Res Publica

by Lewis H. Lapham

Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Harper’s Magazine

This article appeared in the “Notebook” section of HARPER’S Magazine, December 2001, pp. 8-11.


Lapham holds that the current laissez-faire theories of government do America an injustice. They don’t speak to the best of our character; neither do they express the cherished ideal embodied in the history of a courageous people, namely, the love of freedom.

Throughout the month of October the fire continued to burn in the ruin of lower Manhattan, and the numerous politicians who came to look upon the face of apocalyptic destruction never failed to see, somewhere behind the veil of rancid and still-drifting smoke, an American phoenix rising from the ashes…. Almost as soon as they had said that America never again would be the same, they began to talk about the restoration of the familiar and heroic past, making good the losses of September 11 with quicker witted intelligence agents, heavier artillery, more patriotic displays of consumer confidence in all the nation’s better stores….

As construed by the household sophists in the Reagan Administration and endorsed by their successors in the Bush and Clinton administrations, the intellectual foundation for the country’s wealth and happiness rested on four pillars of imperishable wisdom:

1. Big government is by inclination Marxist, by definition wasteful and incompetent, a conspiracy of fools indifferent to the welfare of the common man. The best government is no government. The agencies of big government stand as acronyms for overbearing bureaucracy, as synonyms for poverty, indolence, and disease.

2. Global capitalism is the eighth wonder of the world, a light unto the nations and the answer to everybody’s prayers. Nothing must interfere with its sacred mysteries and omniscient judgment.

3. The art of politics (embarrassingly human and therefore corrupt) is subordinate to the science of economics (reassuringly abstract and therefore perfect).

4. History is at an end. The new world economic order vanquished the last of the skeptics by refuting the fallacy of Soviet Communism. Having reached the final stopping place on the road to ideological perfection, mankind no longer need trouble itself with any new political ideas

All four pillars of imperishable wisdom perished on the morning of September 11, reduced within an hour to the incoherence of the rubble in Liberty Street. By noon even the truest of true believers knew that they had been telling themselves a fairy tale. If not to big government, then where else did the friends of laissez-faire economics look for the rescue of their finances and the saving of their lives; if not the agencies of big government, who then brought the ambulances from as far away as Albany or sent the firemen into the doomed buildings with no promise of a finder’s fee? It wasn’t the free market that hijacked the airplanes and cross-promoted them into bombs, or Adam Smith’s invisible hand that cut the throats of the pilots on what they thought was a flight to Los Angeles. History apparently was still a work in progress, the strange thoughts grown in the basements of Tirana possibly closer to the geopolitical spirit of the times than the familiar platitudes handed around the conference tables at the American Enterprise Institute.…during the weeks since September 11 the rush into the shelters of big government has come to resemble the crowding of sinners into the tent of a prairie evangelist.

By the end of October it had been generally understood that America no longer enjoyed a special arrangement with Providence, preserved by the virtue of its inhabitants and the grace of its geography from the provocations of death, chance, kings, and desperate men. Confronted with determined enemies (many of them still unknown, some of them armed with appalling weapons) the nation stood exposed, like other nations, to the insults of outrageous fortune. The awareness of the predicament (on the part of both the politicians at the microphones and the voters in the streets) conceivably could lead to a reconstitution of the American idea, but the finding of the phoenix in the ashes presupposes a debate rising from an intellectual structure a good deal sturdier than the one lost in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. I imagine the argument falling along the division between the people who would continue the American experiment and those who think that the experiment has gone far enough, and if I can’t frame all the questions that might well be asked, I can think of at least a few:

How high a price do we set on the head of freedom? If we delete another few paragraphs from the Bill of Rights (for our own protection, of courw, in the interest of peace, prosperity, and carefree summer vacations), what do we ask of the state in return for our silence in court? Do we wish to remain citizens of a republic, or do we prefer the forms of participatory fascism in which the genial man on horseback assures us that repression is good for the soul? With what secular faith do we match the zeal of militant Islam and combat the enmity of the impoverished peoples of the earth to whom the choice between war and peace presents itself as a choice of no significance? How define the American democracy as a res publica for which we might willingly give up our lives? Our own lives, not the lives of foreign legions. And of what does the res publica consist?

None of the questions lead to certain answers, but if we don’t ask them of ourselves I don’t know how we can expect to rediscover the American idea in a world unknown to Jefferson. …The barbarism in Washington doesn’t dress itself in the costumes of the Taliban; it wears instead the smooth-shaven smile of Senate resolution sold to the highest bidder—for the drilling of the Arctic oil fields or the lifting from the rich the burden of the capital-gains tax, for bigger defense budgets, reduced medical insurance, enhanced surveillance, grotesque monopoly. If we took more of an interest in the making of our foreign policy, usually for the profit of our corporate overlords rather than for the safety of the American people, maybe we would know why, when bringing the lamp of liberty to the darker places of the earth, the United States invariably chooses for its allies the despots who operate their countries on the model of a prison or a jail.

As was proved by events on the morning of September 11, the laissez-faire theories of government do us an injustice. They don’t speak to the best of our character; neither do they express the cherished ideal embodied in the history of a courageous people. What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, race, or ancestry but their voluntary pledge to a shared work of both the moral and political imagination. My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from pride in its armies or its fleets…. The Constitution serves as the premise for a narrative rather than as the design for a monument or a plan for an invasion.

Any argument about the direction of the American future becomes an argument between the past and present tense. Let us hope that it proves to be both angry and fierce. The friends of the status quo (both houses of Congress, most of the national news media, the Hollywood patriots, and a legion of corporate spokespersons) already have made it clear that they prefer as little discussion as possible. Domestic political dissent they regard as immoral and, in time of war, treasonous. They believe it their duty to invest President Bush not only with the powers of a monarch but also with the attribute of wisdom. Put out more flags, post more guards, distribute the pillows of cant.

Maybe two or three years from now, when all the terrorists have been rounded up and the Trade Center towers replaced with a golden statue of Mammon, the time will come to talk of politics. In the meanwhile, my children, while waiting for that far-off happy day, follow directions, submit to the surveillance, look at the nice pictures brought to you by the Pentagon, know that your rulers are wise.

Alfred North Whitehead once observed that it is the business of the future to be dangerous (not because the future is perverse but because it doesn’t know how to be anything else), and whether we like it or not, the argument now in progress in Moscow and Jerusalem and Islamabad is the same argument that enlivened the annals of republican Rome, built the scaffolds of the Spanish Inquisition, and gave rise to the American Revolution. If we fail to engage it, we do so at our peril. The freedoms of expression present democratic societies with the unwelcome news that they are in trouble, hut because all societies, like most individuals, are always in some kind of trouble, the news doesn’t drive them onto the reefs of destruction. They die instead from the fear of thought and the paralysis that accompanies the wish to believe that only the wicked perish. The climate of anxiety is the cost of doing business, discomfort the state of mind in which the oyster brings forth the pearl. .