- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

Modern science is presenting the United States with the greatest challenge to limited government, and hence democracy, since the ratification debates on the Constitution that occasioned Alexander Hamilton's declaration that history had entrusted the American people with the responsibility for deciding "whether societies … are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."
The American people did not disappoint Hamilton. They not only ratified the new constitutional system that he helped to develop, but put this country on the road to becoming the most prosperous rights-oriented nation in human history. As a result of our example, the conviction is now unchallenged that human beings are enriched when they reside in democracies that respect natural rights.
Significantly, the republic fashioned by founders like Hamilton was purposefully designed to advance the cause of comfortable preservation. Hamilton, along with other leading founders like James Madison, understood the difficulties that come when nation states make moral grandeur or religious purity their principal goal. The pursuit of such ends leads to factious divisions and violence, even inquisitions, of the sort that render all enjoyment of personal rights problematical. By contrast, the pursuit of comfortable preservation invites people to negotiate, strike bargains, and form coalitions. In short, it promotes moderate rather than extremist politics.
Whether we like the characterization or not, America was founded as a bourgeois state. By its nature, a bourgeois nation attaches great weight to the things of the body. It is not an accident that the Constitution and our laws supply considerable protection for property and contract rights. Nor should it have been surprising, even if critics were disappointed, when the Supreme Court declared that the Constitution protects a right to abortion based on nothing more than convenience or the avoidance of discomfort.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the benefits of life in the American commercial republic. The unrelenting flow of immigrants, legal and illegal, into the country provides daily confirmation of the allure of the American way of life. Guarantees of due process of law have been extended liberally to all persons, not just citizens, and courts and legislative bodies continually push the envelope when it comes to generous interpretations of both explicit and construed rights such as expression and privacy.
Modern science, and genetic science in particular at this moment, appeals to the same desire for comfortable preservation that the founders appealed to in their plan to make democracy viable. Just as our natural instincts were titillated by the scheme devised by the founders, so we are vulnerable to the appeals now being made by persons who want to extend the frontiers of scientific research and experimentation in the field of genetics. In this way, the case for scientific advancement seems to dovetail with the case for the American republic. This characterization, however, is both deceptive and dangerous.
The scientific community plays on our desire for protection against problems, both large and small. If Americans of the New Deal period were looking for government assistance in the form of minimum wage or social security legislation, the culture of the post-New Deal is marked by calls for government agencies to address matters such as schoolyard bullying and the nutritiousness of snack foods. These demands feed on the belief that government has a moral obligation "to do good" whenever it "can do good."
Considering the reports coming out of the human genome project, the American people hardly can be faulted for believing that genetic science offers the promise of government being able to do more good than ever before in human history. Hence the charge that President Bush's limited endorsement of government funding for stem cell research is not just foolish, but cruel. By restraining government funding of such research, it is argued that he undermines the ability of the scientific community to protect people against all the vicissitudes of life itself. It is worth noting that the president's authorization for limited government funding was grounded explicitly in references to the alleviation of debilitating afflictions.
Although on first blush it may sound "neanderthalish" to say that genetic science is something of a modern trojan horse, the comparison is not without merit. What should be obvious to all Americans is that the desire to control nature that informs modern science, when wedded to our natural desire for comfortable preservation, may well overwhelm the forces that have sustained limited government.
Scientific and medical research of the sort that is at the heart of the debate over human cloning and the use of fetal stem cells can easily open the floodgates to government micro-management of virtually every facet of life. Witness the fact that appeals for government action routinely appear whenever research reveals an explanation for problematical behavioral activity.
Mere speculation that we cannot act without touching other lives does not have the same capacity to legitimate governmental intervention as does "factual" evidence about our make-up and specific behavioral traits — and science is making such evidence available almost on a daily basis. In short, science is arming government officials to make the case for increasing regulation of both large and small activities at the same time that government collaboration with scientific research is seen as critical to the advancement of comfortable preservation.
Against this backdrop, the viability of limited government will depend increasingly on the willingness of political officials, and the American people, to resist some very tempting offers by the scientific community to advance comfortable preservation. What will be required is not a rejection of all that science offers, but the presence of sufficient self-discipline to refuse to embrace practices that threaten the foundations of limited government and political liberty. Self-restraint on this scale will necessitate a deep appreciation for the connection between self-government and civilized existence. Indeed, it will require nothing less than an appreciation for the difference between being a bona fide citizen in a democracy of rights and a mere subject, that is, for the difference between a life that ennobles the human spirit and mere life.

David E. Marion is director of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College.


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