It Perished with the 'Natural Aristocracy'

JONATHAN SCHELL

September 01, 1993|By JONATHAN SCHELL

NEW YORK — New York. -- "The Radicalism of the American Revolution,'' by Gordon S. Wood -- a recent book that seems destined to take its place among those that change the way the United States thinks about itself -- sheds light on the federal budget deficit crisis, which has stood at the center of our political life now for more than a decade.

In the crisis, the conflict between society's common interest and the particular interests of its members is crystallized in numerical terms. For the deficit is nothing but the figure obtained by subtracting the sum of the particular benefits we demand of government from the amount we collectively are willing to pay for them.

Mr. Wood's book shows that this conflict, which has taken many forms over the years, was born with the republic. The founders, he shows, offered a solution. The government would serve as a ''disinterested umpire'' of particular interests. But who among the people of a democracy could be trusted to serve in such a role?

The founders turned for an answer to the tradition of ''classic republican virtue'' which stretched back more than two millennia to republican Rome. There might exist, the tradition taught, a refined, highly educated, prosperous ''natural aristocracy,'' in Thomas Jefferson's phrase, for whom public service would be what he called ''an honorable exile from one's family and affairs.'' The very fact that these natural aristocrats were not involved in business affairs -- and so supposedly did not have ''interests'' -- permitted them to be ''disinterested.''

George Washington, who served without pay, was the very embodiment of this type. His retirement to Mount Vernon after commanding the American forces in the Revolutionary War was proof of his disinterest and gave him renown throughout Europe. Even King George III reportedly said that if Washington really did withdraw to Mount Vernon, he would be recognized as ''the greatest man in the world.''

The country was founded by men of this kind. However, the revolution they led, Mr. Wood shows, destroyed the basis for the kind of disinterested government they had envisioned. The revolution loosed a flood of popular energy -- into commerce, into westward emigration, into politics itself. But as the common man was elevated, ''aristocratic'' leisure -- not to mention aristocratic refinement and education -- was denigrated. America became ''a scrambling business society dominated by the pecuniary interests of ordinary working people.''

The revolutionary generation was disheartened. Even the optimistic Jefferson, looking back, wrote to a friend in 1825, ''All are dead, and ourselves left alone amidst a new generation whom we know not, and who know us not.''

At the very heart of the changes was a new conception of interest in political life. Instead of being disinterested umpires, Mr. Wood writes, ''government officials . . . were to bring the partial, local interests of the society, and sometimes even their own interests, right into the workings of the government. Partisanship and parties became legitimate activities in politics.''

And so, of course, it has remained. Remaining, too, however, was the question, ''If everyone in the society was interested and no one was disinterested, who was to assume the role of neutral umpire?'' The unfettered pursuit of particular interests fractures society. What would bind it together?

That, of course, is the very question that the budget deficit puts to us in its demanding, arithmetical terms. The difficulty is especially acute in congressional elections, because each voter votes only for a local representative, who is highly disposed to serve local interests. It is the body as a whole, however -- for which no one votes -- that must seek to balance the budget.

The public is alert to the danger of personal corruption -- of lining one's pockets with government funds. It has also learned something of the dangers of money in politics, meaning the exchange of legislative favors for campaign contributions. However, the public has only begun to understand that deficit spending is a far more expensive way of purchasing office with public funds.

By spending more money on services than they demand in taxes, the representatives have successfully ingratiated themselves with the voters, who, even as they have despised Congress as a whole, have been returning individual members to office in droves. The hundreds of billions of deficit spending have been a much more important re-election fund than the mere hundreds of millions spent directly on campaigns.

The particular interests raised above the common interest in this practice are of course the voters' own. Only when they, the people, take upon themselves the role of ''disinterested umpire'' and put aside those particular interests will this abuse be brought to an end.

;/ Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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