Gordon Wood tells the story of William Findley and the Pennsylvania assembly. To sum up his summary In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, the following:
“One of the crucial moments in American politics-maybe the crucial moment- occurred in 1786 during several days of debate in the Pennsylvania assembly over the rechartering of the Bank Of North America. “ During this time there was a widening divergence of interests between eastern Pennsylvania’s genteel class in Philadelphia, and the western entrepreneurs. The “Old Money” wanted to keep the amount of circulating money low. The westerners needed “cheap” money and more credit. Farmers needed capital for farming implements, seed and other supplies. The craftsmen and merchants needed capital as well to keep up with demand of an increasing population.
“The principles in this debate were William Findley, a Scotch-Irish ex-weaver from western Pennsylvania and a defender of the debtor-relief and paper-money interests in the state, and Robert Morris, the wealthiest merchant in the state, with aristocratic aspirations and a major supporter of the rechartering of the bank.” William Findley was everything that the founders and the Federalist elite despised as “being narrow, illiberal, and interested…” Morris and his supporters in the Philadelphia gentry continued “to pose as disinterested gentlemen in the classical mold”. They sought to maintain that they, being Gentlemen were above “crass marketplace interests and concerned only with the public good”.
Findley and his supporters in the assembly responded with charges that Morris and his supporters were also interested men as well. This in and of itself was nothing new. It was standard, and remains standard rhetoric in political debate. But, Findley went where no man had gone before, and unfortunately few go today. “He accepted Morris’s and the other bank supporters’ interestedness in the bank and found, he said, nothing unusual or improper in their efforts”. “After all, they could hardly be expected to do otherwise.” Wood quotes Findley, “ Any others in their situation… would do as they did.” And here is the unrecognized second revolution, that which made America, America! Findley stated, “They had every right to advocate their cause, on the floor of this house”. But they then had no right to pass off their support of their personal interests as acts of “disinterested virtue”! “The promotion of interests in politics suggested Findley, was quite legitimate, as long as it was open and above board and not disguised by specious claims of genteel disinterestedness. The promotion of private interests was in fact what American politics ought to be about.” These are Gordon Wood’s summary, and my highlighting.
This is what we have forgotten. Humility is admitting that The Public Good, or The Common Good is not knowable. All we can know (and even that, only approximately) is what our own interests are. It has been the willingness of Americans to at least subconsciously recognize this truth that allowed for the continuation of The Republic. There are but few points in which The Public Interest is clear and unified. Americans have always formed parties in which people of certain interests that have no problem with other people on different issues will agree to support each others legislation and to resist efforts of their common foes. The sum total of all the give and take of individual interests is admitted to be the only and best approximation of Common Interest. The Federalist # 10 by Madison (the young Madison before TJ beguiled him) correctly asserted that the best protection against the government becoming too beholden to any particular interest was to be found in the very multiplicity of interests in a continental-sized republic.
We have been misled into the hubristic belief that there is One Public Interest, and we can know what it is. I suggest that the twenty-four hour a day seven days a week news media has allowed each of us a sense of having a God’s Eye view of our society at large. That necessarily creates hubris. When individual’s horizons are from Coast to Coast and in fact global, we believe we have a view from on high as to again claim “disinterestedness”. The ubiquitous media brings to our attention “issues” that would otherwise be unknown. Oh, there are men who wish to marry one another? Really? Hmm, well I guess we ought to discuss this, since it is a widespread phenomenon. CNN had a story about increasing income inequality? Oh, we ought to have a discussion about this. In other words concepts that are not visible to us in our normal lives are forced upon our attention. And through the media we are forced to have an opinion. We watch professional pundits opine on these “issues” and become personally involved as if the issues were any of our business. We are then led to believe that because we have opinions on these “issues” we must have our representatives get involved. Then regardless of which side of the “issue” one is on, we begin to agree that the government must be involved too. Thus the Pro-Marriage Political Action Groups and the Gay Lesbian Transgendered Interplanetary PACs battle it out. Our screens are filled with talking and debating heads, debating what the government should do. No matter which side gains, the government always wins. The government is the casino, and the house always wins! This is why we demand “A Vision” from our Presidential candidates. But, unless this tendency to presume a “God-like” omniscience is seen for the illusion it is, we will merely substitute one “Wise Visionary” with another. Our belief that we are seeking some mystic Common Good that like a Platonic ideal lies beyond our actual interests is what drives the “culture wars”. And it is the wrongheaded belief that Government ought to be about creating the ideal society that is destroying Liberty. We ought be concerned to realize that Plato’s Republic is diametrically opposed to American Liberty. We must not send representatives to government who are “visionaries”. Visionaries are either poets or insane. They have no place in a self-governing republic.
Of course we have to stop the socialistic and totalitarian direction in which America is now moving. But let us stop making the argument that Obama is wrong because his understanding of The Public Good is flawed; while we have a more accurate understanding of it. When Ideologues ask their opponents “what is your economic plan?” and an attempt at an answer is made, it only feeds into the very pernicious concept that there must be a Plan. Maybe “no plan” is better.
For the majority of American history, from Findley until our generation we voted in accordance with our perceived interests. We didn’t presume to know anything about some Common Good. Thus we are at a very dangerous time. We have stepped back from the nasty looking sausage machine of honest self-interest politics. The pre-modern concept of the Elite Citizen-Philosophers ruling in The Public Interest appears again in the Post-Modern setting. This is the path that leads to the French Revolution, not the American.