March 12, 2011
It Takes a Potemkin VillageBy Michael Moeller
After annexing the Crimea in 1783, Catherine the Great wanted to launch a war against the Turks to drive them out of Europe. To do so, she needed to form an alliance with the Hapsburg emperor Joseph II. But Catherine had a problem: the Crimea was a desolate backwater. However, Catherine was certain that Joseph II would join the alliance if the Crimea could be modernized.
To accomplish her goal, Catherine called upon Gregory Potemkin, who had some success modernizing the Ukraine. Indeed, as Catherine and Joseph II embarked on their river journey through the Crimea, they were captivated by peasants in bright costumes, new and freshly-painted buildings, dances, parades, and elaborate new gardens.
Shortly after Joseph II agreed to align his troops against the Turks, the façade began to crumble. Potemkin had staged an elaborate illusion by hiding away the old and sick, painting decayed structures, planting gardens that died days later, and erecting new facades over decrepit old buildings. Catherine, so desperate to defeat the Turks, was blind to the illusion and would eventually fail in her war against the Turks.
Enter the modern Age of American Progressive Potemkinism -- not of decaying buildings, but of decaying principles. After all, an orange sign stating "Putting America Back to Work" along an asphalt highway is not very inspiring in a country that produced great skyscrapers, supersonic jets, and modern medicine.
No, the illusion is more subtle, and more insidious. The progressives have foisted a Potemkin façade upon principles, and accomplished this task in two ways: (1) by subverting the original meaning of a principle, or (2) by using alternate concepts to muddle an essential issue.
The result of the first method is currently on full display in Wisconsin. While Democratic legislators are AWOL in another state, union protestors are busy hectoring for special legal privileges and compensation packages that far exceed the private sector -- at the expense of taxpayers footing the bill. This mob rule concept of democracy is not new, but just a fresh coat of paint on an idea that died 2000 years ago in Athens.
Progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes provided perhaps the most explicit example of this concept of democracy in his dissent of the 1905 Lochner v. New York case. In it, he declared that the word 'liberty' "is perverted when it is held to prevent the natural outcome of dominant opinion." In fact, the Court majority was upholding freedom of contract between an employer and employee against state restrictions on work hours. His concept of democracy -- rule by "dominant opinion" -- sought to obstruct voluntary agreement among individuals.
Yet, America is not a democracy of majority will, but a constitutional republic limited to protecting individual rights. Contrast Holmes' concept of liberty with that of James Madison. In his seminal essay on the topic, Federalist #10, Madison warned against pure democracy whereby political "factions" would enforce their will on the individual. He wrote: "Hence it is that such [pure] democracies have ever been spectacles or turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."
Does this description sound familiar to the debacle gripping Wisconsin and other states where union "factions" are agitating to retain their special legal privileges?
The collapse of these Potemkin structures, embodied in "factions" clamoring for special government privileges and a spiraling debt, did not happen overnight, but rather are the result of the century-long march of Progressivism.
Sadly, Holmes' distortion of American republicanism and liberty would provide the model for 20th century SCOTUS decisions. On the coattails of his Lochner dissent, the New Deal Court would uphold price controls (Nebbia v. New York), minimum wage laws (West Coast Hotel v. Parrish), Social Security (Carmichael v. Southern Coal & Coke Co.), and product regulation (US v. Carolene Products Co.). The apogee being the majority opinion in Carolene Products whereby "economic rights" would be consigned to the lowest level of constitutional scrutiny, thus allowing the Court to simply rubberstamp any legislative intrusion that had a mere tangential "rational" link to some stipulated "legitimate government interest".
So what began merely as a dissent -- a dissent from over a century of 19th century SCOTUS decisions generally upholding economic freedom -- ended with a myriad of economic regulations and entitlement programs. Now, these entitlement programs comprise the lion's share of America's $14 trillion debt crisis, while these same regulations are simultaneously shackling the free market and preventing economic recovery.
Madison certainly would have backed the majority in Lochner and upheld the right to freedom of contract. But it is not Holmes' view that is reviled by most contemporary legal scholars; no, it is the majority's view -- and Madison's vision for America.
The goal of the second method in the Potemkin arsenal listed above is to shroud sick and infirm principles from public view. President Obama's 2011 State of the Union Address provided an illuminating illustration of this method. Obama spent a good portion of the speech announcing various "investments" the government needs to make in order to bring the country back to prosperity.
However, government does not "invest" money. On the contrary, the Founding Fathers desired private citizens to be secure in their property and limited the taxation of private wealth to those functions intended to preserve individual rights, such as the courts and military. The goal of American republicanism was not to redirect private enterprise and redistribute wealth to politically-favored "factions" and industries. Thus, the essential issue is not which targeted industries the government should flood with "investment" -- whether it be green energies or oil subsidies -- but rather whether individuals have a right to their own property and whether government should be "investing" in any industries at all.
Contrast Obama's Soviet-style central planning with the viewpoint of Madison, who wrote: "Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well as that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own." ("Property", National Gazette, 1792.)
Is Obama promoting the American ideal of government when outlining sundry government "investments"? No, he is using the innocent-sounding concept of "investment" to distract from actions Madison would consider anathema to the proper end of a just government.
When asked what had been created after the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin forewarned: "a Republic, if you can keep it". And therein lies the essential remedy. Pointing to particular politicians or public policies is merely pointing to the symptoms. In order to strike at the root cause, however, it is the responsibility of each citizen to be not only eternally vigilant against the Potemkin distortions of America's founding principles, but to reeducate oneself on exactly what those principles are.
Let us not be Catherines, eager for the quick-fix and instant gratification, and thus become blind to whitewashed falsehoods. The consequence will be not just some crumbling structures in a backwater, but the death of the American Dream.