Welcome to The Heritage Foundation's Annual Board Meeting and Public Policy Seminar. We open two days of sessions built around the theme of "The Enduring Principles of the American Founding." A glance at the speakers on the agenda will tell you that when the sessions end, all of us will have a better understanding of our nation's founding principles.
Perhaps that theme, "The Enduring Principles of the American Founding," should be taken more as a question than a statement. Much of this weekend will be devoted to addressing, directly or indirectly, such question as:
- Which of our founding principles have endured?
- Which have not endured, and what has happened to them?
- How do we restore the lost principles?
The first is the idea of self-evident truths. All of us know those famous words from the Declaration: "We hold these truths to be self-evident ...." Yet, in today's roiling policy battles, it often appears that everything is open to debate and nothing is self-evident. So I will explore this puzzling state of affairs, and in that context I'll tell you how our work at The Heritage Foundation is guided by the Founders' conviction that the most fundamental truths are self-evident.
The second principle from the founding I will discuss is one you will recognize as one of Ronald Reagan's favorite maxims: "Trust the people." The American Founders not only trusted the people, they built that trust into a system of government the likes of which had never been seen before. But they also qualified that trust, and on that point I will conclude with some questions that should be thought-provoking for conservatives.
As a bonus - to show you that life is fair, prayers are answered and dreams come true - I will do all that in less than 30 minutes. So let me turn directly to the principle of self-evident truths. In the Declaration, the Founders stated several propositions they held to be self-evidently true: that all men are created equal and are equally endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Today, if there's universal agreement that all men are equal, there is not universal agreement about the definition of equality. Conservatives define equality by the opportunity to pursue happiness, while liberals define it by the outcomes of the pursuit. This dispute is, of course, famous and endless. Although the Founders mentioned the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as self-evident truths, they plainly left room for other such truths in their phrase "among these" truths.
It is helpful to think what some of those other truths might be. Despite our seemingly endless disagreements with the left, we do agree on a number of important propositions that seem to be self-evidently true. For instance, we agree:
- That a well-educated child is better off than a poorly educated child.
- That a person who earns a living is better off than one who must depend on others.
- That neighbors who are neighborly and trusting toward one another are better off than neighbors who don't know and don't trust one another.
If we agree that a child needs a good education, we disagree about how to deliver it. Progressives have one answer, traditionalists another. Advocates of whole language stand off against advocates of phonics. Rote learning of important facts clashes with the self-directed "discovery" approach to learning.
If we agree that self-reliant adults are better off than dependent adults, we disagree about how to nurture self-reliance. The welfare reforms of 1996, which center on personal responsibility and conditional beneficence, touched off storms of disagreement. And despite the manifest success of those reforms, the disagreements are still rumbling.
Is there any hope of making progress in such debates? I think so, and the place to begin is with a better understanding of how America's Founding Fathers viewed the idea of self-evident truth. One of the philosophers who greatly influenced Jefferson — and many of his contemporaries — was Thomas Reid, the Scottish philosopher of common sense.
From his study of Reid, Jefferson understood that the apprehension of self-evident truth doesn't necessarily come easily or automatically. Reid wrote a great deal about this. He said that any ordinary person can grasp self-evident truths if they are distinctly set before him, and if he "takes due pains to be rightly informed."
Now I would suggest that taking pains to be rightly informed need not be restricted to the informed; the informers can also take such pains. And at Heritage we are very much in the business of taking pains to rightly inform people about policies by setting the issues distinctly before them, to use Thomas Reid's phrase.
One way we do this is through the highly technical field of data analysis. About five years ago, as you know, we began building what has since become our Center for Data Analysis. During our 25th anniversary campaign over the past two years, we directed more resources toward this work and developed some exciting new ways to quantitatively forecast the effects of changes in tax policy and other social policies — and to do so at the level of families and individuals.
Let me give you an example of how this work pays off. Congress has been debating a proposal to reduce the bizarre tax known as the marriage penalty. This policy says that if a man and woman live together out of wedlock, they pay a certain tax rate. If they get married, their tax burden instantly increases.
In February our CDA produced a study that shows by congressional district how many married couples in each district are penalized by this strange tax. Incidentally, this simple list required us to solve some truly groundbreaking mathematical problems, because the federal data isn't sorted by congressional district.
But it was worth the effort, because last month during House debate of the proposed reforms, Members cited Heritage numbers no fewer than 60 times in one session. Forty-four different Members, including Speaker Hastert and seven Democrats, used our data, and the full spread sheet from our study was entered in the Congressional Record.
Just as important, newspapers around the country carried stories about the effect of the marriage penalty in their communities — thanks to our public relations efforts. In the end, the House passed the bill overwhelmingly, with 48 Democrats joining the majority. At least 30 of those Democrats said that our research and the media coverage back home made a difference.
That is an example of the payoff when we sweat the details and set issues clearly and distinctly before the Congress and the American people. As we continue to refine our forecasting models, we will be able to plug in a growing range of social policy reforms and give rough but credible quantitative answers to questions like the following. If a certain policy reform is implemented,
- How many more, or fewer, marriages are likely end in divorce?
- How much more, or less, will families be able to save?
- How many more, or fewer, children will be able to attend college?
- How many more, or fewer, families will be able to own a home?
- How many more, or fewer, people will be able to afford health insurance?
And though we often disagree about the means of achieving such self-evident goods, those disagreements are not doomed to be endless. In many cases they can be resolved by the sorts of quantitative measures I just mentioned, measures we are learning to generate at Heritage. In relatively uncontroversial terms, these studies set issues distinctly before the people who must decide them.
Now, we all know that conservative policy-makers haven't distinguished themselves in the past few years. But they aren't the only people who make public policy. That job is shared by the people, as in "We the people of the United States." And that is why we've expanded our efforts at Heritage to better educate the general public by creating our Center for Media and Public Policy. If we set the issues distinctly before them, if we take pains to rightly inform them in the ways I described, they will understand how to realize the kinds of self-evident goods I mentioned earlier.
Toward that end, we are working on a number of priorities this year.
- We support a tax system that would promote prosperity for all by making taxes simpler, lower and fairer.
- We support a missile defense system, because the first obligation of government is to protect the American people against foreign aggression.
- We support personalized Social Security accounts to give all Americans the opportunity to save for their own retirement rather than depend on the whims of future politicians.
- We support school choice, because we want America to have the best schools in the world, so our children will have the education and opportunity to succeed.
- Because all Americans should be free to choose their own health care providers, we favor reforms to increase competition and lower costs.
- Because too many government programs actually hurt their intended beneficiaries, we encourage non-government solutions to local problems as the essence of civil society.
If we want to know how the Founders understood that principle, the place to begin is with the question: Trust the people to do what?
Because the Founders were republicans with a small R, and not democrats with a small D, their answer to this was clear: The people can be and should be entrusted with deciding who will govern. "Trust the people" as the Founders understood it meant: Trust the people to do some things — but not all things.
In his Heritage 25 Lecture on Leadership in January 1999, George Will noted that the Founders deliberately created a "constitutional distance" between elected representatives and the people. Let me quote a few lines from his lecture:
The original idea of the republic … was representation, and the point of representation is that the people do not decide issues; they decide who will decide. In a republic, the question is not whether the elite shall rule; it is which elite shall rule, and the task of governments is to get consent to good government.Taking this notion of a republic seriously, the Founders and their successors seldom sought the public's ear and took little interest in molding public opinion. As Will noted in his lecture, George Washington gave an average of only three speeches a year during his presidency. John Adams gave one. Jefferson was a relatively big talker with five speeches a year.
Andrew Jackson spoke publicly about once a year. But his populist views gave birth to Jacksonian democracy and supplied an ideological lever for narrowing the constitutional distance the Founders put between the people and their representatives.
In his annual message to Congress delivered in December 1833, Jackson took up the question — one of his favorite hobby horses — of whether government deposits were safe in the Bank of the United States. Here is what he said to Members of the House and Senate:
Coming as you do, for the most part, immediately from the people and the states by election, and possessing the fullest opportunity to know their sentiments, the present Congress will be sincerely solicitous to carry into full and fair effect the will of their constituents in regard to this institution.So, under the lens of Jacksonian democracy, "Trust the people" means "Know the people's sentiments and be sincerely solicitous to put them into effect." And that is quite different from how the Founders understood the republic that they established.
Now, we can bring this topic up to the present day by solving the following riddle: What do you get if you put Jacksonian democracy on steroids and add jet air travel, nationwide television, telephones, fax machines, and the Internet — and then place all of that at the disposal of elected officials who take their compass bearings not from the North Pole but from the Gallup Poll?
You get Clintonian democracy. You get a federal government that knows nothing of a constitutional distance between itself and the people. It knows only a continuous, cloying and morbid contact with the people.
This is not what Ronald Reagan meant when he said "Trust the people," and it certainly wasn't what the Founders had in mind for the republic when they placed a constitutional distance between the government and the people.
When I began, I said I would conclude with some questions that should be thought-provoking for conservatives. So let me put the general question this way: As conservatives, we are republicans with a small R — Jeffersonian democrats with a small D. Yet we are living at time when representative government operates as a Jacksonian enterprise. Elected representatives are nothing if not solicitous of voters sentiments on every imaginable issue. And voters generally see their elected representatives as agents to carry out their will on specific issues.
If voters want to tune in on what Congress is up to, they have the technology for doing so at their fingertips. They can dial up C-SPAN and see their representatives at the podium. Through the Internet, they can read bills, committee reports, floor debates, and anything else on the public record. If they fire off an e-mail, it arrives in their representative's computer about 10 seconds later.
Conversely, if Members of Congress want to know what's on their constituents' minds, an almost daily stream of scientific opinion polls will tell them. If they want to manipulate public opinion, they can use all the latest communications technologies to bombard their constituents with their spin on any given issue - and then poll to see what effect the spin might have had.
We cannot step outside this system and operate in a vacuum. We have to play the hand we are dealt. We have to work within the prevailing framework, and that framework is, for now, Jacksonian. The example I described a moment ago about the marriage penalty was a policy victory we won by playing according to the Jacksonian rules of the game — by setting that issue clearly before the Congress and the constituents they aim to please.
So, the question is: Are we all Jacksonians now? Or can we work within today's Jacksonian framework to restore the Founders' Jeffersonian principles and re-open a constitutional distance between the people and their representatives?
Those questions may seem a bit disconcerting. But, as you well know, I never got out of the pessimistic side of a bed in my life, and this morning — back here where I studied 35 years ago — was no exception. So let me suggest in broad terms how I think we should approach this puzzle.
First, we should recognize that although communications technologies are a conspicuous part of the problem, they aren't the primary part. To see what I mean, consider this analogy: Any of us could use communications technologies to keep in daily touch with the managers of mutual funds in which we've invested. We could endlessly badger them to manage the funds according to our individual wishes. And they, if they chose, could be solicitous Jacksonians and constantly poll our opinions and curry favor with the dominant factions. That is, they could act like Members of Congress.
But, in fact, the vast empire of mutual funds doesn't work that way, even though millions of Americans have entrusted large chunks of their life savings to fund managers. The world of mutual funds is largely a Jeffersonian enterprise that spontaneously maintains a "constitutional distance" between fund managers and individual investors.
What this shows us is that important institutions of national scope — institutions in which the people have enormous financial stakes — can and do operate on Jeffersonian principles. Institutions of investment and institutions of government have access to the same communications technologies. Yet the former are Jeffersonian and the latter are Jacksonian.
But why is this? In a nutshell, I stated the answer a moment ago: People entrust their money to fund mangers. But they do not entrust government to their elected representatives. Ironically, this is borne out by the polls that the politicians live by. In the 1950s, about 70 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. Today, only about 30 percent express such trust. Today, despite vastly improved communications between the people and their government, we do not have better government or greater trust. We have precisely the contrary.
So, to give a short answer to a large question, I think the Founders' constitutional distance will begin to reopen when more people begin to trust their representatives to govern well. And a large part of restoring that trust is returning government authority to its proper — constitutional — scope.
This is something we can accomplish, one step at a time, within today's Jacksonian framework. That is essentially what our scores of programs at Heritage aim to do. Whatever the particular issue — whether it's the marriage penalty, the death tax, over-reaching regulation, welfare policy, national defense, or rebuilding the institutions of civil society — we are on a principled course toward two broad objectives:
- First, government must stop doing things the Founding Fathers never meant for it to do.
- And second, government must do a better job at those things it was established to do.
Right now, Heritage can do this better than any other organization — conservative or liberal — in America. We achieved that capability because we understand that the new technologies are not dark forces destined to crowd out the Founding principles; they are powerful tools that, when intelligently used, can help restore those principles to their intended place in American life.
As we look ahead, what course should we set at Heritage? I think the best answer is expressed by another prescription we heard from Ronald Reagan when America was making incremental gains on large problems: Stay the course.