The Need for Political Theory

Dr. Carson has written and taught extensively, specializing in American intellectual history. He is the author of several books, his most recent being Organized Against Whom? The Labor Union in America. He is working st present on A Basic History of the United States to be published by Western Goals, Inc.

That which constitutes our political being is in approximately the same condition today as the dollar. That is, it has depreciated, is debased, and has come unsprung from the original fount of its value. Nor are the two things unrelated. A good case can be made that the debasement of the currency goes hand in hand with the debasement—departures from, unraveling or violations of—the political constitution. There is much evidence to support this interpretation from American history. If we look at those times in our history when the Constitution has been subjected to the severest strains and has in important respects been debased—the Civil War, World War I, and from the beginning of the New Deal to the present—we can discover that they are also times of the debasement of the currency.

In the broadest sense, it is not difficult to see why these two developments may occur more or less simultaneously. The United States Constitution restricts and restrains government, restrains it in regard to interfering with the money supply as well as in other respects. When these restraints are loosened and government asserts its power, one of the areas where it is apt to move early is to increase the money supply, i.e., debase the currency.

These things are especially likely to happen together in the midst of war, because the exigencies of war provide a pretext for overriding the Constitution, and the requirements of unusual expenditures provide the occasion for increasing the money supply. Either weak or popular governments are especially prone to raise money by debasing the currency rather than by unpopular taxation. The juncture of all these conditions leading to the conclusion that might be expected were amply demonstrated in the American War for Independence. The British constitutional restraints on American governments were removed by the Declaration of Independence. The new state governments were attempting to become popular by avoiding heavy taxation or collecting the taxes levied. The Continental Congress was weak, lacking the power even to levy taxes. The outcome was that the country was flooded with paper money; there was runaway inflation, and such money as existed was debased beyond recall.

More deeply, governments whose legitimacy or constitutional authority are in doubt rely increasingly on force to obtain their ends. One of the areas of the application of force is in monetary creation (or attempts to do so) and tender laws. These result in the debasing of the currency.

Debasing the Political Currency

My main point, however, has to do, not with money, but with the debasing of the political currency, so to speak. The references to money are for two reasons mainly: one, the depreciation of the currency is more readily observed and even measured; two, there are some important parallels between them. Our Constitution, the Constitution of 1787, went into operation in 1789. Our monetary system was firmly defined in 1792.

The dollar is the basic unit of American currency. “Dollar” was apparently an English term to refer to a Spanish silver coin known as the peso or piece of eight. The term is a corruption of the Bohemian term, “thaler,” which was widely used in Europe from much earlier times. The Spanish coin was widely circulated in the United States in the early 1780s. In 1782, Gouverneur Morris (most famed for the major role he played in the Constitutional Convention) published a plan for a monetary system based on the decimal system with the dollar as the main unit. His plan was eventually carried into effect. In the same work, he argued against tender laws, and in the Convention he played a leading role in denying the power to the states and the United States to issue unbacked paper money (bills of credit).

In 1792, the dollar was defined as 24.75 grains of fine gold or 371.25 grains of fine silver. The benchmark coin was the silver dollar, though gold coins of $2.50, $5.00, and $10.00 were given equal standing. The dollar went through some minor changes in definition in the course of the 19th century. The bimetallic standard was always troublesome because the market value of the relation between gold and silver changes, causing difficulties in the circulation of coins of one or the other metals. In 1873, silver coins were demonetized, i.e., became nominal rather than real (weight in precious metals) money. Thereafter, they continued to circulate at full value, since they were redeemable in gold. In effect, the United States had moved to a gold standard, though the waters were muddied for two decades longer by partial moves toward reinstating silver. At any rate, up until 1934 the dollar was defined in terms of a specific weight in precious metals and was ordinarily redeemable in either gold or silver, or both.

The Dollar Devalued

A dramatic change occurred in 1934, one which had been building for nearly a year. The dollar was drastically devalued in 1934. The gold content of the dollar was legally defined as 15 5/21 grains of .9 fine gold. To put it another way, the price of gold in paper dollars was raised from $20 dollars, approximately, per ounce to $35. The dollar was severely debased in one fell swoop, so to speak. But that exchange rate was made moot in domestic exchanges. All gold coins and bullion (if any) were called in, and it became illegal for Americans to own any gold except in ornaments. Federal Reserve notes were made legal tender for all debts public and private, and they were no longer redeemable in gold by Americans. Silver certificates were issued which were redeemable in silver, but silver continued in its nominal role for several decades.

Since 1934, the value of the dollar has generally declined steadily, sometimes precipitately. It declined precipitately after World War II and in the 1970s. There are different ways to measure the decline of the dollar. It can be measured in terms of gold, for example. If the value of a dollar was 100 in 1933, say, its value today is less than 5. To put it another way, an ounce of gold today costs more than 20 times what it did in the early 1930s on the market. Or, the dollar can be measured in terms of what it will buy in goods generally. Measurements in this area are imprecise, however, not only because there are differences from product to product in changes in prices but also because the quality of many products changes over the years. In general, though, one dollar today will probably buy approximately what 10 cents would buy in 1930; in some things more, and in others less. In any case, anyone who has lived for very long knows that the dollar is declining in value.

The dollar has been debased. It had a definite base from 1792 to 1934. That base was defined in grains of precious metal(s), and to assure the base, banknotes (paper money) could usually be exchanged at face value for the specified weight of precious metal(s). The debasement began in earnest in 1934 and was completed in 1971, after which the dollar was no longer defined by definite amounts of gold on foreign exchanges. As the debasement proceeded, so did the decline in what the dollar would buy.

A Solid Foundation

Americans of foresight and learning in the 1780s and 1790s generally agreed that anything that was to endure for any appreciable length of time must have a firm foundation. It must have a solid base. The base of the government was a constitution. On that point, Americans were in almost universal agreement. The base of the money supply was precious metals. There was not universal agreement on this point, in theory anyway. (In practice, almost everyone preferred coins of precious metals to paper money, unless the latter were readily redeemable in the former.) But those who held to that theory carried the day. If money was to perform its function well it must have a solid base in precious metals. If a government was to be held to its function, it must be based on a written constitution.

Both the United States Constitution and a dollar based on precious metals were undergirded by theories. The economic theory undergirding basing the currency on precious metals can, perhaps, be stated simply. It is desirable that the money be relatively stable in value. Alexander Hamilton put the reasons this way: “The inducement . . . is to render the unit [the dollar] as little variable as possible; because on this depends the steady value of all contracts, and, in a certain sense, of all other property.”[1] Why precious metals? Because they are widely accepted and have proved not to be subject to wide variations. Neither Hamilton nor his peers generally believed that government could give value or stability to money. That was something that could be done only by men acting in the marketplace. It was something that had been done for gold and silver.

Although Hamilton recommended a bimetallic system (apparently in full awareness of Gresham’s Law) he did observe that “As long as gold, either from its intrinsic superiority as a metal, from its greater rarity, or from the prejudices of mankind, retains so considerable a preeminence over silver, as it has hitherto had, a natural consequence of this seems to be that its condition will be more stationary.”[2] The complete economic theory undergirding these views is much more extensive, of course, but these examples may serve to suggest something of the whole.

The political theory undergirding the Constitution has to be in considerable degree deduced from what was done. We know, of course, that the political philosophy of the time was greatly influenced by the natural law philosophy and natural rights doctrine. The idea of having a written constitution was buttressed by their colonial experience, their colonial charters, the covenant idea, and the attitude of Protestants particularly toward the Scriptures. The British, too, had writings in their background which stood above the rest, such as Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, and the Bill of Rights. The Constitution was conditioned, too, by the specific purposes of the Constitutional Convention. The men gathered there had the task of laying the foundation for a general government with limited powers. The powers must be limited both to protect the integrity of the already existing states and the rights of individuals which preceded all governments.

But the idea which informs the whole Constitution is that of a governmental system of balanced tensions. The model for this system was almost certainly the Newtonian conception of the universe with its gravitational pulls, its centrifugal and centripetal forces, all of which kept the planets in their separate orbits and everything in its place. Tension is necessary to the vitality of government, as to every undertaking or operation, even to life itself, but to provide both the tension and to keep it in bounds there must be counterbalancing forces or tensions.

A Balance of Powers

The problem faced by the men at the Constitutional Convention was how to give the general government sufficient power to do its job effectively yet to so circumscribe these powers that they would not come to dominate everything. It can be likened to the problem of our universe: How to give the sun sufficient power to pervade the whole with its light and hold the planets in their orbits so that they do not fly off out of the system by their own centrifugal force and yet not so much power that they are drawn into the sun and absorbed by it.

None who gathered at the convention had a definite plan for achieving such an intricate balance of tensions. They had a political theory by which to achieve it, of course. It was the doctrine of a separation and balance of powers. But how to articulate this doctrine in a new system, none had a clear-cut idea at the outset. Actually, the difficulty was more complex than that. Most were much more concerned with their interests in particulars of what was to be accomplished than with the overall system. A few were so determined to have a strong national government that they would have been willing to make the states into administrative units. More were so concerned with preserving the independence of action of the states that they were reluctant to clothe the government of the union with power at all. Some wished to make the general government an instrument of the states. Others wished to trace all power in the general government directly from the voters, to have frequent elections, and to make the government much more democratic than the one actually provided.

Yet in the midst of the debates and compromises, the pulling and pushing this way and that, the attempts to vest power or to restrain it, the Convention devised probably the most complex system of balanced tensions that has ever functioned as a government. The solution they arrived at—the Constitution—was a system of separate yet intertwined powers. The federal government was composed of three branches, each sufficiently separate and independent to perform its alloted function. Yet, on the other hand, each branch was more or less dependent upon or restrained by the others so as to limit the exercise of powers. The general government was assigned a limited sphere of operation, and the states retained an independence of operation and their integrity as distinct governments. At the same time, the general and state governments had means of limiting the other. The federal government was made supreme in its realm, and the states retained a check primarily in that state legislatures could elect the members of the Senate.

Offsetting Tensions

There are different ways to describe this system of balanced tension. One would be a step by step analysis of the Constitution. Another would be to describe the powers alloted and show they are counterbalanced in various ways. Unfortunately, any detailed description here would turn this essay into a book. Perhaps, it can be suggested, however, in a few words by reference to the political theory of the Founders. It was generally accepted that one of the prime motives of man is the love of power. That being the case, thoughtful men understood that if men were to be drawn into government service and that if the government was to be activated, it must possess power. But power over men is a dangerous thing. This, too, Americans accepted as a universal truth. Hence, men in power must be restrained in its exercise. To do this, so the Founders thought, they must be pitted against others with power, also seeking to extend or retain their own, so as to be constrained. A system of balanced tensions was the result.

There have been concerted efforts in the 20th century to relieve or remove these tensions in the American system. These efforts have generally been carried on under three distinguishable ideological banners, though, in practice, the movements have often been indistinguishable. One assault on the balanced tensions has been made under the banner of nationalism, another under that of democracy, and a third with the tacit goal of equality. Actually, the same people and groups have pushed all three, though with varying emphases from time to time. The results of the efforts have not been so much decisive as they have a sustained erosion of the system of balanced tensions.

If we had traced the vicissitudes of the dollar throughout the course of the history of the United States, we would have discovered that it was subjected to erosions in value from time to time. So it has been, too, for the political system of balanced ton-sions. The thrust to democracy, or popular election, made inroads on the state counterbalance of power in the 19th century, particularly with the popular election of presidential electors (as opposed to election by state legislatures). A much more serious inroad was made on the counterbalance of state to federal power in the early 20th century by the adoption of the 17th Amendment to have direct election of Senators. Thereto-fore, Senators had represented the state governments, technically at the least, for they were elected by state legislatures.

The thrust to nationalism during the Civil War and Reconstruction was overpowering for a time. Indeed, some historians have held that nationalism triumphed during the Civil War and has never been headed since. A bettor case can be made, I think, that by the 1890s the states had reasserted much of their power and authority as well as much of their integrity as independent entities. The thrust to nationalism gained headway once again with the Progressive movement in the early 20th century.

The New Deal

But, as in the case of the dollar, the sustained erosion of the American balanced system became headlong with the New Deal. There is no way to measure with any exactness, of course, the degrees of the distortion or disintegration of a political system of balanced tensions. The conformity of government to the Constitution cannot be measured in grains of precious metals of a certain fineness. Nor do governments behave like clocks, cease to keep correct time when the balancing springs are sprung. The malfunction of governments is a matter of judgment and discernment. Within that framework, the evidence of imbalance can sometimes be nearly as precise as the weight of coins.

At any rate, it became discernible very quickly with the coming of the New Deal that the political system was being moved off center and out of kilter. The President took over the momentum of the government, devising legislation and pushing it through Congress with unprecedented swiftness. Congress acted like a rubber stamp for the President in the first hundred days of the New Deal. Nor did presidential power wane much in the ensuing months and years, though Congress did occasionally “veto” some presidential initiative.

But the New Deal was not simply an aggrandizement of power within the federal government to the President. There was a great extension of the sphere of the federal government, as national power was extended into realms formerly reserved to the states or to the people: relief, regulation of business, labor regulation, agricultural controls and subsidies, and so on. The consolidation of power in the national government proceeded, sometimes abruptly and swiftly, during these years. A peculiarly American nationalism gained ground.

Judicial Restraint

The federal courts attempted for several years to hold the line against this massive assertion of power, to hold the legislation up to the guideline of the Constitution, and to maintain or restore balance to the system. The courts refused to enforce the central pieces of New Deal legislation. President Roosevelt proceeded to attempt to intimidate the courts: charging members of the Supreme Court, several of them, with being too old, out of touch with conditions, with legislating rather than doing their judicial jobs, and attempting to impose their prejudices on the country. Moreover, he proposed a plan for packing the courts with his own appointees if the older judges did not see the light and resign.

In making public this proposal, the President gave a curious description of the American system of government. He “described the American form of Government as a three horse team provided by the Constitution to the American people so that their field might be plowed. The three horses are, of course, the three branches of government—the Congress, the Executive and the Courts. Two of the horses are pulling in unison today; the third is not.” In short, the courts were not pulling their weight. He answered the charge that he was trying to drive the horses by declaring that “the President, as Chief Executive, is himself one of the three horses.”

“It is the American people themselves [he said] who are in the driver’s seat.

“It is the American people themselves who want the furrow plowed.

“It is the American people themselves who expect the third horse to pull in unison with the other two.”[3]

What Roosevelt described was not, of course, a governmental system of balanced tensions such as was provided in the Constitution. What he described was his vision of a nationalized unitary government, all branches of which would be actuated by a common impulse. There would be no counterweight to the popular will of the moment, no counterweight to presidential programs, no counterweight to any acts of Congress, and no counterweight to centralized government power itself. Indeed, it is not at all clear why either the Congress or the courts were necessary in his scheme. If the people were all behind it, the only useful branch would be the executive, to promulgate and implement the programs. That was the tendency of the imbalance during the New Deal and for some years after it.

These notions (though their implications were not usually spelled out) were advanced under the rubric of democracy. Roosevelt used the term over and over in his speeches, and he was certainly relying upon its shadow in referring to the people as the drivers. It would have struck the Founders as a very strange use of the language to refer to presidential government as democratic. On the contrary, they described the position of the President as “monarchical,” i. e., rule by one, which it clearly is. Indeed, many at the Constitutional Convention were so averse to any relics of monarchy that they favored an executive composed of two or three persons, at the least. They referred to the Senate as being “aristocratical,” i. e., rule by a few, beth because of the small number of its members and the manner of their selection by state legislatures. They referred to the House of Representatives as being “democratical,” i. e., rule by the many, both because of the larger number of the members and their direct election.

The Founders did not mean, of course, that they were providing for government that would be either a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. Instead, they understood that there were elements of all three in it, but that it would be a constitutional federated republic, based ultimately, but indirectly, upon popular decision. What their theory helps to make clear, however, is what the direction would be in any shift of power to one or the other of the branches.

The government was debased by the New Deal and its aftermath. That is, it was moved away from its base, and the political currency was depreciated, so to speak, under the guise of democracy. The facts of American government have moved farther and farther away from the theory on which it was founded.

In 1960, an English professor, Alfred Cobban, published a small book entitled In Search of Humanity. He was Professor of French History at London University, but the book was the result of lectures delivered at Harvard. The thesis of his book is that Western political practice is subsisting on the residues of 18th-century political theory. “For a century and a half,” Cobban said, “the Western democracies have been living on the achievements of the Enlightenment, and on the stock of basic political ideas that were last restated toward the end of the eighteenth century. That is a long time.” In consequence, “The gap thus formed between political facts and ideas has steadily widened.”[4]

The Implementation of Ideas

The spread of ideas takes place in such a way that in a given century it often happens that people are living substantially off the ideas of the preceding century. At any rate, Cobban maintains that the West lived off ideas that had last been restated in the 18th century, and lived well enough, too. But by the 20th century, they still had only the faded remnants of earlier political theories, and their practice had come loose almost entirely from the rational and ethical elements in those. The most obvious result, he thinks, has been “the increasing rebrutalization of contemporary life, particularly, though by no means exclusively, manifested in its politics.”[5] That is a rather hygienic way of referring to the monstrous assertions of force by governments upon their peoples and others in the 20th century.

And what does the West have to offer instead of the grotesque assertions of political power? “In the absence of rational and ethical discussion,” Cobban said, “of the ends of society, political theory has tended to turn into either the analysis of mere power relations, with no attempt at judgment on them, or else the repetition of shibboleths, words like ‘peace’ and ‘democracy’ which may mean anything or nothing . . . .

They have become at best mere . . . symbols like the old school tie, which can be used alike by those who are and by those who are not entitled to them. Their hollowness is the measure of the problem before us.”[6] The problem, as he saw it then, was the great need for political theory.

At about the same time that Cobban’s book appeared, I published an article entitled “The Concept of Democracy and John Dewey.” My thesis was that “democracy” had indeed become a shibboleth in the United States, that the more widespread its use had become the more vague and imprecise the meanings attached to it. The body of the article catalogued at least 30 more or less distinct, yet imprecise, meanings in which John Dewey had used the word. He had, of course, used every one of them approvingly. One of my conclusions was that “democracy” was being used as a word to conjure with and as a substitute for thought. Another was that it stood in the way of much-needed political thought. “All this would not be so important,” I pointed out, “if there were not so great a need for new political thought, or at least for re-thinking our assumptions and beliefs.” Despite the mounds of evidence of governments running amok, “twentieth-century America is a wasteland so far as political thought is concerned. In part, at least, this absence of thought can be laid to the fact that thinkers have been mesmerized by the pleasing sound of the word democracy.”[7]

Whether the use of democracy as a magic word to conjure with has moderated since that time I am not certain, but one thing is clear, at least to me. The United States government has moved even farther off base than it was at that time. The main instrument for this debasement has been the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court. Moreover, it would require an Herculean effort to cover what has occurred with the concept of democracy. Even as Cobban was issuing his call for political theory, the Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, was moving toward judicial activism, which became rampant in the 1960s and since. The Court moved with great vigor to relieve all the tensions not only in the government but in the society as well.

Judging by the proliferation of court cases as well as the decisions, both the courts and many people believe they can resolve all questions and relieve all tensions. Far from having a government of balanced tensions, the balance of power has shifted toward the courts; state gov ernments have been permeated with the power of the federal courts and in significant ways deactivated; Congress has stood supinely by; and Presidents await the next court decision to find out what the law now is. The structure still stands, but it has been badly wrenched from its mooring by successive shifts of power and the deactivation of counterbalancing forces.

A Growing Need

I take it, then, that the need for political theory has increased rather than diminished over the years. My point is not that there is necessarily any need for political theorizing, though there may be, and I certainly do not mean that there is a need for mere political speculation. What is needed, rather, is a much broader realization of the role of political theory to political activity. We act on the basis of our assumptions, whether we have brought them to consciousness and are aware of them or not. However vague, imprecise, and inchoate our reigning ideas, they guide us and produce their inevitable consequences.

Over the past century, we have come increasingly as a people under the sway of an ideology, mainly socialist ideology. Socialism neither has nor contains any political theory worthy of the name. It has instead a vision of the future in which man and society have been reconstructed. Gradualist socialism appropriates the existing political institutions and attempts to bend them to its purposes. Government is assumed to be a creative device by which man and society can be reconstructed. Therein lies the socialist justification for the concentration and exercise of large measures of power. It is this “creative” use of power that has virtually destroyed the dollar. It is this “creative” bending of government that has wrenched it from its moorings.

Sound political theory is virtually the opposite of such ideologies. It is based (whether explicitly or by way of assumption) upon the nature of man, the nature of government, and the nature of society. It does not see government as either the fount or end of man, but rather begins, as it always must begin, with the understanding that government operates by force. From that vantage point, political theory can proceed to an elaboration of the limits and legitimate functions of government. But it is not necessary to invent political theory; that task has long since been performed for us. “And if political theory revives,” as Cobban pointed out, “if the idea of purpose is reintroduced into political thinking, we may take up again the tradition of Western political thought . . . ”[8]

To restore the dollar, or whatever a currency may be called, it is necessary to base it on sound economic theory. To restore the governmental system of balanced tensions, it is necessary to have a political theory that supports such a system. When we become sufficiently aware of the need for political theory, we will no doubt turn to it and appropriate that from our past which will be helpful. No doubt much that has happened in the past 200 years could shed new light on government. Hence, new theorizing on the base of the old may make a welcome addition. []

1.   Richard B. Morris, ed., Alexander Hamilton and the Founding of a Nation (New York: The Dial Press, 1957), p. 355.

2.   Ibid., pp. 355-56.

3.   Ben D. Zevin, ed., Nothing to Fear: The Selected Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt (New York: Popular Library, 1946), pp. 109-10.

4.   Alfred Cobban, In Search of Humanity: The Role of the Enlightenment in Modern History (New York: George Braziller, 1960), p. 241.

5.   Ibid., p. 242.

6.   Ibid., pp. 243-44.

7.   Clarence B. Carson, “The Concept of Democracy and John Dewey,” Modern Age (Spring, 1960), pp. 186-87. The article was also published in the Appendix of The Fateful Turn (Ir vington: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1963).

8.   Cobban, op. cit., p. 241.