Sunday, October 14, 2007

Slender Allurements

I've now been working in D.C. for just over two years since joining the Georgetown faculty. It is an odd place, perhaps most of all because it is a city that seems to be dominated by the ambitious young and the powerful old. Of course, this is a brew for dangerous liasons and the exposes of the predicatable. And, having walked down M. Street late on this past Thursday night, it is obviously a place that knows how to appear to have fun when the old powerful people go home.

What has struck me in particular is the sheer number of ambitious young conservatives who work at various think tanks, for Republican representatives and Senators, and in the Administration (at least for another 15 months or so). They are invariably well-scrubbed and well-kempt, earnest and eager, studious especially to master arguments that prove the inadequacies of liberals and Democrats. Most acknowledge that they are in Washington because it's where the action is. I gave a lecture a year ago to a group of young conservatives (an occasion called "Conservatism on Tap") and suggested that a conservative might be defined as someone who returned home to give back to the community in return for having fostered and raised him or her as a young person. When I asked how many had returned to their home city of Washington with precisely that ambition in mind, there was a hearty and knowing laugh; two people out of about 150 acknowledged having grown up in the DC suburbs (undoubtedly for parents who worked for the Government).

A question comes to mind: how did it get to be this way? How did it come to be unquestionably natural for young people to abandon their home towns in order to move to the centers of power in order to seek advancement? (My teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, was fond of recalling the scene in "American Grafitti" when Richard Dreyfus's character laments "why do we have to leave the people we love to go to college?" It was a recollection that never failed to strike a nerve among his students). In Federalist 46 Publius (Madison) seeks to refute the Antifederalist charge that the national government will become the focus of devotion and the locus of power under the proposed Constitution. He writes that "the first and most natural attachment of the people will be to the governments of their respective States." This seems an uncontroversial claim, since it is natural for people to favor "their own," to prefer the people and places that are closest to them. Historically it was ever a challenge to encourage love of nation over love of locality. So, Madison's argument seems to appeal to the examples of history and human nature to refute the fears of a too-distant governance.

This might be the end of a curiously mistaken story, but for the fact that in an earlier paper Hamilton had already given away the game, making Madison's later paper seem a bit like someone trying to defuse a bomb or at least distract attention from its ticking. In Federalist 17, Publius (Hamilton) seeks to defend the proposed Constitution against charges that the Federal government will seek to absorb the States or at least take possession of all their powers and privileges. Nothing could be further from the truth, he protests. Against this accusation he writes:

I confess I am at a loss to discover what temptation the persons intrusted with the administration of the general government could ever feel to divest the States of the authorities of that description. The regulation of mere domestic police of a state appears to me to hold out slender allurements to ambition. Commerce, finance, negotiation, and war seem to comprehend the objects which have charms for minds governed by that passion: and all the powers necessary to those objects ought in the first instance to be lodged in the national depository.... It is therefore improbable that there should exist a disposition in the federal councils to usurp the [local] powers.... The possession of them ... would contribute nothing to the dignity, to the importance, and to the splendor of the national government.

On the one hand there is the somewhat quaint idea that we have greater fondness for our localities (according to Madison); on the other, there is the bold claim that States and localities will be of little ultimate importance in the scheme of things, and that the major objects of human ambition - especially commerce and war - will be exclusively the purview of the new federal government. Putting the two papers together, Madison suggests we will love the ineffectual and Hamilton argues that - recognizing the "nugatory" power of local entities - the most ambitious people will leave localities behind in order to pursue bigger dreams and vaster plans.

There can be little doubt who was right concerning where our attention would be focused: Hamilton understood that local devotions could be ultimately overcome by the power of unleashed human ambition. The denizens of young interns who flock to Washington every year attest to Hamilton's perceptiveness: even young "conservatives" who can muster dozens of arguments critical of the Federal government know where the action is, and come not in spite of the power concentrated in Washington, but because of it. If anyone would wish to know why the Republicans have failed to make the federal government smaller and to devolve power back to the States in significant ways (as they have claimed they seek to do at least since Goldwater if not since FDR), we should recognize that such a reversal would go against the logic and the grain of the regime. It was designed so that power would accumulate at the center, and especially designed to attract to the center the most ambitious - those who will endeavor by dint of their constitutional ambitiousness to ensure that power continues to accumulate at the center. Commerce and war are the activities that most define the center, and those which accordingly have increasingly come to define the nation.


Jacob T. Levy said...

Patrick, this is a lovely post; I think I'll be citing it in a paper. You are (and Hamilton was) dead on...

Unknown said...

I'd actually point to the most recent Journal of American History, which includes a discussion of nostalgia and homesickness that actually provides at least some bit of an explanation.