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Are politicians today as wise as those who produced the U.S. Constitution? No…

January 21, 2010

William Voegeli in In Character:

“What sets the politicians of 2009 apart from the ones of 1787 is the pervasive modern denial that human nature is something we can understand and a basis on which we can found a political order.”

Suppose we rephrase our debate topic: “Are today’s [select a field of endeavor or expertise] as wise as their counterparts in 1787?” The indisputable answer for a long, long list of professions would be, “You must be joking.” The eighteenth century’s doctors, scientists, and engineers had more in common with practitioners from thousands of years ago, who relied on primitive superstitions, than they do with their counterparts today, who are highly specialized, dauntingly well informed, and expert in the use of rigorous methodologies for rejecting false hypotheses and second-best practices.

The default assumption, then, is that there is no reason to believe the steady and often startling advances in our understanding and capabilities apply to science or medicine but not to politics. None of us would hire George Washington’s dentist. Why, then, should we shrink from rewriting his Constitution in light of everything we have learned in the past 222 years?

Remember, though, that the story of progress is the story of trial and error. Progress will often require modifying or discarding old ideas, but not becausethey are old. New ideas are better ones only if they do a better job of explaining the world or improving the circumstances in which we live. The ones that fail those tests need to be set aside, not embraced simply because they were coined more recently.

What sets the politicians of 2009 apart from the ones of 1787 is the pervasive modern denial that human nature is something we can understand and a basis on which we can found a political order. [More]

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