Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the book of the season. Published by Harvard University Press, it is a surprise best-seller.
At the time of its publication earlier this year it neatly fit Obama’s theme of the moment on income inequality. Readers seem to have abandoned the book at page 26, as Obama seems to have abandoned the theme of income inequality.
As the title of his book suggests, Piketty updates Marx for postmoderns. He smooths off the rough edges, promoting the peaceful expropriation of wealth via the state in the name of equality. Neither the legitimacy of Piketty’s object nor the virtue of material equality is ever questioned. See Jonah Goldberg’s invaluable and entertaining Commentary essay “Piketty’s big book of Marxiness.”
The American understanding has differed from Piketty’s French-fried Marxism. Drawing on what Publius referred to as discoveries and improvements in “the new science of politics,” the Founders created a frame of government designed to limit the powers of the government by the system of checks and balances with which we are all familiar, at least by reputation. The powers of the government were limited in the interest of liberty.
To limit the powers of government necessarily meant to limit the power of a democratic majority. The Founders meant to restrain the power of a democratic majority; they feared the tyranny of the majority. They viewed unconstrained majorities as the bane of liberty. Up through their time, history had shown all known democracies to be “incompatible with personal security or the rights of property.” They formulated the Constitution to protect the rights of citizens against the tyranny of the majority. Publius put it this way in Federalist 10:
The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular [i.e., democratic] governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations.
The Founders had in mind the kind of man who presents himself as a tribune of the people — somebody who talks this way to impressionable young men and women graduating from college. Someone, i.e., like Barack Obama.
The Progressive era unfortunately removed the structural constraints on tyrannical action. The Progressive project has made great strides in removing the constitutional barriers protecting our rights to life, liberty and property against against the tyranny of the majority and of the administrative state (the special object of Philip Hamburger’s concern). We need to deepen our understanding of the task of restoration before us. Enter Hamburger.
This is a provisional unscientific postscript to my series of posts on Hamburger’s Is Administrative Law Unlawful?. Hamburger is the un-Piketty. He demonstrates the regressive nature of the Progressive project. He explains and vindicates the original project of the Constitution in erecting barriers to the exercise of absolute power. By contrast with Piketty, he has given us, not a book of the season, but a book for all seasons.
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