This is a letter I sent to The Wall Street Journal on 3/6/12, commenting upon various editorial tributes to the great philosopher and political scientist, James Q. Wilson, who died last week.
Your various pieces on the occasion of the death of James Q. Wilson, and particularly the references to The Moral Sense, put me to thinking about the role of the moral sense in American history, and led me to speculate:
What would America look like today, if the first president of the US had been Barack Obama rather than George Washington? If the Founding Fathers had been Timothy Geithner, David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, Eric Holder, Austan Goolsbee, and Van Jones, rather than Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and Franklin? If the first important Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had been Ruth Bader Ginsburg, rather than John Marshall?
The essence of the great experiment that was the United States of America, was an enormous gamble: a bet that a parlay of individual self-interest and individuals’ moral sense would result in result in a nation that was better and stronger than all of the various states and empires that had been produced by governments that attempted to impose order and engender progress by means of tight regulation of all of their subjects or citizens. The Founders, in their magnificent wisdom (and their mastery of the principles enunciated by Adam Smith), understood that liberal democracy and free-market capitalism, propelled by the “invisible hand” of individual initiative (or greed, if you prefer) and restrained primarily by religious or secular “moral sentiments” rather than excessive legal regulation, were a magical combination.
After more than two-and-a quarter centuries of field testing, it is pretty hard to argue that the Founding Fathers’ experiment has not been a great success. And after more than three years of field testing, it is pretty hard to argue that the Obama White House has anything but contempt for the governmental model that was created by our country’s founders. It is clear that this President and his administration do not believe that there is such a thing as Smith’s moral sentiments (or James Q. Wilson’s “moral sense”), and it is clear that they, like most of history’s monarchs, Party Chairmen, and other leaders of authoritarian states, believe that every aspect of human behavior needs to be tightly regulated by the state in order to maintain civil order and attain social justice and economic prosperity.
So, short answer: if America had been founded by the Obama administration, it might look today a lot like France, or maybe most of the African continent. It would perhaps offer a decent regional cuisine or culture, it would make a modest living off of its natural resources (which would have been rudely extracted at a cost of all of the pristine beauty of our beaches, shorelines, and wilderness areas), it would long since have been totally taken over by Germany, Japan, or Russia, and there would be no such thing as individual freedom or democracy within its borders.