This short essay on government by Aaron Wolf surprised me, since it matter-of-factly promotes a view that I thought was marginal and controversial. I need to learn more about the folks that think this way.
He begins by relating a bit of biblical history that has been much on my mind lately.
When the children of Israel clamored for a king, so that they might rely on him to protect them from foreign invaders, the prophet warned them that “he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.” God had been their sovereign, but they wanted what the other nations had. So He gave them what they wanted.
And He wasn’t doing them a favor when he did that.
Wolf goes on to point out that when the country was young there were competing views of how to define a republic.
How, then, should we define the nature of a republic? The word itself was batted around by all of the Founding Fathers, but its usage varied. John Adams, who favored aristocracy and “balanced power,” wrote that the only “rational” definition of republic is “a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws.”
John Taylor of Caroline assailed this sort of “republic,” which puts its faith in the “rule of law.” Answering Adams in 1814 (An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States), he asked how this was any different from the government from which they had declared independence. What guarantees that the law to which everyone is “equally subject” is just—or good? [Emphasis added]
This strikes me as a fatal flaw in the concept of “rule of law.” An unjust or wicked law equally applied will still result in injustice and wickedness. As Anatole France sarcastically observed, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” And I take no comfort in the fact that, say, jack-booted thugs will descend on anyone who tries to sell raw milk, whether industrial conglomerate or the farmer down the lane—it is still wrong to prohibit a farmer from taking money for something he could legally give to someone for free, no matter how many of his fellow citizens endorse the prohibition.
Apparently Adams had a comeback to Taylor’s objection, but two hundred years of history has shown it to be a delusion.
Adams’ imagined government would counter this injustice with a “balance of power,” by which each class, emerging “naturally” according to a divine distribution of talent, would find equal representation. But do such classes really arise “by nature,” according to “God’s design”? Taylor argues that Adams’ classes are artificial—special interests created by laws and sustained by government. (Government’s creation of a standing army, for example, creates a “soldier class,” a military interest. Central banking creates a banking interest. Etc.) And man’s lust for power being what it is, these artificial classes would (did) seek to advance their standing among the others, if not dominate them altogether, even taking the moral high ground for doing just so. “One tyrant may thank God that he is not another tyrant.”
So what does Taylor propose as the proper alternative to the rule of law? Self-government, i.e. a truly sovereign people. Who is up to the task of governing themselves?
The people are the farmers. At the time of the War of Independence, 95 percent of Americans were engaged in farming. And as many as two thirds of the farming families owned their own land. The prospect of owning a farm was what had made the colonies attractive in the first place. The wealth they sought in America was not cash but crops. […]
According to the Jeffersonian tradition, of which Taylor was the greatest exemplar, the farmer is capable of self-government. His is the only vocation that is “natural”—that is not a creation of government. He depends on God to sustain him. His hands know the soil and the hard work necessary to cultivate it. His product sustains his family and his community. His people and his soil are his interest. Thus, he takes up his arms to defend hearth and home in the local militia, and the mantle of statesman when called upon—all the while eager, as Taylor was, to get back to his land, to the plow. “And the interdependence of such solid citizens,” wrote M.E. Bradford, “all of them capable of honor in each other’s eyes, all with a share in the patria, is the closest we can come to the providentially provided Garden or ‘golden age’ under the present, unpropitious dispensation.”
This is the true republican ideal—a nation of farmers. It abounds not it laws but in corn. Its people are defined not by party affiliation or political law but by the mores majorum, the “customs of the fathers.” It is the agrarian republic Cato wrote of when he spoke of his ancestors who, “when they would praise a worthy man,” would say “good husbandman,” “good farmer.”
Now, here’s what continues to bug me. As God pointed out, when Israel clamored for a king they were in essence rejecting Him—not a good thing. But how does the Bible describe the stretch of Israel’s history which preceded their rejection of Him?
In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6, NASB)
That phrase, “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” is usually taken as a bad thing, a description of unbridled license. But why? Would the farmer, so aware of God because of his utter dependence on Him and His creation, be likely to stray from His ways? Or would his eyes be a reliable guide, having learned to see things as God’s eyes see them?
Wouldn’t it be accurate to describe a self-governed man as one who does what is right in his own eyes?