Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A World That Works

You could call it a coronation, yet there was no crown. The power bestowed on a common man elevated him to an exalted position, but only for a measured term of years. When taking the oath he promised to support the Constitution, placing himself under the rule of law, and tacitly agreeing to relinquish power even before he had assumed it.

We have been celebrating this cornerstone of our republic every four years since George Washington was sworn in over two centuries ago. Back then, one observer witnessing the pomp and ceremony was moved to quip, "I fear we have exchanged George the Third for George the First." Yet Washington limited himself to only two terms in office -- a tradition that was respected, with the single exception of Franklin Roosevelt, until it was written into the Constitution in 1947.

Which brings us to that feature of our society that has -- so far, at least -- kept it not only relatively stable but alive and thriving through a period of time that has seen more change and upheaval than any in human history. That feature is the way change itself has been anticipated, accommodated, and codified into law. The Constitution incorporates a mechanism for its own transformation, and was changed almost immediately by the first ten amendments.

Since then a progression of further refinements have been added from time to time as the citizens and their legislators have seen fit. Sometimes they are laudable and overdue, as with the abolition of slavery and the insurance of civil rights, including the right to vote. At least once a memorable mistake was made -- when the attempted eradication of alcohol resulted in a short-lived period of social chaos. But the mistake was undone, and the ship of state sailed on.

The genius of the Founders was that they did not attempt to solve all problems at once, and never claimed to have invented a perfect system of government. Unlike the Marxists, who believed their system would be the final result of social evolution, the authors of the Constitution instead began a system of evolution that was intended from the start to be endlessly improved.

In his wonderful book, The Metaphysical Club (2001), Louis Menand discusses how Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes applied the principle of pragmatism to the law, with influential results. Holmes viewed the law not as a compendium of hard-coded rulings, but as an ongoing search for fairness and balance between opposing, and often contradictory, principles.

For example, everyone has a right to privacy. At the same time, police have a right to search if they have adequate reason. There is no hard rule that determines which party is in the right -- only a continuing list of examples of how those contradictory rights were resolved in unique cases. Over time, these examples become precedents that serve as guideposts in future cases. Also over time, one or the other rights may become more important.

Thus in the wake of civil rights abuses in the 1960's those rights came to seem more important than the rights of investigative agencies, which needed to be curtailed. Then in 2001 the opposite view became so urgent that many people were willing to sacrifice personal liberties in the name of security. The long range view is that these are both swings of the same pendulum, guaranteeing that overall a balance will be found.

The other night one news commentator, David Brooks, speaking about President Obama, said that so far his agenda is "less a collection of proposals than a way of making decisions based upon information, intelligence, and pragmatism." In his inaugural address Obama put it this way: "We do not ask whether our government is too large or too small, but whether it works."

The development of this prototypically American attitude is the underlying theme of Menand's book. It had its roots in the Transcendentalists and came of age when John Dewey founded an educational system on it. Pragmatism was seen to be at work in Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. This is often oversimplified as "the survival of the fittest," which to most people implies that the organisms that can destroy their rivals will prosper. But it takes many other forms. Organisms also succeed if they have immunity to disease, are more adaptable, can learn to avoid accidents, take better care of their young, form social alliances with others -- even if they are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

The argument can even be made in the realm of quantum physics, which takes the view that a ball following a parabola does so by trying to move simultaneously in all possible directions, and following the solution of least resistance. Taking it to the extreme, at any moment the state of the whole universe is the best solution to a wildly complex and contradictory chaos of opposing forces.

If it is true that our new regime led by a new President has reconnected to this wellspring of common sense (and it seems no accident that Thomas Paine used those words as a title), then we can be optimistic about the result. Imagine using scientific data to make decisions instead of deciding in advance to ignore and refute them. Imagine choosing the best from among all possible ideas, rather than sticking to one idea, however wrong, come what may.

As he steers the course, neither too far to the right nor to the left, avoiding icebergs all the way, let's hope "whether it works" will continue to be the guiding principle. It's right there in the Constitution, not to mention living in our DNA.

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