What Would James Madison Do?

Charles Murray’s By the People: Rebuilding Liberty without Permission is an important book that advocates of constitutional government should consider carefully. While Murray overstates the case, his book articulates a novel argument, replete with insights on the nature of political corruption and how to fight it.

Murray’s book attempts two tasks. First, it argues that the federal state has become overbearing. During the New Deal era, Murray claims, the feds managed a remarkable inversion: whereas once the government was only able to do what the Constitution authorized, it can now do anything that it does not specifically forbid. In many cases, the government does what is explicitly forbidden anyway.

‘I Don’t Believe You’

The first half of 1966 was a rough year for Bob Dylan. The previous spring he had released Bringing It All Back Home, a mix of rock ‘n’ roll and folk music that shocked the sensibilities of the folkies who worshipped him. He followed that up with Highway 61 Revisited in the summer of 1965, a straight-up rock record. Then in the winter of 1966, he went on a world tour: one part acoustic and folk, the other part electric and rock (backed by the group that would become known as The Band).

The Madisonian Nightmare

As government’s powers spread beyond the original grant offered by the Constitution, the Madisonian system of checks and balances began to break down. As a result, today’s activist government often works for the benefit of narrow, often wealthy factions over the public interest. The way this corruption functions has evolved throughout American history. In the 19th century, insuperable political machines served as mediators between politicians and the industrial magnates, railroad tycoons, and financial giants who dominated society. But that old regime gave way because of the Great Depression.

The Liberal Gilded Age

San Jose skyline

The vision embedded in the Founding documents of the United States was of a free and equal people. At the time of the nation’s founding, this was not so much a fantasy but—with the obvious and inhumane exception of slavery—empirical reality. Class distinctions were extant, but they were not necessarily pronounced. The same was true of inequality in wealth and status. Northeastern financial families like the Schuylers had an edge over the yeoman farmers of Shenandoah Valley, of course, but it was nothing compared to the rigid class divisions in continental Europe.

A Revolting Development

Crowd gathered at the White House

From the perspective of a conservative, what is the appeal of reading an intellectual history of the American left? In the age of Obama, it would be quite like reading a history of the root canal. Yet, if some plucky publisher were to enlist Fred Siegel to put that book together, it might just be a decent read. At least when it comes to the American left, Siegel has put together an eminently readable and entertaining work with a novel and persuasive thesis.