I’ve just returned from a conference on great Americans’ contributions to the nation’s ongoing discussion of liberty and order. What struck me most strongly was the fact that our opinions on liberty depend so greatly on our cultural treatment of the issue, and that the latter depends so thoroughly on leadership.

To read the speeches and other writings of great leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and the two presidents Roosevelt (as much as I disagree with the positions of these last two individuals), one is positively revolted by the puerility and ignorance of our modern politicians. Since Ronald Reagan there has not been a leader in either American political party whose thinking and writings could approach placing them in a class with these persons, or even as close as several  notches below.

Certainly one could suggest a variety of reasons for this, but the greatest of these, I believe, is a simple deficiency of interest in and understanding of basic principles. Our modern politicians seem far too caught up in politics, as opposed to being interested in and willing to investigate in depth the principles behind human action and political activity.

This has always been true to some degree, but today’s leaders seem constitutionally incapable of distinguishing the foundational from the ephemeral. 

President Clinton’s long lists of policy prescriptions divorced from any principle other than the notion that the federal government exists to take every possible action that can be imagined to contribute somehow to making everything better for everybody, is a perfect example of this sense of governance divorced from principle. So is George W. Bush’s stark inability to explain precisely what principles motivate his bewilderingly contradictory policies (such as cutting taxes while rapidly raising federal spending or calling for school choice while nationalizing K-12 education).

Our current-day politicians are thorough products of the Omniculture, a place without a shared set of central values. Hence, their immersion in minutiae and limited ability to adress issues of fundamental principle should not exactly surprise us.

However, even if it is too much to expect, and unwise to want, our poltiical leaders to be entirely free of the cultural assumptions of our time or to live in an ethereal world of abstract contemplation of Platonic ideals, it is not only possible but in fact necessary for our societal health that they engage the greatest thinking of the past and apply to the problems of our time the principles found therein.

That they fail to do this is entirely their fault and is not excusable by reference to broader social and cultural trends. It is simply wrong.