“If” – If Americans Value Freedom…

Years ago most school students were required to commit the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling to memory.

Today, for some reason, the words to this poem came to mind when I learned about Richard Stengel’s One Document Under Seige that made the cover of “Time Magazine.” Stengel goes into a very shallow explanation of how the founding fathers would be stymied by today’s problems and concludes with the statement that:

If the Constitution was intended to limit the federal government, it sure doesn’t say so.

He then goes on to say that:

Article I, Section 8, the longest section of the longest article of the Constitution, is a drumroll of congressional power. And it ends with the “necessary and proper” clause, which delegates to Congress the power “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

Sounds like Stengel is correct. The founding fathers wanted a huge federal government with bloated bureaucracies. Not really! The key to understanding what was written in article eight is the list of powers vested. There were seventeen powers vested by the constitution in the government of the United States. If you would like to read them they may be found in the transcript of the constitution at “Charters of Freedom.” The rest of the document limits government, protects freedoms, or spells out duties of Congress and the president.

Unlike the two thousand + page healthcare bill passed by the democrats and signed into law by Obama, the constitution is brief, concise and easy to understand.

Mr. Stengel, the document is actually the law of the United States of America.

Here is my “if” question. If Americans on the left value freedom and liberty, why do they assault the document that has provided just that to millions of Americans for two hundred and thirty-five years? If I could understand that, I would better understand those on the left.


About jlue

I am a grandmother of seven and I like to garden, read, study the Bible, and spend time with family. I am not very politically active, but very interested in who is elected to lead our country.
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9 Responses to “If” – If Americans Value Freedom…

  1. smijer says:

    I don’t think that question by itself will get you far. The only answer you can possibly get to that question is one that, whether correct or incorrect, will support your feeling that liberals “assault the constitution”.

    What if you asked this instead:

    Why do so many conservatives wonder “if Americans on the left value freedom and liberty, why do they assault the document that has provided just that to millions of Americans?”, and why do so many liberals wonder “if Americans on the right value freedom and liberty, why do they assault the document that has provided just that to millions of Americans?”

    In order to answer that question, you have to learn why conservatives think the way they do, and why liberals think the way they do. Learning that can be a years-long task, and you’ll only ever reach an approximation… but once you understand it, and you can successfully model a political mind other than your own, then you will be able to understand why liberals take the positions that they do, and probably also have greater insight into why conservatives take the position they do.

    I suggest starting with Generalizing from one example and the “typical mind” fallacy.

    Also useful might be to reflect on color politics.

    By the way, Kipling’s “If” doesn’t rank with the world’s best literature, but nevertheless is one of my favorites.


    • jlue says:

      I admit that I am guilty of generalizing, but, I suspect that if we were to search for examples of people who have taken action or made comments that reflect disdain for the constitution and then listed them according to their political persuasion, the results would be telling.


      • smijer says:

        I think you are missing my point if you see my suggestion as a cheap rhetorical comeback to a facile rhetorical question.

        I am taking your question seriously and assuming that you really do want to understand liberals. If that is the case, then it doesn’t matter whether or not you are “guilty of generalizing”. I feel certain your approach will fail. At the very most, there is some possibility it could succeed if its premise is correct: if liberals actually feel disdain for the Constitution.

        The reason I posted the link to the typical mind fallacy is because I see evidence that it is this fallacy that is guiding you to the conclusion that liberals do feel disdain for the Constitution (or that their actions “reflect” such disdain, in your words). What I see happening is that you feel that this or that action is disdainful of the Constitution. If you mistakenly believe that everyone feels the same as you, then you might infer that someone who is willing to do something they see as disdainful of the Constitution must in fact disdain the Constitution. But that is only true if your feelings about those actions are really a good model for everyone’s feelings about those actions. In other words, it only works if your mind really is the typical mind. Evidence says that there are important differences between people and their thoughts and feelings.

        That said, I also see a certain approximate symmetry between the viewpoints of people engaged very deeply in ideological camps. One of the biggest factors is motivated reasoning.

        We aren’t born with our notions about what the Constitution means. Those notions develop over time as a response to a political environment in which we become embedded. In the fable, we find a circumstance that runs so closely in parallel to the modern American political condition that it is comical: “Not every Blue or every Green citizen takes the ‘Blue’ or ‘Green’ position on every issue, but it would be rare to find a city merchant who believed the sky was blue, and yet advocated an individual tax and freer marriage laws.”

        In America, if I learn a person’s opinion about any polarizing issue: the recent healthcare law, for instance, then I can readily guess – with a high degree of accuracy – all of the rest of their political opinions. The reason that is true has to do with the type of reasoning that molds political opinions.

        Because of a lack of education about cognitive bias, many people do not realize how often their “reasoning” is motivated by culturally acquired values far more than by logic (and how values are instantiated in the mind is a whole other kettle of fish, besides). If you know what motivates a person’s reasoning, then you are a shoo in to to figure out what sort of beliefs the reasoning will lead them to – without even knowing the details of the reasoning process.

        There is a lot more to it than that. As I mentioned before, it can also be very pertinent to understand how the mind creates a value system. Moral psychology is a field in its infancy, but already it is turning up some intriguing notions. For instance, Jonathan Haight and Jesse Graham considered five psychological foundations related to moral value: care/harm, fairness/repricocity, in-group loyalty, hierarchy/authority, and purity/disgust. They hypothesized that liberals were far more highly influenced by the first two than the last three when forming moral values, where conservatives were inclined to be influenced by all five in similar proportions. They did a simple survey, and while its results leave room for a lot more rigorous exploration of the problem, it did hint that there were different psychological motivations at work in liberal and conservative values:

        To test the theory, we conducted an online survey (Graham, Nosek, &
        Haidt, in prep). An international sample of 1,613 respondents (mostly from the U.S. and U.K.) rated the relevance of 15 concerns to their moral judgments. The question stem asked: “When you decide whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to your thinking?” Three statements were then presented for each foundation, in randomized order. Here is one example for each:
        · Whether or not someone was harmed [for the harm foundation]
        · Whether or not someone acted unfairly [reciprocity]
        · Whether or not someone betrayed his or her group [ingroup]
        · Whether or not the people involved were of the same rank [hierarchy]
        · Whether or not someone did something disgusting [purity].
        Participants also rated their political orientation on a 7-point scale. When we compared liberals to conservatives we found, as hypothesized, that liberals rated concerns related to harm and reciprocity as being significantly more relevant to moral judgment than had conservatives, while conservatives rated ingroup, hierarchy, and purity concerns as significantly more relevant than did liberals. When we limited the analysis to people who had rated themselves using the endpoints of the scale (1=extremely conservative, 7=extremely liberal) – people who are, presumably, the most vocal players in the culture war – we found that the differences became quite stark […] Extreme liberals […] said that only the first two foundations were highly relevant, while the other three foundations were not nearly as important. Extreme conservatives, in contrast, said that all five domains were equally relevant to making moral judgments.

        So, it may very well be that your mind is not typical of every mind. It may well be that what motivates your reasoning and leads you to one conclusion may be very different than what motivates the reasoning of a liberal and leads them to a very different conclusion.

        Ideally, as you suggest, people could understand their cognitive biases well enough to recognize how their reasoning is motivated, and to avoid making errors on account of those motivations. But it is a rare person who does understand cognitive bias that well. That much goes for liberals, conservatives, and just about anyone else out there.

        Before you can understand liberals, you have to understand minds generally – and once you do that, you will not only understand liberals better, but you will understand conservatives better – including yourself.


      • smijer says:

        I forgot to also include a link to this study (pdf) which correlates ideological differences with variations in brain structure. From the summary:

        . We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala. These results were replicated in an independent sample of additional participants. Our findings extend previous observations that political attitudes reflect differences in self-regulatory conflict monitoring [4] and recognition of emotional faces [5] by showing that such attitudes are
        reflected in human brain structure. Although our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, they converge with previous work [4, 6] to suggest a possible link between brain structure and psychological mechanisms that mediate political attitudes.


      • jlue says:

        It will take me a while to read and attempt an answer to your other comment, but on this one I just have to say that I often wonder, on studies like these, which comes first. Could it be possible that our brains, being organs, respond as do the rest of our body parts to how we exercise them? If a person, who has the ability to reason and choose, exercises particular choices repeatedly, could those choices eventually show up as increased gray matter volume in certain areas of the brain. Just a thought.

        Are you suggesting that a person will not choose differently than what his ‘brain’ would give him a tendency to do ordinarily and if that is the case, we are all wasting a great deal of time studying history and previous outcomes of political choices.


      • smijer says:

        Could it be possible that our brains, being organs, respond as do the rest of our body parts to how we exercise them?

        Correlation doesn’t imply causality (the authors phrased it this way: “… our data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes…”

        This comment is just an addendum to an earlier comment about some of the differences in cognitive traits between people, especially as it applies to political motivations.

        It’s quite possible that these differences in brain structures are a result rather than a cause of different thinking styles. It’s also possible that they are the cause rather than the result. Or, it is possible that they are a result of some thinking patterns and a cause of others. As I mentioned, experimental moral psychology is a field in its infancy – there are a lot of questions about why we think and behave as we do. It will be interesting to see those explored.


    • jlue says:

      The Fable of Science and Politics was interesting. (For a story to be a fable, shouldn’t there be an animal that talks?) Does the author equate science and politics as in social science and political science? Is he saying that most humans react to all branches of science emotionally? Am I just dumb to ask these questions? I do understand what he is teaching about human behavior, I just think it is carried to the extreme. The very young probably do react on pure emotion, but I think as we mature many other factors come into play as we respond to the world around us. What do you think?


      • smijer says:

        Maybe in the second draft, there will be talking animals. It’s hard for me to answer your questions, but if you look at the attitudes of Aditya, Barron, Charles, Daria, Eddin, and Ferris, I think you will find one that better embodies the scientific ideal than the others. I think you will find one that warns most dramatically about the dangers of partisan ideology as well. Which do you think is which?

        Of the six, with which do you most closely identify? With which do you most strongly associate the liberals you had in mind when you posted about their “disdain for the Constitution”?


  2. paolosilv says:

    Starting with the New Deal, America began expanding its gov’t. and military. It hasn’t really ended since then. America really isn’t limited anymore by the letter of the law, so to speak. The Cold War gave us a National Emergency gov’t. which we are still living under (NSA).


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