A lesson in politics from Mark Twain

Below is a brief excerpt from an article I wrote for Arator. It’s a journal of southern history, thought, and culture. I thought I might add a little politics into the mix while referencing the importance of place. Follow one of the links for the full article.



When politicians, regulators, and citizens think of how to fix things they generally think in terms of laws. But what if laws were not the answer? What if laws were only necessary but not sufficient for addressing our most pressing problems? Perhaps the problem doesn’t have anything to do with laws but with the people who make them and for whom they are made.

Our faith in laws is rooted in a deeper intellectual tradition that has taken us off path in more areas than politics. The belief in man’s ability to fix what is wrong permeates nearly every area of our lives. But it might be equally likely that the more we tinker and revise the more we mess things up. That is, the problem may be people and our constant meddling with the natural order. Therefore, our refusal to admit that we are flawed and limited in our capacity to effect positive change only worsens the condition. What would help is an injection of humility into the modern psyche; a recognition of our limited capacity to do good. Humility has the ability to rebuild communal bonds as it forces us to give up on centralized state solutions and instead focus on those people immediately around us and to put faith in a force greater than ourselves. My view of humility, as adapted in the remainder of the essay, mirrors Erasumus’ worldview as characterized by Timothy Jackson. “Though Erasmus admitted humanity’s tendency to carnal corruption and lampooned its manifold foolishness, he still believed in the essential goodness of a human nature made in the image of God and in the human ability, with the help of grace, to come into harmony with the divine purposes evident in creation…The Hobbesian contractor, on the otherhand, had to impose order on a chaotic natural world…” (Jackson 1999, 493).

Ron Paul wrote in the Wall Street Journal that, “because they [the Fed] have hundreds of bright economists working for them doing research and collecting data, they buy into the pretense of knowledge—the illusion that because they have all these resources at their fingertips they therefore have the ability to guide the economy as they see fit. Nothing could be further from the truth.” The pretense of knowledge is the key phrase as far as this essay is concerned. I adopt a different phrase with similar implications: the hubris of modernity. The rise of modern political principles, spurred on by the Enlightenment, has led to hubris, hubris to the extent we think we can foresee the consequences of our actions in any and all circumstances. When applied to government this suggests that through the proper reforms we can bring about the results we want. No culture, tradition, or history is exempt. Modernity suggests that all people are susceptible to the same forces and can therefore be governed by the same principles. Centralized government naturally follows.

In this essay I tackle the problem by showing how the cultivation of humility might be able to reverse this trend. If hubris brings about centralization then humility ought to support a justification for decentralization.

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