Good Government

Trent England | November 3, 2014

First Principles: Who Am I, And Why Am I Here?

Trent England

Just exactly who do you think you are?

Your answer—your idea of what it means to be human—is part of the foundation of your world-view.

How a person answers that question also tends to define his or her ideas about government. “But what is government itself,” wrote James Madison in Federalist No. 51, “but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”

Thomas Sowell, writing more recently, divides views of human nature into two camps: constrained and unconstrained.

The first recognizes inherent and consistent limits present within mankind. The unconstrained view sees human nature as changeable, and thus, improvable.

Bonsai trees, those tiny old and dramatic-looking plants, fascinate me. A successful bonsai grower must have vision and patience as, with decades of planning and precise root and branch pruning, he manipulates the tree into a living work of art.

Those who hold to the unconstrained concept of human nature believe people are like bonsai trees. They see groups of people that way, too. With enough vision and a sharp enough pruning knife, those with the unconstrained view are sure that human nature can be changed and improved.

Of course, that improvement cannot come from within. A bonsai tree does not shape itself or become a masterpiece on its own. The unconstrained view looks to government for the planning and expertise—and force—necessary to produce better human beings, and thus, better societies and a better world.

This is an attractive, even seductive, vision. It appears to elevate all mankind. It does indeed elevate a class of planners and experts who are tasked with designing and implementing our brave new world.

Up against such a dramatic, “progressive” vision, the alternative sometimes seems pessimistic. The constrained view dismisses the idea of systematically improving human nature. Instead, it finds human nature possessed of certain indelible elements, both for better and worse.

According to the constrained view, the lessons of history may be our best guide because the desires and temptations played out in the tales of our ancestors will be the same as those that play on our descendants in ages yet unknown.

This is what America’s founders believed and what sent men like Madison searching across all of human history for examples of good and, more often, bad government.

The belief in hardwired human limits also guided America’s founders to look for trade-offs and balances in creating a government, rather than tilting after perfect solutions. Following the observations quoted above, Madison wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to government men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

That was the task of the Framers of our Constitution. In the Federalist, Madison, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, argues that the delegates achieved that objective and produces, not the perfect government, but a system well suited for the good government of a free people.

Here are two great visions, man as the bonsai tree, in need of skilled experts to force him to greatness, or man simply as man—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The first vision, call it unconstrained or progressive or liberal, appears to elevate man, but it elevates a few men much higher. It lifts most of mankind up only into chains. The latter vision, constrained or conservative or individualist, looks relatively pessimistic at first glance. Yet this is the idea of man that results in the protection of individual rights and of human dignity.

The American founders’ idea of human nature is one of the “big ideas” that are the subjects of OCPA’s new program, The Rule of Law and Liberty. Understanding these ideas, their origins, and their opponents will help you become an even more effective advocate for our Constitution.

(This essay first appeared in Living Liberty.)

Trent England David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England

David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow

Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.

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