Book Review, Gary Hart, Restoration of the Republic

Neighborhood Revitalization
American Outlook, March 14, 2003
by George W. Liebmann

Gary Hart, Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in Twenty-First Century America (Oxford University Press, 2002), 292 pages, $26
In late middle life, former U.S. senator Gary Hart pursued a PhD from Trinity College, Oxford, producing as his thesis this book on the possibilities of revived local institutions. As one who similarly received the hospitality of British universities late in life and who engaged in the study of related subjects (though without feeling under any compulsion to take a degree), I was predisposed in favor of this book, and on the whole have not been disappointed. There are few Americans with recognizable names in national politics who show any sign of being conversant with the literature of political theory or who regard its great questions as of present concern. Certainly President Clinton emerged unscathed in this respect from his two years at Oxford. There are even fewer participants in national politics who, to recall the late Philip Kurland’s play on a memorable phrase of Justice Holmes, are “educated to local views.”
Senator Hart urges renewed attention to Thomas Jefferson’s scheme for “ward governments.” He views with concern the youth of today’s rights culture: “No one wants to tell them that they must earn their rights by performance of their duties.” He deplores a “past quarter-century during which the values of the marketplace have replaced the values of the republican forum.” He might as appropriately have referred to the period since the Civil War. But unlike most in both parties, he declares that “communities must be identified or created in urban and suburban America.” He claims that “a search of the literature reveals no scholarly consideration of the viability of Jefferson’s theory of local republicanism in the modern age,” a statement generally true, though (perhaps understandably) overlooking the present reviewer’s writings. Hart seeks to propound Jefferson’s ideal as “politically relevant and institutionally plausible.” He distinguishes his concerns from those of advocates of subsidiarity or privatization, declaring himself “not concerned with the republic as an instrument of pluralism or with the perpetuation of quasi-private quasi-public organizations for their own sake.” His writing is thus not in the Catholic tradition, nor in that of pluralists like the early Harold Laski or Isaiah Berlin, nor in that of the earlier or later writers on “public choice,” such as Friedrich Hayek and the too-neglected Dennis Mueller. Hart’s book is centered on a view of government as the queen of the sciences.
Many of his insights, however, accord with those of members of these other schools. His distinction between “integration for the satisfaction of material wants” and “particularization required to satisfy intangible needs” all but echoes Hayek’s celebration of radical localism in government as not inconsistent with a free economy. He approvingly quotes sociologist James Q. Wilson echoing Burke’s celebration of the “little platoons” in his observation that “people who feel that they can influence their neighbors will be more likely to feel that they can influence distant officials.” Hart likewise declares, as few of today’s other liberals would, that the “search for political legitimacy through a liberal theory premised on rights has . . . been based upon ‘a principled but very insubstantial theory of the self.’” Similar thoughts are not unfamiliar in Europe, having been voiced notably by Simone Weil in her Need for Roots (1949) and by the manifesto of the Kreisau Group in 1944. Few politicians have the detachment or courage to quote Jefferson’s comment on political apathy: “If once they become inattentive to the public officers, Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves,” and to suggest that it applies to their own time.
Moving to practical considerations, Hart identifies three areas of activity as ripe for a revival of ward government.
First, he acknowledges, as very few in his party do, that “as national mandates over local public schools have waxed, local responsibility has waned,” and he criticizes “the universalization of rights at the price of republican values.” “The question,” he says, “is whether the price of republican values is still required to be paid to maintain higher social objectives.” As an answer, he proposes relieving local school boards from reporting requirements, and reversing the burden of proof upon them when they deal with federal agencies, but maintaining judicial controls. Unfortunately, he does not fully appreciate the pervasiveness of the latter, as with the discipline restrictions in education for the handicapped legislation effectively limiting to ten days suspension of disruptive students and the terror evoked in school boards by the threat of monetary judgments under the Civil Rights Attorneys’ Fees Act, nor does he consider alternate means of control, such as the continental ombudsman or the British independent school inspectorate. To be fair, he acknowledges that his is a book of political theory, not of political science.
The second area of which Hart speaks is relief of the needy. He treats private charity as the precursor of state provision, but in so doing he overlooks the organized role, in England at least, of the parish vestry described in the Webbs’ The Parish and the County. For the reasons there suggested, a return to highly local administration even of centrally provided funds may not be totally feasible, but with respect to the care of preschool children and of the elderly, programs existing in several countries including the Netherlands and Japan speak to the wisdom of his design. (See “Making Compassionate Conservatism Concrete,” American Outlook, summer 2002.)
Hart’s final suggestion relates to the revitalization of the National Guard as an instrument of homeland defense against terrorism. This is not really a matter of ward government, of course, but a subject about which Senator Hart’s observations gain credence from his prophetic warnings as co-chairman of the Commission on National Security for the Twenty-First Century. He properly regards the Posse Commitatus Act, which bars the regular army from domestic law enforcement and is now under pressure from the Bush Administration, as an important part of the nation’s working constitution. It is also evident that he does not consider the Second Amendment to be obsolete.
Two mild criticisms of this generally admirable performance are in order.
Perhaps with an eye to his political future, Senator Hart frequently professes to see no conflict between his design for localism and the current “extensive body of Supreme Court opinions and statutory law” protecting “laudable and necessary programs” relating to “racial integration, education methodologies, school financing equalization, gender neutralization, and access for handicapped children.” The pervasiveness of these commands, however, frequently beggars belief (as with the judicial destruction of the authority of town government in Vermont and New Hampshire), and these decisions thus create a collision predicted by Tocqueville’s observation that local energies cannot be enlisted for national schemes if energetic characters are denied scope for freedom of will. It is for this reason that the most striking recent developments confirming Senator Hart’s thesis about the contemporary need for localism have taken place in quasi-private institutions off the radar screen of courts and government agencies—residential community associations and business improvement districts.
My second critical observation is akin to the first. Hart, echoing many fashionable writers, disdains the recent “escape to middle class suburbs, upper middle class enclaves or upper class gated communities,” with their private associations created by deed covenants. He correctly recognizes that “republics are in fact being created in the suburban and semirural areas near America’s large cities.” He argues, however, that “Consideration might be given as to whether they are also democratic republics. Communities of affluence might be increasingly augmented and surrounded by authentic republics of the ward.” This comment reflects a common lack of appreciation of an historical fact: every sizeable housing development since the early 1960s has been a “little republic,” including those built for the lower middle class, and in some parts of the country 75 percent of the population lives under the jurisdiction of such associations. By giving residents a sense of control over their environment, they have contributed importantly to the public’s contentment with suburban life. Senator Hart is right in wanting to extend these benefits to older, less prosperous areas. The future of American local government lies in enlarging their functions—by allowing incorporation of parallel public taxing and school districts—and their reach, by encouraging creation of similar precinct associations in already developed areas. He will discover this when he turns, as he promises, from political theory to political science.
The book contains several oblique allusions to the circumstances of Senator Hart’s fall from grace. He is plainly a repentant sinner, and he is largely right when he observes, in a footnote, that “Authentic republicanism suffers when a narrow preoccupation with sin replaces a concern for genuine public morality.” This issue was not a concern for Washington, Churchill, or DeGaulle, but democracies must generally make do with people of commoner clay. On the evidence of this book, Senator Hart may not be the best man the country has got, but he may well be the best man his party has got.

George W. Liebmann is an attorney in Baltimore and the author of several books, including Six Lost Leaders: Prophets of Civil Society (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), and Solving Problems Without Large Government: Devolution, Fairness and Equality (Praeger, 2000).

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