A Fable of a Snake

 

… Thus the orb he roamed
With narrow search; and with inspection deep
Considered every creature, which of all
Most opportune might serve his wiles; and found
The Serpent subtlest beast of all the field.
Paradise Lost. Book IX.
The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, [find] by too long experience, that
the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the people of England …
—Parliament of England. “An Act for the Abolishing of the House of Peers.” 19 March 1649.

 

Imagine,” wrote the literary critic Terry Eagleton some years ago in the first line of his review of the biologist Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, “someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” Eagleton could quite easily have left things there—the rest of the review contains not much more information, though if you have a taste for that kind of thing it does have quite a few more mildly-entertaining slurs. Like a capable prosecutor, Eagleton arraigns Dawkins for exceeding his brief as a biologist: that is, of committing the scholarly heresy of speaking from ignorance. Worse, Eagleton appears to be right: of the two, clearly Eagleton is better read in theology. Yet although it may be that Dawkins the real person is ignorant of the subtleties of the study of God, the rules of logic suggest that it’s entirely possible that someone could be just as educated as Eagleton in the theology—and yet hold arguably views closer to Dawkins’ than to Eagleton’s. As it happens, that person not only once existed, but Eagleton wrote a review of someone else’s biography of him. His name is Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas is, of course, the Roman Catholic saint whose writings stand, even today, as the basis of Church doctrine: according to Aeterni Patris, an encyclical delivered by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, Aquinas stands as “the chief and master of all” the scholastic Doctors of the church. Just as, in other words, the scholar Richard Hofstadter called American Senator John Calhoun of South Carolina “the Marx of the master class,” so too could Aquinas be called the Marx of the Catholic Church: when a good Roman Catholic searches for the answer to a difficult question, Aquinas is usually the first place to look. It might be difficult then to think of Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor” as he is sometimes referred to by Catholics, as being on Dawkins’ side in this dispute: both Aquinas and Eagleton lived by means of examining old books and telling people about what they found, whereas Dawkins is, by training at any rate, a zoologist.

Yet, while in that sense it could be argued that the Good Doctor (as another of his Catholic nicknames puts it) is therefore more like Eagleton (who was educated in Catholic schools) than he is like Dawkins, I think it could equally well be argued that it is Dawkins who makes better use of the tools Aquinas made available. Not merely that, however: it’s something that can be demonstrated simply by reference to Eagleton’s own work on Aquinas.

“Whatever other errors believers may commit,” Eagleton for example says about Aquinas’ theology, “not being able to count is not one of them”: in other words, as Eagleton properly says, one of the aims of Aquinas’ work was to assert that “God and the universe do not make two.” That’s a reference to Aquinas’ famous remark, sometimes called the “principle of parsimony,” in his magisterial Summa Contra Gentiles: “If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices.” But what’s strange about Eagleton’s citation of Aquinas’ thought is that it is usually thought of as a standard argument on Richard Dawkins’ side of the ledger.

Aquinas’ statement is after all sometimes held to be one of the foundations of scientific belief. Sometimes called “Occam’s Razor,” Isaac Newton referred to Aquinas’ axiom in the Principia Mathematica when the great Englishman held that his work would “admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” Later still, in a lecture Albert Einstein gave at Oxford University in 1933, Newton’s successor affirmed that “the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” Through these lines of argument runs more or less Aquinas’ thought that there is merely a single world—it’s just that the scientists had a rather different idea of what that world is than Aquinas did.

“God for Aquinas is not a thing in or outside the world,” according to Eagleton, “but the ground of possibility of anything whatever”: that is, the world according to Aquinas is a God-infused one. The two great scientists seem to have held, however, a position closer to the view supposed to have been expressed to Napoleon by the eighteenth-century mathematician Pierre-Simon LaPlace: that there is “no need of that hypothesis.” Both in other words think there is a single world; the distinction to be made is simply whether the question of God is important to that world’s description—or not.

One way to understand the point is to say that the scientists have preserved Aquinas’ way of thinking—the axiom sometimes known as the “principle of parsimony”—while discarding (as per the principle itself) that which was unnecessary: that is, God. Viewed in that way, the scientists might be said to be more like Aquinas than Aquinas—or, at least, than Terry Eagleton is like Aquinas. For Eagleton’s disagreement with Aquinas is different: instead of accepting the single-world hypothesis and rejecting whether it is God or not, Eagleton’s contention is with the “principle of parsimony” itself—the contention that there can be merely a single explanation for the world.

Now, getting into that whole subject is worth a library, so we’ll leave it aside here; let me simply ask you to stipulate that there is a lot of discussion about Occam’s Razor and its relation to the sciences, and that Terry Eagleton (a—former?—Marxist) is both aware of it and bases his objection to Aquinas upon it. The real question to my mind is this one: although Eagleton—as befitting a political radical—does what he does on political grounds, is the argumentative move he makes here as legitimate and as righteous as he makes it out to be? The reason I ask this is because the “principle of parsimony” is an essential part of a political case that’s been made for over two centuries—which is to say that, by abandoning Thomas Aquinas’ principle, people adopting Eagleton’s anti-scientific view are essentially conceding that political goal.

That political application concerns the design of legislatures: just as Eagleton and Dawkins argue over whether there is a single world or two, in politics the question of whether legislatures ought to have one house or two has occupied people for centuries. (Leaving aside such cases as Sweden, which once had—in a lovely display of the “diversity” so praised by many of Eagleton’s compatriots—four legislative houses.) The French revolutionary leader, the Abbè Sieyés—author of the manifesto of the French Revolution, What Is the Third Estate?—has likely put the case for a single house most elegantly: the abbè once wrote that legislatures ought to have one house instead of two on the grounds that “if the second chamber agrees with the first, it is useless; if it disagrees it is dangerous.” Many other French revolutionary leaders had similar thoughts: for example, Mirabeau wrote that what are usually termed “second chambers,” like the British House of Lords or the American Senate, are often “the constitutional refuge of the aristocracy and the preservation of the feudal system.” The Marquis de Condorcet thought much the same. But such a thought has not been limited to the eighteenth-century, nor to the right-hand side of the English Channel.

Indeed, there has long been similar-minded people across the Channel—there’s reason in fact to think that the French got the idea from the English in the first place given that Oliver Cromwell’s “Roundhead” regime had abolished the House of Lords in 1649. (Though it was brought back after the return of Charles II.) In 1867’s The English Constitution, the writer and editor-in-chief of The Economist, Walter Bagehot, had asserted that the “evil of two co-equal Houses of distinct natures is obvious.” George Orwell, the English novelist and essayist, thought much the same: in the early part of World War II he fully expected that the need for efficiency produced by the war would result in a government that would “abolish the House of Lords”—and in reality, when the war ended and Clement Atlee’s Labour government took power, one of Orwell’s complaints about it was that it had not made a move “against the House of Lords.” Suffice it to say, in other words, that the British tradition regarding the idea of a single legislative body is at least as strong as that of the French.

Support for the idea of a single legislative house, called unicameralism, is however not limited to European sources. For example, the French revolutionary leader, the Marquis de Condorcet, only began expressing support for the concept after meeting Benjamin Franklin in 1776—the Philadelphian having recently arrived in Paris from an American state, Pennsylvania, best-known for its single-house legislature. (A result of 1701’s Charter of Privileges.) Franklin himself contributed to the literature surrounding this debate by introducing what he called “the famous political Fable of the Snake, with two Heads and one Body,” in which the said thirsty Snake, like Buridan’s Ass, cannot decide which way to proceed towards water—and hence dies of dehydration. Franklin’s concerns were later taken up, a century and half later, by the Nebraskan George Norris—ironically, a member of the U.S. Senate—who criss-crossed his state in the summer of 1934 (famously wearing out two sets of tires in the process) campaigning for the cause of unicameralism. Norris’ side won, and today Nebraska’s laws are passed by a single legislative house.

Lately, however, the action has swung back across the Atlantic: both Britain and Italy have sought to reform, if not abolish, their upper houses. In 1999, the Parliament of Great Britain passed the House of Lords Act, which ended a tradition that had lasted nearly a thousand years: the hereditary right of the aristocracy to sit in that house. More recently, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi called “for eliminating the Italian Senate,” as Alexander Stille put it in The New Yorker, which the Italian leader claimed—much as Norris had claimed—that doing so would “reduc[e] the cost of the political class and mak[e] its system more functional.” That proved, it seems, a bridge too far for many Italians, who forced Renzi out of office in 2016; similarly, despite the withering scorn of Orwell (who could be quite withering), the House of Lords has not been altogether abolished.

Nevertheless, American professor of political science James Garner observed so early as 1910, citing the example of Canadian provincial legislatures, that among “English speaking people the tendency has been away from two chambers of equal rank for nearly two hundred years”—and the latest information indicates the same tendency at work worldwide. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union—a kind of trade organization for legislatures—there are for instance currently 116 unicameral legislatures in the world, compared with 77 bicameral ones. That represents a change even from 2014, when there were 3 less unicameral ones and 2 more bicameral ones, according to a 2015 report by Betty Drexage for the Dutch government. Globally, in other words, bicameralism appears to be on the defensive and unicameralism on the rise—for reasons, I would suggest, that have much to do with widespread adoption of a perspective closer to Dawkins’ than to Eagleton’s.

Within the English-speaking world, however—and in particular within the United States—it is in fact Eagleton’s position that appears ascendent. Eagleton’s dualism is, after all, institutionally a far more useful doctrine for the disciplines known, in the United States, as “the humanities”: as the advertisers know, product differentiation is a requirement for success in any market. Yet as the former director of the American National Humanities Center, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, has remarked, the humanities are “truly native only to the United States”—which implies that the dualist conception of knowledge that depicts the sciences as opposed to something called “the humanities” is one that is merely contingent, not a necessary part of reality. Therefore, Terry Eagleton, and other scholars in those disciplines, may advertise themselves as on the side of “the people,” but the real history of the world may differ—which is to say, I suppose, that somebody’s delusional, all right.

It just may not be Richard Dawkins.

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I Think I’m Gonna Be Sad

In all Republics the voice of a majority must prevail.
—Andrew Jackson.

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take control from them, but to inform their discretion.
—Thomas Jefferson. “Letter to William Charles Jarvis.” 28 September, 1820

 

 

When the Beatles first came to America, in February of 1964—Michael Tomasky noted recently for The Daily Beast—they rode from their gig at Ed Sullivan’s show in New York City to their first American concert in Washington, D.C. by train, arriving two hours and fifteen minutes after leaving Manhattan. It’s a seemingly trivial detail—until it’s pointed out, as Tomasky realized, that anyone trying that trip today would be lucky to do it in three hours. American infrastructure in short is not what it was: as the American Society of Civil Engineers wrote in 2009’s Report Card for American Infrastructure, “years of delayed maintenance and lack of modernization have left Americans with an outdated and failing infrastructure that cannot meet our needs.” But what to do about it? “What’s needed,” wrote John Cassidy, of The New Yorker, recently, “is some way to protect essential infrastructure investments from the vicissitudes of congressional politics and the cyclical ups and downs of the economy.” He suggests, instead, “an independent, nonpartisan board” that could “carry out cost-benefit analyses of future capital-spending proposals.” This board, presumably, would be composed of professionals above the partisan fray, and thus capable of seeing to the long-term needs of the country. It all sounds really jake, and just the thing that the United States ought to do—excepting only for the disappointing fact that the United States already has just such a board, and the existence of that “board” is the very reason why Americans don’t invest in infrastructure.

First though—has national spending on infrastructure declined, and is “politics” the reason for that decline? Many think so: “Despite the pressing infrastructure investment needs of the United States,” businessman Scott Thomasson wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations recently, “federal infrastructure policy is paralyzed by partisan wrangling over massive infrastructure bills that fail to move through Congress.” Those who take that line do have evidence, at least for the first proposition.

Take for instance the Highway Trust Fund, an account that provides federal money for investments in roads and bridges. In 2014, the Fund was in danger of “drying up,” as Rebecca Kaplan reported for CBS News at the time, mostly because the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn’t been increased since 1993. Gradually, then, both the federal government and the states have, in relative terms, decreased spending on highways and other projects of that sort—so much so that people like former presidential economic advisor and president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, say (as Summers did last year) that “the share of public investment [in infrastructure], adjusting for depreciation … is zero.” (That is, spending on infrastructure is effectively less than the rate of inflation—which itself is pretty low.) So, while the testimony of the American Society of Civil Engineers might, to say the least, be biased—asking an engineer whether there ought to be more spending on engineering is like asking an ice cream man whether you need a sundae—there’s a good deal of evidence that the United States could stand more investment in the structures that support American life.

Yet, even if that’s so, is the relative decline in spending really the result of politics—rather than, say, a recognition that the United States simply doesn’t need the same sort of spending on highways and railroads that it once did? Maybe—because “the Internet,” or something—there simply isn’t the need for so much physical building any more. Still, aside from such spectacular examples as the Minneapolis Interstate 35 bridge collapse in 2007 or the failure of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there’s evidence that the United States would be spending more money on infrastructure under a different political architecture.

Consider, for example, how the U.S. Senate “shot down … a measure to spend $50 billion on highway, rail, transit and airport improvements” in November of 2011, as The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman reported at the time. Although the measure was supported by 51 votes in favor to 49 votes against, the measure failed to pass—because, as Helderman wrote, according to the rules of the Senate “the measure needed 60 votes to proceed to a full debate.” Passing bills in the Senate these days requires, it seems, more than majority support—which, near as I can make out, is just what is meant by “congressional gridlock.” What “gridlock” means is the inability of a majority to pass its programs—absent that inability, nearly certainly the United States would be spending more money on infrastructure. At this point, then, the question can be asked: why should the American government be built in a fashion that allows a minority to hold the majority for ransom?

The answer, it seems, might be deflating for John Cassidy’s idea: when the American Constitution was written, it inscribed into its very foundation what has been called (by The Economist, among many, many others) the “dream of bipartisanship”—the notion that, somewhere, there exists a group of very wise men (and perhaps women?) who can, if they were merely handed the power, make all the world right again, and make whole that which is broken. In America, the name of that body is the United States Senate.

As every schoolchild knows, the Senate was originally designed as a body of “notables,” or “wise men”: as the Senate’s own website puts it, the Senate was originally designed to be an “independent body of responsible citizens.” Or, as James Madison wrote to another “Founding Father,” Edmund Randolph, justifying the institution, the Senate’s role was “first to protect the people against their rulers [and] secondly to protect the people against transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.” That last justification may be the source of the famous anecdote regarding the Senate, which involves George Washington saying to Thomas Jefferson that “we pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” While the anecdote itself only appeared nearly a century later, in 1872, still it captures something of what the point of the Senate has always been held to be: a body that would rise above petty politicking and concern itself with the national interest—just the thing that John Cassidy recommends for our current predicament.

This “dream of bipartisanship,” as it happens, is not just one held by the founding generation. It’s a dream that, journalist and gadfly Thomas Frank has said, “is a very typical way of thinking for the professional class” of today. As Frank amplified his remarks, “Washington is a city of professionals with advanced degrees,” and the thought of those professionals is “‘[w]e know what the problems are and we know what the answers are, and politics just get in the way.’” To members of this class, Frank says, “politics is this ugly thing that you don’t really need.” For such people, in other words, John Cassidy’s proposal concerning an “independent, nonpartisan board” that could make decisions regarding infrastructure in the interests of the nation as a whole, rather than from the perspective of this or that group, might seem entirely “natural”—as the only way out of the impasse created by “political gridlock.” Yet in reality—as numerous historians have documented—it’s in fact precisely the “dream of bipartisanship” that created the gridlock in the first place.

An examination of history in other words demonstrates that—far from being the disinterested, neutral body that would look deep into the future to examine the nation’s infrastructure needs—the Senate has actually functioned to discourage infrastructure spending. After John Quincy Adams was elected president in the contested election of 1824, for example, the new leader proposed a sweeping program of investment in roads and canals and bridges, but also a national university, subsidies for scientific research and learning, a national observatory, Western exploration, a naval academy, and a patent law to encourage invention. Yet, as Paul C. Nagel observes in his recent biography of the Massachusetts president, virtually none of Adams’ program was enacted: “All of Adams’ scientific and educational proposals were defeated, as were his efforts to enlarge the road and canal systems.” Which is true, so far as that goes. But Nagel’s somewhat bland remarks do not do justice to the matter of how Adams’ proposals were defeated.

After the election of 1824, which elected the 19th Congress, Adams’ party had a majority in the House of Representatives—one reason why Adams became president at all, because the chaotic election of 1824, split between three major candidates, was decided (as per the Constitution) by the House of Representatives. But while Adams’ faction had a majority in the House, they did not in the Senate, where Andrew Jackson’s pro-Southern faction held sway. Throughout the 19th Congress, the Jacksonian party controlled the votes of 25 Senators (in a Senate of 48 senators, two to a state) while Adams’ faction controlled, at the beginning of the Congress, 20. Given the structure of the U.S. Constitution, which requires agreement between the two houses of Congress as the national legislature before bills can become law, this meant that the Senate could—as it did—effectively veto any of the Adams’ party’s proposals: control of the Senate effectively meant control of the government itself. In short, a recipe for gridlock.

The point of the history lesson regarding the 19th Congress is that, far from being “above” politics as it was advertised to be in the pages of The Federalist Papers and other, more recent, accounts of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Senate proved, in the event, hardly to be more neutral than the House of Representatives—or even the average city council. Instead of considering the matter of investment in the future on its own terms, historians have argued, senators thought about Adams’ proposals in terms of how they would affect a matter seemingly remote from the matters of building bridges or canals. Hence, although senators like John Tyler of Virginia, for example—who would later be elected president himself—opposed Adams-proposed “bills that mandated federal spending for improving roads and bridges and other infrastructure” on the grounds that such bills “were federal intrusions on the states” (as Roger Matuz put it in his The Presidents’ Fact Book), many today argue that their motives were not so high-minded. In fact, they were actually as venial as any motive could be.

Many of Adams’ opponents, that is—as William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia wrote in his Arguing About Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress—thought that the “‘National’ program that [Adams] proposed would have enlarged federal powers in a way that might one day threaten slavery.” And, as Miller also remarks, the “‘strict construction’ of the Constitution and states’ rights that [Adams’] opponents insisted upon”— were, “in addition to whatever other foundations in sentiment and philosophy they had, barriers of protection against interference with slavery.” In short—as historian Harold M. Hyman remarked in his magisterial A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution—while the “constitutional notion that tight limits existed on what government could do was a runaway favorite” at the time, in reality these seemingly-resounding defenses of limited government were actually motivated by a less-than savory interest: “statesmen of the Old South,” Hyman wrote, found that these doctrines of constitutional limits were “a mighty fortress behind which to shelter slavery.” Senators, in other words, did not consider whether spending money on a national university would be a worthwhile investment for its own sake; instead, they worried about the effect that such an expenditure would have on slavery.

Now, it could still reasonably be objected at this point—and doubtless will be—that the 19th Congress is, in political terms, about as relevant to today’s politics as the Triassic: the debates between a few dozen, usually elderly, white men nearly two centuries ago have been rendered impotent by the passage of time. “This time, it’s different,” such arguments could, and probably will, say. Yet, at a different point in American history, it was well-understood that the creation of such “blue-ribbon” committees or the like—such as the Senate—were in fact simply a means for elite control.

As Alice Sturgis, of Stanford University, wrote in the third edition of her The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (now in its fourth edition, after decades in print, and still the paragon of the field), while some “parliamentary writers have mistakenly assumed that the higher the vote required to take an action, the greater the protection of the members,” in reality “the opposite is true.” “If a two-thirds vote is required to pass a proposal and sixty-five members vote for the proposal and thirty-five members vote against it,” Sturgis went on to write, “the thirty-five members make the decision”—which then makes for “minority, not majority, rule.” In other words, even if many circumstances in American life have changed since 1825, it still remains the case that the American government is (still) largely structured in a fashion that solidifies the ability of a minority—like, say, oligarchical slaveowners—to control the American government. And while slavery was abolished by the Civil War, it still remains the case that a minority can block things like infrastructure spending.

Hence, since infrastructure spending is—nearly by definition—for the improvement of every American, it’s difficult to see how making infrastructure spending less democratic, as Cassidy wishes, would make it easier to spend money on infrastructure. We already have a system that’s not very democratic—arguably, that’s the reason why we aren’t spending money on infrastructure, not because (as pundits like Cassidy might have it), “Washington” has “gotten too political.” The problem with American spending on infrastructure, in sum, is not that it is political. In fact, it is precisely the opposite: it isn’t political enough. That people like John Cassidy—who, by the way, is a transplanted former subject of the Queen of England—think the contrary is itself, I’d wager, reason enough to give him, and people like him, what the boys from Liverpool called a ticket to ride.