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Syllabus for America 

A Liberal Alternative to Speaker Newt's Reading List for Congressional Rookies

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Say what you will about the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, but give him this: he reads books. In his speeches and press conferences he routinely recommends books to his colleagues and to reporters, complete with bits of bibliographic information and constant reminders that he was once a professor. No sooner did the professor become Speaker than he issued his own crash course in American democracy for the Republican House freshmen. His reading list included some political and historical basics, like the Federalist Papers and Toqueville's Democracy in America; some high-end how-tos, like Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive and Morris Shechtman's Working Without a Net: How to Survive & Thrive in Today's High Risk Business World; and of course some technobabble for laptop-toting revolutionaries, most notably Alvin and Heidi Toffler's Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, about the vague new world of digital democracy on demand.

This is new. One of the certainties of American political life used to be that liberals read and wrote books, while conservatives read and wrote op-ed articles and memos. Only three years ago President George Bush told reporters that while on vacation in Maine he would play golf and tennis, go fishing and running, and maybe read a book. "I have to throw that in for the intellectuals out there," said the Yale-educated chief executive. Meanwhile, Vice President Dan Quayle was busily tearing out pages from Al Gore's Earth in the Balance, reading them for laughs on the campaign trail, and suggesting that people who wrote books, or even read them, were soft in the head.

Of course conservatives like James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray have always written books, but now their books are best-sellers, along with more commercial successes by people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett. Conservative analyst David Frum, author of Dead Right, recently told U.S. News & World Report, "You can't throw a brick into a gathering of conservatives without hitting someone who's got a book contract." Even Dan Quayle has written a book, though no one I know has read it, not even for laughs.

As with all mass media, many of these books are more about marketing than about ideas. Neither of Limbaugh's books or even Bennett's Book of Virtues, for example, goes in for careful argument, documentation, or moral reasoning--the stuff that once distinguished books from newspapers, magazines, and television. They're more like software, compendiums of sound bites and rhetorical flourishes that lend themselves to spin-off products. But they've allowed the GOP to lay claim to being not only the party of ideas, but also the party of books. Liberals continue to write books, but it's widely known (thanks to conservatives) that liberals are so busy fighting among themselves that they can't even agree on the basics of a liberal education, to say nothing of a reading list to go with it. For this reason alone Gingrich's short course in New Age conservatism deserves our grudging respect. His book recommendations, however glib they may be, remind us of historian Henry Steele Commager's observation that the intellectual foundations of American democracy are more to be found in books than in the popular press, and that in this America is unique among the democracies of the world. Never mind that the former professors now risen to prominence in Congress (Gingrich, Richard Armey, and Phil Gramm) are always getting their facts mixed up, citing events that never happened and people who never existed. In suggesting that our elected representatives read, say, the Federalist Papers, Gingrich makes all too clear that many of the revolutionaries who have eagerly signed their names to the Contract With America have little or no knowledge of the negotiations that produced the existing contract, the federal Constitution. Indeed, when the GOP rolled into Washington in January, Newsweek reported that on average the freshman class had read slightly less than one item each from the Speaker's list. In most cases that one item was probably the Declaration of Independence, the first item on the list and a short and easy read. Fortunately some of the other books are available on audiotape, a big time-saver for congressmen who are trying to survive and thrive in today's high-risk political climate while creating a new civilization without benefit of a safety net. But knowing that real revolutionaries never rest, I herewith offer my own reading list for the House freshmen.

1. The Federalist Papers. The best item on the Speaker's list and, we may presume, one largely unread by Gingrich's proteges, this collection of 85 letters, originally published anonymously under the pseudonym Publius, appeared in New York newspapers between October 1787 and late May 1788, an exercise orchestrated by Alexander Hamilton in order to win ratification for the new Constitution in New York State, whose governor's opposition could have dashed the founders' hopes for "a more perfect Union." Only after Hamilton's death was his role in the Federalist Papers discovered, and only long after that did scholars find that he had considerably overstated his role, taking credit for essays by his two coauthors, John Jay and James Madison.

In particular Hamilton had taken credit for much of Madison's contribution, which, though small, is today often considered the most important. It was Madison who, confronted with the concern that constitutional government would fall on its face and have to rely instead on blunt instruments of control, admitted that the charge was absolutely true. If Americans could not when necessary restrain their own self-interest, he wrote in Federalist No. 55, "the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another."

Constitutional government is about deliberation in the public interest, a theme that consumes the Federalist Papers from its opening essays. The first nine of them are a discussion between Hamilton and Jay on the need for a strong central government, and of their fear that factions between the states will make such union impossible. Madison enters the debate in Federalist No. 10, where he argues that factions are the irrepressible price of liberty and begins his masterful explanation of how best to control them. Like Hamilton and Jay, Madison believed that partisan interests were adverse to the public interest. His hope was that conflict might mitigate their ill effects or even allow them to cancel each other out; he did not believe that their struggle in any way represented rational debate or that the "winners" of such a struggle in any way embodied the public interest. The public's interest, Madison wrote, could not be deduced through formula but required the moral judgments inherent to deliberation.

2. The End of Liberalism by Theodore Lowi. Given the title, one has to wonder how Gingrich missed it. The End of Liberalism is easily one of the most important books on American government in the last half century and the unacknowledged forebear of more recent and popular books like E.J. Dionne's Why Americans Hate Politics, William Greider's Who Will Tell the People?, and Jonathan Rauch's Demosclerosis. It's also the source of GOP buzzwords like "welfare-state liberalism," for which William Kristol likes to take credit.

Originally published in 1969, The End of Liberalism is a relentlessly reasoned indictment of the rise of what Lowi, a political science professor at Cornell, called "interest-group liberalism" and the decline of Madisonian public-interest principles. Very simply, Lowi described the federal government as having lost its moral authority to govern by having become just another interest group in a nation of interest groups, where the public good had been reduced to a simple problem of distributive justice.

This who-gets-what version of the public interest is, the GOP leadership maintains, the reason the voters drove the Democrats from their congressional fiefdoms last November. They may be right. Interest-group liberalism is antidemocratic at its core because it avoids the kinds of moral decisions that a free people are supposed to make and for which someone must take responsibility. It is also antireasoning at its core, relying instead on the breezy blather of public relations. "In two peaceful generations," Lowi wrote, "the American prototype has passed from Andrew Carnegie to Dale Carnegie."

The Contract With America claims to end such practices, but thus far has merely replaced one set of special interests with another. As the Economist noted recently, the GOP has so far taken aim at easy political targets and left all the truly significant entitlements and giveaways of public resources untouched. Moreover, the contract's supposed reliance on cost-benefit analyses is as amoral, and therefore as nondeliberative and undemocratic, as any social-justice scheme ever cooked up by the Democrats. Certainly regulations should honor efficiency as a guiding principle, but not as the only principle. As Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economic historian Robert Fogel has pointed out, slavery, child labor, and a whole host of other despicable practices would still be around if cost-benefit analyses were all that mattered in public policy.

3. Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. No one would find the Contract With America more baffling than Smith, who wrote his famous treatise in part to put to rest the axiom advanced by physician Bernard de Mandeville in 1706 that "private vice is public virtue." Though the contract invokes the traditional values of community and shared sacrifice, it has doctrinairely and somewhat perversely insisted that private interests are the only legitimate public interests.

Adam Smith regarded such thinking as fatuous, and to refute it he offered a powerful new explanation of free markets and his "invisible hand" theory of the public good. Of all forms of social organization, he said, the market was probably the one with the greatest potential to make the largest number of people not wealthy, but gentle, prudent, and free, and by free he did not mean free to indulge their private interests. Rather he argued that they would be free to aspire to "imperfect but attainable virtues": self-control, the ability to place duty over desire, and the ability to recognize and act on the needs of others.

These are, of course, the very same virtues that conservatives like William Bennett have taken to the bank, and there is no disputing their importance to a civil society. And yet the oft-heard and seemingly contradictory conservative homily that free markets and unregulated industries are the surest guarantee of their fulfillment would be anathema to Adam Smith. Securing public goods like education, defense, public health, art, and even simple decency, Smith wrote, was the responsibility of government. The "invisible hand" could not and would not supply these things. Indeed, Smith had a great distrust of businessmen, and he certainly didn't equate profit seeking with decency. He described those who lived by profit as "an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it."

4. Tube of Plenty by Erik Barnouw. Here I urge scrapping from the Speaker's list Alvin and Heidi Toffler and their techno-pop prattle. From time immemorial futurists have been wrong in believing that technological advances are self-sustaining and self-determining in their effects. RCA chief David Sarnoff said in 1939 that television would be the greatest gift of educational enlightenment ever given to free men. A decade later IBM predicted that the world would never need more than five computers. Now we are to believe that the information highway will make everyone with a laptop a fully-informed and active citizen.

If you really want some insight into the future of digital communications, look to the past. Tube of Plenty, by former Columbia University professor Erik Barnouw, is a one-volume condensation of his famous three-volume history of American broadcasting, the last technology that was going to liberate us from the worst features of our national character. When you read it you realize early on that the failure of David Sarnoff's dream was not a technological one but a human one, the result of bad choices and broken promises. After reading it you'll watch with informed fascination as Congress tries to rewrite the 1934 Communications Act for the age of digital communications, willfully unmoved by any of the lessons of the intervening 61 years.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Ernest Hemingway's famous description of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the American novel is based on the view of Huck as a noble savage adrift in a world at once beautiful and treacherous. But Huckleberry Finn is the American novel for a much more simple reason: the book, like America itself, is deeply flawed.

Twain took seven years to write the book, which began as a simple sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a boys' adventure story. The opening chapters of Huckleberry Finn read much the same, until Tom Sawyer disappears from the scene and Huck and Jim find themselves together on the island, both of them runaways. Huck discovers bounty hunters on their trail, rouses Jim from sleep, and flees with the famous shout, "They're after us!"

In casting Huck's lot with Jim's, Twain knew, he had opened a deep and poisonous vein in American life and changed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from a boy's book to something else entirely. What that something else was Twain wasn't sure, and it troubled him enough that he put the book aside for as long as two years at a time. When he returned to it, he alternated between brilliant comedy and bitter tragedy, and he ended, of course, with Tom Sawyer back on the scene, Huck and Jim reduced again to comic foils.

But the novel's noticeably uneven tone and narrative are what make its strengths stand out. Huck lived in an America where a man could uphold his honor by shooting a child in the back, one in which blacks and poor children simply didn't fit into "civilized" society, and where, as Twain himself later said, the surest keys to success were ignorance and confidence. What's changed?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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