and immoral. [Rowe: Although he didn't put it so harshly, this is the "low but solid ground" to which Leo Strauss refers when discussing on what "the moderns" or the liberal democrats built their public orders.]...

In all the cultures of antiquity, Western as well as non-Western, the merchant and the trader were viewed as lowlife scum. The Greeks looked down on their merchants, and the Spartans tried to stamp out the profession altogether. "The gentleman understands what is noble," Confucius writes in his Analects. "The small man understands what is profitable." In the Indian caste system the vaisya or trader occupies nearly the lowest rung of the ladder -- one step up from the despised untouchable. The Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun suggests that even gain by conquest is preferable to gain by trade, because conquest embodies the virtues of courage and manliness. In these traditions, the honorable life is devoted to philosophy or the priesthood or military valor. "Making a living" was considered a necessary, but undignified, pursuit. As Ibn Khaldun would have it, far better to rout your adversary, kill the men, enslave the women and children, and make off with a bunch of loot than to improve your lot by buying and selling stuff.

Drawing on the inspiration of modern philosophers like Locke and Adams Smith, the American founders altered this moral hierarchy. They argued that trade based on consent and mutual gain was preferable to plunder. The founders established a regime in which the self-interest of the entrepreneurs and workers would be directed towards serving the wants and needs of others. In this view, the ordinary life, devoted to production, serving the customers, and supporting a family, is a noble and dignified endeavor. Hard work, once considered a curse, now becomes socially acceptable, even honorable. Commerce, formerly a degraded thing, now becomes a virtue.

Of course the founders recognized that both in the private and the public sphere, greedy and ambitious people might pose a danger to the well-being of others. Instead of trying to outlaw these passions, the founders attempted a different approach. As the fifty-first book of The Federalist puts it, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." The argument is that in a free society "the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, in the other in the multiplicity of sects."...

In general the founders adopted a "policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives." This is not to say that the founders ignored the importance of virtue. But they knew that virtue is not always in abundant supply....The American founders knew they could not transform human nature, so they devised a system that would thwart the schemes of the wicked and channel the energies of flawed persons toward the public good.

The experiment that the founders embarked upon two centuries ago has largely succeeded in achieving its goals. We see the evidence in New York, which presents an amazing sight to the world. Tribal and religious battles, such as we see in Lebanon, Mogadishu, Kashmir, and Belfast, don't happen here. In New York restaurants, white and African-American secretaries have lunch together. In Silicon Alley [sic?], Americans of Jewish and Palestinian descent collaborate on e-commerce solutions and play racquet-ball after work. Hindus and Muslims, Serbs and Croats, Turks and Armenians, Irish Catholics and British Protestants, all seem to have forgotten their ancestral differences and joined the vast and varied parade of New Yorkers. Everybody wants to "make it," to "get ahead," to "hit it big." And even as they compete, people recognize that somehow they are all in this together, in pursuit of some great, elusive American dream. In this respect New York is a resplendent symbol of America.

My conclusion is that the American founders solved two great problems -- the problem of scarcity, and the problem of diversity -- that were a source of perennial misery and conflict in ancient societies, and that remain unsolved in the regimes of contemporary Islam. The founders invented a new regime in which citizens would enjoy a wide berth of freedom -- economic freedom, political freedom, and freedom of speech and religion -- in order to shape their own lives and puruse happiness. By separating religion from government, and by directing the energies of the citizens toward trade and commerce, the American founders created a rich, dynamic, and tolerant society that is now the hope of countless immigrants and a magnet for the world.

pp. 88-94


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