i"What sets the politicians of 2009 apart from the ones of 1787 is the pervasive modern denial that human nature is something we can understand and a basis on which we can found a political order."
Suppose we rephrase our debate topic: "Are today's [select a field of endeavor or expertise] as wise as their counterparts in 1787?" The indisputable answer for a long, long list of professions would be, "You must be joking." The eighteenth century's doctors, scientists, and engineers had more in common with practitioners from thousands of years ago, who relied on primitive superstitions, than they do with their counterparts today, who are highly specialized, dauntingly well informed, and expert in the use of rigorous methodologies for rejecting false hypotheses and second-best practices.
The default assumption, then, is that there is no reason to believe the steady and often startling advances in our understanding and capabilities apply to science or medicine but not to politics. None of us would hire George Washington's dentist. Why, then, should we shrink from rewriting his Constitution in light of everything we have learned in the past 222 years?
Remember, though, that the story of progress is the story of trial and error. Progress will often require modifying or discarding old ideas, but not becausethey are old. New ideas are better ones only if they do a better job of explaining the world or improving the circumstances in which we live. The ones that fail those tests need to be set aside, not embraced simply because they were coined more recently.
What sets the politicians of 2009 apart from the ones of 1787 is the pervasive modern denial that human nature is something we can understand and a basis on which we can found a political order. The Americans who wrote and ratified the Constitution believed in certain truths about human nature. These included our fundamental equality, the securing of our inalienable rights as the government's raison d'être, and the need to channel the natural selfishness that engenders factionalism through a constitutional mechanism that protects individual rights and promotes the public good.
The modern belief, instead, is that what matters is human history, not human nature, our evolution rather than our essence. As the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1948, "[No] man who is as well abreast of modern science as the [Founding] Fathers were of eighteenth-century science believes any longer in unchanging human nature." Having discarded the concept of human nature as a fixed star by which to navigate, modern political actors and thinkers can only fall back on "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," as the Supreme Court said in 1958.
If a politics based on human history makes more sense and produces better outcomes than one based on human nature, then modern politicians deserve to be considered wiser than the authors of the Constitution. But only if. There are two problems with the politics of the evolving standards of decency. First, time and reflection show that some standards embraced with confidence turn out to be shockingly indecent. One hundred years ago, for example, many of the practitioners of the politics of progress were also enthusiastic supporters of the eugenics movement, which resulted in policies of compulsory sterilization and the explicit denial of rights based on racial categorization. The day may come when the standards of our own age, which treat abortion as the legal and moral equivalent of an appendectomy, are also regarded with incomprehension and disgust.
Second, apart from the bland and baseless confidence that our standards can only grow more decent and mature, is the hopeless circularity of appealing to the more enlightened standards just over the horizon to settle today's political arguments. C. S. Lewis wrote that those who frame political and moral dilemmas by asking whether a particular course is consistent with history's direction ask questions that are "of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them make."
In 1885, when he was a prodigious young scholar, Woodrow Wilson wrote that we must replace "blind worship" with "fearless criticism" of the Constitution. It's good advice, but not because the Constitution is especially deserving of skeptical inspection. The point, rather, is that our wisdom and welfare are always better served by approaching ideas and institutions with fearless criticism rather than blind worship.
Fearless criticism of the long-standing project to supplant politics based on human nature with politics that tracks and keeps a step ahead of human history will show that disdaining the truths self-evident to America's founders has rendered us less wise, less happy, and our experiment in self-government less secure. C. S. Lewis stated the question simply but powerfully in Mere Christianity: "Progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man."
In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge hailed the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by calling on Americans to reconsider the possibility that the road laid out by the founders was the right one, and the detour recommended by his contemporaries (and ours) was a profound mistake:
It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.
William Voegeli is a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College's Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World and a contributing editor to the Claremont Review of Books.