June 10, 2008


Mr. Sununu Goes to Washington: The political philosophy of an actual politician. (P.J. O'Rourke, 06/16/2008, Weekly Standard)

I went to see Senator Sununu at his office in the Russell Building and said that I assumed he had a political philosophy. "I like to think so," he replied. "But it's not something I have written down on an index card."

As a gut reaction conservative myself, I take the senator's point. In fact, however, Senator Sununu could write his political philosophy on a small piece of paper: "I have a deep-seated belief that America is unique, strong, great because of a commitment to personal freedom--in our economic system and our politics. We are a free people who consented to be governed. Not vice-versa." (Italics added for the sake of the multitudes in our government's executive, legislative, and judicial branches who need to fill out that index card and keep it with them at all times. And if the multitudes are confused by "Not vice-versa" they may substitute, We aren't a government that consents to people being free.)

"It's important for politicians to understand," Senator Sununu said, "that the Founders' writings reflect that point of view. From Jefferson to Hamilton, freedom was the special ingredient in human prospects, moral prospects, political prospects. The argument was over what government mechanism would ensure common good and guarantee freedom. There was no argument about whether we were free people. In most parts of the world there never has been an appreciation for that perspective. Governments have evolved to provide greater freedom, to reduce the power of monarchies, to reduce absolute power."

When, indeed, governments have evolved at all. Darwin, if he'd studied Russia instead of Galapagos finches, would have come up with the theory of "survival of the filthiest." Senator Sununu wants a government mechanism without the innumerable moving parts that collect goo and sludge: "Just because something is a good idea doesn't mean it should be a law--let alone a federal law. That's where I begin," he said, "with a firm belief that people in the United States are best served by limited and effective government."

He gave the example of low taxes, but from a philosophical angle--low taxes respect the prerogatives of free people. "Taxes," Senator Sununu said, "are a confiscation of economic power."

Another of the senator's examples was "local governance to the greatest extent possible." The importance of local governance may not be obvious to an America accustomed to treating city and state downfalls with doses of federal comeuppance. Sometimes there's a reason for that--the Civil War. More often, all reasoning seems absent--No Child Left Behind.

But Senator Sununu was arguing mechanical engineering not ratiocination. I knew what he meant because, some months before, I'd discussed the same subject with his father, a former governor of New Hampshire and Bush 41's White House chief of staff, John Sununu. The governor is himself an engineer and no mean political philosopher. Governor Sununu explained the importance of the "short control loop." Your shower faucets are a short control loop. You turn on the cold faucet, the shower is cold. You turn on the hot faucet, the shower is hot. You fiddle with both faucets, and you take a shower. Now imagine your second-story bathroom has its shower faucets in the basement. That's a long control loop. You turn the water on, climb the steps and get in the shower. It's too cold. You wrap yourself in a towel, go down two flights of stairs dripping water all over the house, go back upstairs. It's too hot. You go back downstairs, etc. "If your federal taxes go up," the governor said, "doing something about it is a protracted process. If your local property taxes go up, you walk over to the town tax collector's house and give him a piece of your mind. So who's more likely to raise your taxes? People in Washington? Or people next door?"

Senator Sununu's political philosophy is consensual government of the short control loop kind. Not only does this make government more responsive to us consenters but it also minimizes government's assumptions about the amount of stuff we've consented to.

I asked the senator, "What does this philosophy require from citizens?" He looked stumped.

There are so many easy answers to that question. Enlightened self-interest. Love of country. Tolerance. Inclusiveness. Blah. Blah. Blah. I felt stupid for asking and heartened by the senator's pause. (We were talking about the limitations of government not the limitations of humans, which is another branch of moral philosophy entirely.) It was as if I'd asked a policeman, "Given the responsibilities and restraints of your position as a law officer, what do you believe that criminals should do?" Actually, I apologize again. That's a lousy analogy considering how Senator Sununu's philosophy is based on the idea that Americans are anything but antisocial. But you see what I'm getting at. Given the consent of the governed, political philosophy is all about the consent. What the governed do is their own business, except in the specific areas of life where the governed have agreed to have government. There are no thought crimes, no philosophical felonies, among a free people. Citizens shouldn't break the law if they can help it, but that hardly merits saying.

What Senator Sununu said instead was, "A responsibility that citizens share is to educate themselves before they cast a vote." But he added, "A responsibility does not mean it's a prerequisite."

One notes the irony that Mr. O'Rourke cites with approval the notion that citizens need to be educated for the system to work just paragraphs after denying that the system has an interest in educating the citizenry.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 10, 2008 7:57 AM
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