An Open Letter to David Hogg
(We boring adults typically begin correspondence with expressions like “Dear So-and-So,” even when addressing a person with whom we have strong disputes. We call it being civil, i.e., decent and respectful even toward those with whom one disagrees. Civility seems the most effective and mature pattern of behavior when dealing with others in most contexts, particularly as an alternative to things like “Hey, listen up you f-ing child murderers!”)
It has come to my attention, mostly through second-hand reports, since I don’t watch TV news, believing, as some of us do when we grow up, that television is, as many people used to call it, an idiot box or boob tube, and therefore about as reliable as a source of moral perspective and social theory as…well, as a public school-educated teenager is reliable as a source of political philosophy and legislative advice — in any case, it has come to my attention that you believe every American adult, from your parents to your national leaders, is inferior to you and your fellow teenagers in political wisdom and policy ideas, and therefore that your views ought to be heeded as though the fact that the old folks can’t use smartphones as well as you can is evidence that they don’t know “how to use a f-ing democracy” as well as you do.
Here, then, is my main purpose in addressing this letter to you, David. You see, we old folks all espoused views as teenagers that we were just certain were flawless and deep, but later came to realize were merely deeply flawed, if not outright ridiculous. There is not an adult over age forty on this planet, I’ll wager, who doesn’t feel embarrassed when looking back at some of the ideas he spouted about topics serious and trivial while a teenager. More to the point, there isn’t an adult on this planet who, if he were magically transported to a world built on the model of his teenage ideals and fantasies, wouldn’t run to the magician screaming, “Get me the hell out of this nightmare!”
Why is that, David? Not because teenagers are naturally stupid or especially bad people. Some of them are so, of course, as you and your schoolmates learned when one such really stupid and bad teenager shot many of your school’s students. But for the most part, teenagers are as well-intentioned as anyone else.
The problem is that even the best-intentioned teenagers tend to be almost universally wrong, or at least seriously deficient, in their thinking about the most important and complex subjects, for a very simple reason: They lack the level of experience and learning which allow a human being to make sound judgments and reasonable decisions about the most complex moral and philosophical questions — experience and learning which can only be acquired over time, much more time than any teenager has had on this Earth, at least as a thinking being.
In other words, while youth has many advantages over age — boundless physical energy, fewer unpleasant responsibilities, a life with more discovery than deterioration in its foreseeable future, and more hair — it also has many inescapable disadvantages. Chief among these disadvantages is a lack of the historical perspective, foundational knowledge, and experience-entrenched humility necessary to form rational opinions about extremely complicated questions of the sort that involve the lives and freedoms of other people.
A few details and examples regarding the kind of deficiency I’m talking about will suffice for now:
First of all, you say that people your parents’ age or older don’t know how to work a democracy. Apart from the amusing certitude with which you condemn the political intelligence of everyone older than yourself — have you, who are not even old enough to vote, ever thought about how hard it might actually be to “work a democracy” of three hundred million citizens? — your criticism is actually off the mark from its most basic premise. For the United States of America is not a democracy. It is a constitutional republic.
The difference between a republic and a democracy, interestingly, is roughly equivalent to the difference between mature adulthood and immature childhood. An adult does not radically restructure his life, throwing away previous decisions and longstanding beliefs, on the basis of a momentary whim, a flash of anger, or any other sudden onset of passion. He restrains himself in such conditions, thinks twice, counts to ten, and waits until he is calm and reasonable again before deciding what is, or is not, to be done.
In other words, an adult in the full sense never lets momentary passions (e.g., fear or anger) or desires (e.g., lust or greed) overwhelm his rational choices and obliterate the purposeful life he has built for himself. He knows that passions and desires are often passing things that have famously led to the downfall of so many good and great people in the past, probably including some people he knows personally. He also knows from his own experience how some of his own youthful choices, guided by passions and desires unrestrained by cool, rational deliberation, harmed him (or other people) in the past, and he holds those disturbing memories close as important warnings against mistaking his feelings for The Truth ever again.
A child, by contrast, tends to be guided much more easily by passions or desires of a moment, because he lacks the hard lessons of experience and the firm resolve of deep-rooted character to hold him back from rushing off in pursuit of foolish fancies. This is why children, such as you claim to be — I actually regard you as a young adult, and wonder why you are so eager to belittle yourself with the label “child” — need to be guided by parental authority and educated by teachers. They are still more responsive to emotional signals than to rational arguments — that’s why children can “read” adult hypocrisy so easily, which I point out in order to remind you that in your heart you know perfectly well you are being used by your “allies” and coaches in the Democratic Party and at CNN.
Therefore, while children and young adults must gradually be allowed to prove themselves with increased personal freedom, we would never want them to live entirely without guidance from their elders, since the full responsibilities and complexities of individual liberty are simply too much for a young person still testing out his reasoning skills and highly susceptible to emotional and moral weakness. In short, a seventeen-year-old is still more easily swayed by emotion than by reason, and is therefore always in danger of doing irrational and harmful things without even realizing it. And since he is not yet able to understand the full implications or likely consequences of his actions, he is apt, if left entirely to his own devices, to act recklessly and with potentially catastrophic results, both for himself and for others around him.
Let us now apply these observations to the distinction between a constitutional republic and a democracy.
A republic is carefully designed to approximate, at the societal level, the kind of self-restraint and dispassionate reasoning that guide the mature adult in his private life. A republic has political and legislative structures and limits to ensure, as far as possible, that society does not take radical action in response to the passions or desires of the moment, much as an adult who has developed the moral virtue of moderation is able to restrain an urge to act until he has given careful consideration to the conditions that gave rise to the urge, and the possible negative consequences of this or that course of action.
You and your teenage chums, along with the old and cynical “progressive” (neo-Marxist) activists from the Washington and media establishments who are prodding you along in your angry demands — using you as their puppet and mouthpiece to say things they could not get away with saying — frequently criticize America for getting upset about a “tragedy” like the one at your school but then “doing nothing about it” until the moment passes and the status quo remains unchanged. But you see, David, that is precisely the purpose and benefit of the republican, as opposed to the democratic, system of government: It makes sudden political changes rooted in immediate emotional outbursts very difficult, thus forcing society to “count to ten,” so to speak, and to recover from the immoderate passion of the moment before making decisions about what — if anything — needs to be done.
In other words, a republic, if it is functioning properly (which it often isn’t, unfortunately) always weighs the immediate desire for change against a calm consideration of what that change might cost in the long run; and this calm consideration which overcomes emotional urges is exactly what makes a republic such a beautiful political idea. It is the triumph of reason — wisdom and moderation — over unthinking desire and passion.
For the truth is that most objects of desire, particularly desires rooted in sudden experiences of extreme pain, enthusiasm, or fear, reveal themselves, when looked at with the eye of reason, to be bad ideas. This is true at the personal level, of course — suicide, sexual promiscuity, and violence are urges that can grip a person in a moment of extreme passion, but they are all bad ideas, and certain to cause harmful outcomes for all concerned.
The same is true at the societal level. When the majority, or the most violently vocal minority, is allowed to change the nature and direction of a society without rational restraint in the form of structural, constitutional limits, then that society — the democracy which you claim teenagers know how to “work” — is left at the mercy of any random desires that might overtake the crowd in a moment of extreme passion. But — here is another of those lessons of mature adulthood that come from long experience, both individual and historical — every crowd (every crowd) is a little dumber than its dumbest individual member. Therefore, when a crowd, also known in political terms as a mob, is allowed to direct political decision-making, the results are likely to be the dumbest, i.e., the most dangerous and destructive, results imaginable.
And that, David, is exactly why the adults prodding you and your cohorts along, organizing and paying for your “March for Our Lives” rallies, inviting you onto CNN repeatedly, and so on, are encouraging you the way they are. They want to keep the issue of gun control hot and passionate, and to keep the activism burning at the level of angry mob chanting and “What about the children?” emotionalism, because they know crowds are easier to rile up to irrational enthusiasm and radical action than private citizens — once again, they know that any crowd is dumber than its dumbest individual member.
They want you to shout about “democracy” for them, because they believe, correctly, that the sober reflection intrinsic to constitutional republicanism is the greatest obstacle to their social goals.
“What social goals?” you ask. The kind of social goals that no rational adult, let alone a rationally organized society, would ever choose, which is why your backers need to use irrational anger, fear, and outrage as their weapons. The kind of social goals no one would choose if they were given time to think over all the potential implications and consequences of the choice, which is why your backers demand action now, and insist that adulthood and time (experience and the opportunity for calm reflection) are the enemies of their movement. The kind of social goals that a constitutional republic is structurally designed to resist, which is why they demand action on the basis of pure democratic principles — that is to say, mob rule — rather than constitutionality.
And what is it about constitutional republicanism that disturbs them so much that they are so eager to push society into overriding it in favor of passionate action? The answer is simple: its limits. Your friends in the progressive movement, from the political establishment to the media establishment to the “capitalist” establishment, despise one thing above all, and that thing is the defining feature of a constitutional republic such as the United States, namely limited government.
Limited government, grounded in that idea of God-given rights that you mock so bitterly in the case of the Second Amendment, is the enemy your backers most despise, and most want you to help them destroy. Why? Think about it. I mean really think about it, David. Why would a political faction regard the concept that government should be limited in its reach and power as a distasteful notion? Don’t you think the reason almost explains itself? Because they want to establish an unlimited government.
And if your goal was to destroy limited government, i.e., constitutional republicanism, in favor of establishing a governing authority unlimited in its power and scope — a government that could do anything it desired to its citizens, without any built-in structural or legal restraints — what practical condition would you need to establish first? That question may seem a little too abstract, again because it is the kind of question that lends itself to historical reflection and logical processes not yet fully available to a seventeen-year-old. (And that problem is especially true for a seventeen-year-old raised in this age of public schooling, another system designed and defended by your backers and their predecessors for generations, because it is the most efficient way of guaranteeing that young, energetic citizens like you will be prevented from achieving their full potential as independent, rational adults — the kind of mature adults who, like the republican political system they resemble, are most resistant to the schemes of your progressive controllers.)
In fact, the question is not abstract at all, but merely seems so because you, like most modern humans, have been indoctrinated all your life not to be able see the issue clearly. The question, again, was this: If your goal was to destroy limited government and establish an absolute, unlimited governing power, what practical condition would you need to establish first?
Think along with me now, David. We — you and I — are aspiring to unlimited power over society. What is going to be our most serious immediate obstacle? Of course: citizen resistance. Adults don’t like to be told what to do without any recourse or means of defending themselves against the authority of others. (Teenagers don’t like it much either, as I recall. I know I didn’t, and it’s my impression that you don’t.)
So we, you and I, David and Daren, have a plan to establish unlimited authority for ourselves, but we have this not-so-little problem of adult citizens, millions of them, who are unhappy about the prospect of losing what little control they feel they have over their private lives to the absolute authority of our political fantasies and whims. What are we to do about this resistance?
Well, the answer depends on how serious the resistance might be. After all, as we assume power thanks to our excellent skills at rallying crowds (and we know how dumb they are), we’ll know we have a lot of people on our side, so the danger we face will depend on the combination of two factors: (1) How big is the resistance? and (2) How prepared are they to resist us in an effective way?
The first factor becomes much less important if we can manage the second factor well. In other words, what really matters is not how many people dislike our unlimited rule, but how far they will be able to go in resisting it.
I think you can see where this is heading, right? If we want to ensure that our transition from republican limits to unlimited “democracy” proceeds without serious difficulty, we must prevent the potential resisters from having sufficient practical means to resist. In short, we need to disarm them, and now. Don’t give them time to reflect, don’t let them think about the consequences of “gun control” — just grasp at any opportunity to play on the crowd’s emotions and demand “action now” to “protect children,” while repeatedly smearing anyone who resists our demands, regardless of their reasons, as a hateful old child-murderer.
In effect, we should rebrand reason, calm reflection, and constitutional republicanism as violence, greed, and oppression, and just keep chanting these mantras until we push the cynical, unprincipled political players of today into ceding to our demands, or at least to enough of them to set the stage for our next assault on the rights and responsibilities that define the republican society, which is to say political freedom.
When you get older, David, you will see, I hope, how you have been abused by your elders of today. But your abusers are not the people you are spitting at today, calling child murderers, and swearing about. They are the progressive authoritarians — the oldest people you will ever meet, so old they are still living in 1906 — who dream of erasing the American republic from the face of the Earth forever in favor of an unconstitutional, easily-manipulable “social democracy” (mob rule), and who hope to use you and your friends as instruments of propaganda in their effort.
As I mentioned, every mature adult looks back at his youthful ideas and thanks his lucky stars that they didn’t all come true, because every adult realizes that in most of his big ideas, certainly regarding the most complex subjects, his beliefs were wholly or largely wrong. You will have that moment of reckoning someday too, David — every thinking person does.
I just hope — and this is my reason for writing this open letter to you — that you will not be one of those very unfortunate people who, rather than enjoying the luxury of looking back and saying, “Phew!” is forced instead to look back and say, “What have I done?”