The theme of this intriguing book is captured by Claes G, Ryn when he writes in “The Immodesty of American Empire: A Constitutionalist Perspective on Neo-Jacobin Universalism,” his contribution to this collection of essays, “The old American idea of limited, decentralized government appealed to individuals who were convinced that placing restrictions on self, including their own, was essential to human well-being.” Thus, while this book discusses social and political structures, it ties them to the character of the citizenry.
The book does not simplistically hearken back to a golden age, In his essay “Judicial Power and Modest Republicanism,” Michael P. Federici (one of the three editors) writes, “At no time in American history did modest republicanism or contrary inclinations enjoy a monopoly…One way of conceiving of America has been to consider it as divinely inspired… Another conception of imperial America is secular and inspired by humanitarian ideology.” Dr, Federici is critical of Jefferson in this regard and, gingerly, comes close to questioning the Declaration of Independence. In “Education as a Social Problem: Why It Can’t Cure Our Ills,” Jeffrey Polet seems to go all the way regarding James Madison’s advocacy of a large republic, “The critics of Madison’s plan argued that any society predicated on mutual distrust and self -interest was unlikely to do anything other than serve the interest of the wealthy and most ambitious.” Indeed I think this strong collection of essays would be further strengthened were there more discussion of the Declaration and its averral of unalienable rights and more explicit consideration given to the concerns and arguments of the Anti-Federalists.
In addition to the essays on foreign affairs, domestic politics, and economics, there are others on cultural matters. Perhaps the best of these is “Human Scale and the Modest Republic” by Mark T. Mitchell (another of the editors). In it he discusses a certain restlessness in the American spirit, and is unwilling to account for it solely by the presence for so long of the large western frontier. Dr. Mitchell delves deeply and sees this restlessness as caught up with an insistent cultural imperative towards equality and argues that this, in turn, leads to the weakening of local cultures. This is a rich essay and I cannot do justice to it here.
The very form of this book—a collection of relatively brief essays—reflects its advocacy of modesty. To take just one example, in his essay. “The Therapeutic State and the Forgotten Work of Culture,” Jeremy Beer writes perspicaciously, “We’ve never spoken more of the need for tolerance of others…and of our dedication to multiculturalism; and we have never been more aggressively engaged in the destruction of all other cultures except that which is consistent with, or an outgrowth of, our own unique complex of attitudes and ideas known as ‘liberal democracy.’” This in itself is worthy of a long treatise but Dr. Beer leaves us to reflect upon this strange and troubling phenomenon ourselves.
This fine collection’s urging of a recognition of human limits and of the importance of self-restraint, its advocacy of localism, its warnings against empire, the imperial self, and grandiose political schemes combine in a point of view, even a sensibility, that will, I think, rarely be anything other than a minority one. This is perhaps especially so in an age of globalization of culture, multinational corporations, and international organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, and the World Bank. Yet this does not mean nothing of good can be accomplished, and this book can be a help in that.