the imaginative conservative logo

If I had to use a single word to describe what is fundamentally wrong with government today, I would use the word fraud. Certainly nowadays—perhaps in every age—government is not what it claims to be (competent, protective, and just), and it is what it claims not to be (bungling, menacing, and unjust).

In actuality, it is a vast web of deceit and humbug, and not for a good purpose, either. Indeed, its true purposes are as reprehensible as its noble claims are false. Its stock in trade is pretense. The velvet glove of its countless claims of benevolence scarcely conceals its iron fist of violence and threats of more violence. It wants to be loved, but it will settle for being feared. The one thing it will not do is simply leave us alone. —Robert Higgs, 2004

mexico birzer fullerDr. Birzer: Thus begins Robert Higgs’s 2004 book, Against Leviathan, a sequel to his highly acclaimed Crisis and Leviathan. There’s no doubt that Dr. Higgs is an anarchist and a radical libertarian. He’s also, for those of us privileged enough to know him, a gentleman to the nth degree and a mentor and comfort to all who seek his friendship. A former professor of economics, he now resides rather happily in Mexico, having given up on the American experiment, believing the Constitution failed. If anything, Dr. Higgs has grown more disillusioned with political institutions since Crisis and Leviathan first appeared in the 1980s.

Adam Fuller, in our continuing discussions and dialogues, I’m truly curious how you would take Dr. Higgs’s argument. Do you believe that the Constitution has failed, and do you believe it’s inevitable for all governments—whatever their original intentions—to decay into corruption and wanton criminality? In his own writings on government, St. Augustine of Hippo argued that even the best governments—those which secure a world peace through a protection of justice—are nothing more than gangs of robbers who have done at least one thing (seeking justice) correctly. Otherwise, there’s really nothing legitimate about political institutions that other civic associations and institutions have not already done more effectively and with more humanity.

Dr. Fuller: Well, first off, I’d still much rather live in America than in Mexico. Wouldn’t you? I’ve never met Dr. Higgs, but it seems so peculiar to me that someone would be so distraught by the failings of the “American experiment” that he would prefer living in Mexico than in America, which, despite our many problems, is still the best country on the face of the earth to live in. And if I wanted to avoid political corruption and wanton criminality, I don’t think Mexico would exactly be my destination.

Sure, Mexico may have a greater sense of national identity than we do. There’s perhaps a richer culture there. Family bonds are stronger. It’s a country where people take pride in their history, religious beliefs, language, and heritage. I’ve temporarily lived in other countries, too, where such elements were far stronger than here in America. I’ve always admired it. But wouldn’t we also have a much stronger national identity in that regard if we didn’t continue to insist that America is nothing more than an “experiment” in self-government?

But to answer your question, I don’t think the Constitution has failed. A document is incapable of failing. The fact that people sin doesn’t mean the Bible has failed, does it? The failure is on us. We have failed to adhere to it.

Dr. Birzer: Thanks, Dr. Fuller. I must say, I have had the privilege of meeting Dr. Higgs several times, and he’s definitely a man of integrity and character, whatever his specific views are. I’ve learned a great deal from him personally, and he’s been a good and kind mentor and friend. He’s also an incredible conversationalist. Although I don’t know enough about Mexico to comment, it strikes me as a place of immense stability in certain regions and instability in others. Its history, especially since 1917, has certainly not been a happy one.

Leaving Dr. Higgs aside, and as to the Constitution, it strikes me that it’s failed for several reasons. All of these reasons are certainly not reasons to abandon it, or to think that it can’t be corrected. Just as the Founders analyzed the failures and successes of the past, so must we. After all, we must remember, they sought not a “perfect union,” but a “more perfect union.” It is well worth remembering perhaps the most interesting of the neglected founders, John Dickinson, when he famously stated on August 13, 1787:

Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that discovered the singular and admirable mechanism of the English Constitution. It was not Reason that discovered or ever could have discovered the odd, and in the eye of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by Jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has given a sanction to them. This is, then, our guide.

Wouldn’t believing in the Constitution and the authors of that Constitution demand we do the same to its history as they did to the history of the English Constitution?

Dr. Fuller: I mean no disrespect to Dr. Higgs. I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard only good things about him. I suppose I just have a Calhounian understanding of what it means to be an American. I don’t conceive of America as a social contract that we can, or should, simply opt out of when the other party fails to live up to its side of the bargain.

As for the Constitution, to be perfectly honest, Dr. Birzer, I think the political Right in our country is on the wrong track. The Constitution is not directly what needs to be defended. What needs to be protected is goodness and decency, and since the Constitution is a document that is based on good and decent principles, a defense of it just naturally comes along for the ride when we argue on behalf of what is right.

I’m entirely with you on the value of experience. But I think too many conservatives and libertarians have become oblivious to our experience. Many ignore the fact that the 1960s transformed the context of American politics. Challenging progressivism is no longer a matter of defending the Constitution. What we have to contend with now is what Lionel Trilling called the “Adversary Culture.” This culture is winning. But it is not winning because it has no regard for our Constitution. It is winning because while it is destroying everything that is good and decent, the political Right is distracted with its intense worry about the fate of the Constitution. But the Constitution is not what the New Left is seeking to destroy. I don’t think they care much about it one way or another. The folks of that culture will attribute things to the Constitution when it suits them and will advocate going beyond it when they can find no constitutional basis for their means and ends. What we have to fight for is human nature and the American heritage. And since the Constitution is designed with human nature in mind, and because the Constitution is our heritage, we’ll be preserving it too.

Dr. Birzer: Well, Dr. Fuller, I can’t disagree with you too much. A constitution without a soul is a corpse. We seem to be missing the soul at the moment.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post
  1. Interesting conversation Mr. Birzer, thanks for this. Russell Kirk in his book Rights and Duties wrote, “No civilization endures forever; no national constitution can of itself sustain a people bent upon private pleasures, asking not what they can do for the country, but what the country can do for them…And no matter how admirable a constitution may look upon paper, it will be ineffectual unless the unwritten constitution, the web of custom and convention, affirms an enduring moral order of obligation and personal responsibility.”

    Too bad our milieu is such that many politicians take that very turn upon a quote from a John Kennedy speech, demagogues that they are.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: