About this Quotation:
It is interesting to compare Nisbet’s thoughts with the very similar ones expressed by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises on how war, inflation, and revolution in the 20th century have so greatly expanded the powers of the state to the detriment of individual liberty.
19 July, 2004
Read the full quote in context here.
In 1988 Nisbet gave a series of lectures to celebrate the bicentennial of the American Constitution. He reflected on what the Framers would be most struck by in America today and concluded that they would be incredulous at the staggering size of the military establishment and the Leviathan-like size of the national government:
What would the Framers (of the U.S. Constitution) be most struck by in America today? … Three aspects of the present age in America would surely draw their immediate, concerned, and perhaps incredulous attention. First, the prominence of war in American life since 1914, amounting to a virtual Seventy-Five Years War, and with this the staggering size of the American military establishment since World War II. … Second, the Leviathan-like presence of the national government in the affairs of states, towns, and cities, and in the lives, cradle to grave, of individuals.
The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):
It is tempting in this year of the bicentennial of the Constitution to speculate on the probable reactions of the Framers to the product of their labors and aspirations as it stands today in the world two full centuries after its inception. Such speculation need not be altogether fanciful. Some constitutional lawyers speak of recovering the “original intent” of the Framers, a not impossible feat given the clarity of the document itself and the abundance of ancillary sources of the Framers’ views on government. If original intent can be reasonably retrieved after two hundred years, why not probable reaction to the present age in America?
What would the Framers be most struck by in America today? I mean after they had recovered from the shock of seeing clean, strong, white teeth instead of decayed yellow stumps in the mouths of their descendants; after they had assimilated the fact of the astounding number of Americans who were neither crippled, disease-wasted, nor pockmarked from smallpox; and, of course, after they had taken rapt eyes off the high-speed vehicles on the streets? After these astonishments, what reactions might there be to the political and cultural scene?
Three aspects of the present age in America would surely draw their immediate, concerned, and perhaps incredulous attention.
First, the prominence of war in American life since 1914, amounting to a virtual Seventy-Five Years War, and with this the staggering size of the American military establishment since World War II. The Framers had relied on two broad oceans for the license to draft the most nonmilitary constitution imaginable.
Second, the Leviathan-like presence of the national government in the affairs of states, towns, and cities, and in the lives, cradle to grave, of individuals. The Framers had worked most diligently to prevent any future hypertrophy of the federal government.They had particularly disliked the sprawling bureaucracies of Europe in their day.
Third, the number of Americans who seem only loosely attached to groups and values such as kinship, community, and property, and whose lives are so plainly governed by the cash nexus.
In the pages following, I have enlarged upon these three aspects of the present scene in America.
[More works by Robert A. Nisbet (1913 – 1996)]