Friday, October 14, 2005

The Chimpanzee Politics of the Miers Nomination

Conservative resistance to President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court shows that conservatives are returning to their traditional principles of limited government and resisting the seductions of presidential democracy. In doing that, they reaffirm a realist view of human nature that is fundamental to what I have called "Darwinian conservatism."

Traditionally, conservatives believe that ordered liberty requires limited government with a balance of powers under the rule of law. Leftists favor a pure democracy founded on popular sovereignty, and so they are suspicious of any system of checks and balances that limits the will of the people. Conservatives reject pure democracy unconstrained by a balance of powers, because they believe that the natural desire for status and distinction will always create political rivalry among leaders and factions motivated by the passions of ambition and avarice. Because of their realist view of human nature as imperfect, conservatives believe that any person with power is inclined to abuse it to achieve dominance over others, and therefore the only way to prevent the abuse of power is to structure things so that power checks power. Because leftists have a utopian view of human nature as perfectible, they believe that power will not be abused in a true democracy where the people are sovereign.

Darwinian science supports the conservative principle of balancing power by sustaining the realist view of human imperfectibility. Comparing the social behavior of human beings with that of other closely related animals suggests that political rivalry and the need to constrain such rivalry through a balance of power is manifest in chimpanzees and other political animals.

Frans de Waal is famous for his studies of "chimpanzee politics." From many years of observing chimp social behavior, he sees a natural drive for dominance expressed in the "alpha male" of every chimp society. But he also sees a natural drive of subordinates to resist the exploitation of the dominant male. He suggests that chimps avoid despotism by a "balance of power" in which the power of some is checked by the power of others. This drive for dominance checked by opposing power is so similar to human politics that Newt Gingrich has often recommended de Waal's book CHIMPANZEE POLITICS as one of the best books for understanding the political life of Washington, D.C.

In the American conservative tradition, the importance of the balance of power was elaborated by John Adams. He insisted that inherent in human nature was the desire of ambitious people to become dominant. And although such a desire could motivate the ambitious few to heroic leadership, he argued that to prevent despotism, there needed to be a system of countervailing powers by which the ambition of some would be checked by the ambition of others. He warned that the inclination of the French revolutionaries (and their sympathizers in the U.S. like Thomas Jefferson) to give all power to a democratic majority would tend to favor the despotic rule of a Caesaristic leader. Napoleon's rise to Emperor of France by majority consent of the citizens confirmed Adams' prediction.

Conservatives have generally been on the side of Adams and balanced government. But in recent decades, they have been seduced by presidential democracy--by the idea that a President elected directly by the people has a popular mandate to use the virtually unlimited powers of executive prerogative--particularly, in national emergencies--for the public good. A clear manifestation of this disposition has been the willingness of conservative constitutionalists to allow the President to wage war without the congressional declaration of war required by the U.S. Constitution.

In recent years, a Congress controlled by the Republican Party has generally bowed to the leadership of George W. Bush, and thus they have failed to assert the traditional conservative principle of balancing powers.

But now with the Miers nomination, many conservatives both inside and outside the U.S. Senate are challenging the claim of the President that he should be able to appoint a long-time friend to the Supreme Court whose primary qualification seems to be adulation of George Bush. This shows a healthy conservative recognition of the dangers that come from concentrated power and ambition and the need to reassert the constitutional scheme of checks and balances.

The British have faced a similar problem as the British Prime Minister has increasingly come to resemble the American president, with unchecked authority derived from popular plebiscites. And unlike the U.S., Great Britain does not have a written constitution to which they can appeal to assert the constitutional checks on the prerogative powers of the Prime Minister.

The fundamental insight of conservative constitutionalism is that because power-seeking is rooted in evolved human nature, the power of one person or group can only be controlled by the power of another. Among chimpanzees as well as human beings, liberty requires a system of limited government based on countervailing powers.

Chapter 5 of DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM is devoted to this Darwinian understanding of limited government.