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Our Tudor Parliament
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Our Tudor Parliament

The government has grown corrupt because it suffers from a phobia of independent powers.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy greets former House speaker Nancy Pelosi after being elected speaker in 15 rounds of votes. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

King Henry VIII did not willfully set out to become a tyrant—if anything, he was in many ways inclined in the opposite direction. He understood himself as a liberator of England and as what we would now recognize as a nationalist: He built up Parliament as a central national institution and rooted his titles and legitimacy in that national assembly, rejecting what had been the settled authority of the pope and the church; he incorporated Wales into the system of national parliamentary representation (it had been subject to direct royal rule) and instituted English as the official language in Wales (without much consulting the Welsh); to the occasional irritation of the nobility, he practiced the meritocratic elevation of commoners such as Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell to high office; in contrast to the radicals that the Reformation would throw up, the Henrician church did not differ much with Rome when it came to such issues as transubstantiation or clerical celibacy—Henry would have been well-satisfied with a Catholic Church whose English adherents and English clergy were under English authority, and that may be what he thought he had created or was creating. 

The problem, of course, was that Henry could not abide one of the key things that is necessary for the creation and maintenance of a genuinely free society: rivalrous and competing centers of power. Henry’s elevation of Parliament was meant to diminish the power of Rome, just as his meritocracy was less an exercise in egalitarianism than it was a way of undermining the independent powers of the great nobles, a project that had begun in earnest with his father’s royal patronage of Thomas Wolsey, the “butcher’s boy” (as his critics derided him) who would rise to the position of cardinal and then serve as Henry VIII’s chancellor. It was inevitable that the Church of England would be first and foremost the Church of Henry Tudor—for the king, there was no difference between the two entities. It will not do to try to read Henry’s mind (there should be a kind of “Goldwater rule” for history) but we might reasonably accept that Henry’s abuses, outrages, and tyranny were, from his point of view, patriotic and well-intentioned: In Henry’s time as in our own, nationalists have always had contempt for procedure, norms, and the rule of law. What is necessary to the pursuit of the national interest is, as they see things, always legitimate in that there is and can be no superior or precedent interest. Many U.S. presidents have behaved according to Henry’s maxim: “I do not choose anyone to have it in his power to command me, nor will I ever suffer it.” 

Our government has grown corrupt because it suffers from the Tudor disease—a phobia of independent powers. The government itself cannot countenance rival centers of power, hence the imbecilic assault on religious communities during Democratic administrations (attempting to bully the Little Sisters of the Poor, a community of celibate nuns, into providing contraceptive and abortifacient access) and the imbecilic assault on technology companies (perceived as cultural and political enemies) under Republican power. The federal government is increasingly hostile to the independent powers of the states. (It is worth keeping in mind that the states created the federal government, not the other way around.) Within the federal government, the increasingly imperial presidency seeks to override the independent powers of the other branches of government (“If Congress won’t act, I will”).

And the centralizing impulse is evident even within the political branches: The “unitary executive” school of thought championed by some conservatives invests the whole of the executive branch’s power in the person of the president, while the House of Representatives has descended into a kind of farcical dictatorship: Whereas “regular order” had ensured that the real power in the House is divided between the speaker and various committee and subcommittee chairmen, our new practice of permanent legislative emergency (omnibus bills, continuing resolutions, etc.) has given the speaker princely power, albeit princely power only within the shrinking and debased principality that is the House. The Senate maintains something of its character, while the Supreme Court has befuddled and irritated progressives by working to restore the rightful powers of the legislatures, as in the matter of abortion. 

Just as England was better off when the king had to take into account the priorities and preferences of the Duke of Norfolk and the pope, the United States is better off when the president has to share power in a more genuine and robust way with the speaker of the House, when the speaker is checked by the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, when Congress is being pulled one way by business interests and in another way by the political parties, when what is said at the pulpit matters at least as much as what is said on C-SPAN. 

In that sense, I don’t mind last week’s fight over the speakership. I cannot think of any way in which the humiliation of such a figure as Kevin McCarthy is bad for the republic, except for the fact that it redounds to the benefit of a few even more detestable figures such as Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert. As my friend Jonah Goldberg often says, “Democracy is about disagreement, not about agreement.” The republic will not fall for the want of Kevin McCarthy’s legislative leadership, such as it is, but the current convulsion in the House is the result of institutional weakness—not of institutional strength. Congress, being complicit in the usurpation of its powers by the executive branch, is in a weakened condition, and the political parties that once provided necessary discipline and leadership as independent powers of their own have been effectively dismantled. We should not be sentimental about the goodness or patriotism of the old bulls who once ran Congress—there was an excellent reason for Dan Rostenkowski to be transferred from Ways and Means to the federal penitentiary—but whatever it was that figures such as Tip O’Neill or Sam Rayburn were up to, it wasn’t auditioning for a spot on the Fox News primetime lineup. 

Newt Gingrich supposedly said as a young man that he did not want to be president but instead hoped to become speaker of the House. (We must entertain the possibility, however unthinkably remote, that Newt Gingrich was not being entirely straight with us.) He became speaker of the House at a time when that position had not been entirely reduced to the status of a consolation prize for people who lacked the charisma or energy to rise to executive rather than legislative power, though Gingrich himself would, inevitably, end up running for president before becoming a full-time presidential sycophant in the Donald Trump years. Imagine if Gingrich had been successful in winning the White House in 2012 and then had endured a disappointing presidency and electoral defeat—could you imagine his doing what John Quincy Adams did, returning to the House of Representatives for nearly two decades of service? (Dedicated and courageous service in the case of Adams, who as a member of the House was an energetic advocate of the abolition of slavery, even arguing the Amistad case before the Supreme Court while sitting in Congress.) Barack Obama is more than two decades younger than Nancy Pelosi, but could you imagine him eating chicken soup in the congressional cafeteria having known the rare delights of Air Force One

No, no one dreams of being the next Kevin McCarthy—Kevin McCarthy least of all, one expects. 

The national government of these United States will never find its way back into balance (I do not say harmony) until Congress sorts itself out internally and subsequently reestablishes its proper relations with the other two branches of government, with especial attention to reclaiming its rightful powers—including its war powers and its treaty powers—from the executive branch. And if you meditate on that for a moment, then the question of Kevin McCarthy will seem even more picayune than it did before. Whatever Kevin McCarthy may or may not do as speaker (beyond printing up a new business card) is sure to fall leagues short of what needs doing. We might say that with the speakership in its current degraded state, he is exactly the man for this job—but he is not the man for the job this needs to be. 

Economics for English Majors

I’ve been thinking a bit about the minimum wage recently (see my Sunday column in the New York Post) which reminds me of one of my least favorite habits of economists and pop-economists: the false confirmation obtained by means of a faulty comparison. 

You see this all the time in debates about the minimum wage. For example, consider this from the Berkeley Economic Review (which is, bear in mind, an undergraduate publication): “Neoclassical economists have predicted that raising the minimum wage would increase unemployment, as firms become more thrifty and lay off workers (disemployment effect). Second, neoclassical economists would predict price increases as firms sought to regain back their profits after paying workers a higher wage (price effects).”

That is not quite right, though one reads similar arguments in the popular press all the time. The relevant point of comparison is not “conditions before Policy Change X” vs. “conditions after Policy Change X” but “conditions after Policy Change X” vs. “the conditions that would have prevailed without Policy Change X.” For example, if California raises its minimum wage by $1 and employment goes up rather than down, that does not tell us that a higher minimum wage doesn’t put downward pressure on employment. It tells us only that if such pressure exists, it is not dispositive, which, of course, nobody really thinks it should be: Economies are complex, they have lots of important variables, some of those variables are policies but most of them are not, etc. The problem is that we don’t really know what the situation would have looked like without the policy change in question, because there is no way to measure that which did not happen. We can model likely outcomes, and there are better and worse ways to do that, but this doesn’t really get us there. If the minimum wage in California goes up $1 and unemployment goes down 1 percent, that doesn’t tell us that a higher minimum wage leads to lower unemployment, only that it is possible to have both at the same time. We have to at least consider the other possibilities, e.g., that unemployment might have gone down by more than 1 percent without the higher minimum wage. 

When advocates write such sentences as “Extensive research refutes the claim that increasing the minimum wage causes increased unemployment and business closures,” they aren’t really being accurate or intellectually honest. The problem is the word increased—increased relative to what? The proper comparison isn’t between Wednesday and Thursday but between the observed Thursday and the hypothetical Thursday that we cannot observe. 

Activists, including the ones who pretend to be journalists, love to put the word “proves” into headlines. That should be a red flag to critical observers—often, nothing is being proved at all, and something is being, at most, suggested. 

Words About Words

Who is a “conservative”? It is a question we—we conservatives—have been asking frequently in the past 15 years or so. In a report from one of the original Tea Party rallies, I noted that the people I met were angry, passionate, anti-Obama, talk-radio and Fox News people, but I was not sure that they were conservative:

Considering the tea-party crowd, I wonder: Is an effective national political coalition of the Right still possible? The old Fusionism articulated by National Review produced a broadly unified Right in part because it was a reaction to a deeply unified Left characterized by Communism abroad and by streams of leftist thought in Europe and the United States that were to various extents sympathetic with Marxist analysis and revolutionary hostility toward tradition, church, family, and — above all — capitalism. Today’s Left isn’t really much like the Left to which Fusionism was a response: It retains the hostility toward church and tradition, but its hostility is adolescent, not revolutionary. Comfortably embedded in the managerial class, progressives have made their peace with the organs and fruits of capitalism, if not its philosophy. There was an element of class warfare in the Obama movement, but it wasn’t an uprising of the proletariat — it was the grad-schooled upper-middle-class’s imposition of its values on the rest of society. Governor Palin wasn’t denounced as an enemy of the people, but as a hick. That’s a different kind of thing to oppose and to manage, especially for a conservative movement that has its own share of grad-schooled upper-middle-class allegiances. 

I believe the tea-party movement is a healthy and worthwhile development. But is it conservative? It is good for the people to sometimes shake their fists at The Man, and The Man should take it seriously. Politics necessitates compromise, but I wonder if the people at the Tea Party want the same things, or want enough of the same things to cohere, and to cohere in a movement that is recognizably conservative. And if they do want enough of the same things, I wonder what those things are — because I was there, and I am not sure.

We hear and read that the House members who opposed Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the speakership are hardline conservatives or ultraconservative or the most conservative members of the House, but that isn’t really true: There isn’t really any sense in which Lauren Boebert, to take one idiotic example, is more conservative than, say, Tom Cole. She is more cartoonish, less serious, more in tune with the politics of the Twitter right, etc., but in no meaningful political or ideological sense more conservative. Paul Gosar is to the left of Nancy Pelosi on foreign policy and is by no means a conservative on economic matters—at least as the word conservative was used until the day before yesterday. Matt Gaetz is … Matt Gaetz. I’m not sure that I trust Heritage Action to tell me who a conservative is—in fact, I’m sure I don’t—but even Heritage gives Brian Babin, a McCarthy supporter, a 100 percent rating. The same holds true for Michael Burgess and others. Even in the current debased state of the GOP, “ultraconservative” does not mean “ultra-kook.” 

We have been here before, of course. Reaganites used to laugh bitterly at the nightly news and morning papers when they described the Communist Party bosses in the Soviet Union who opposed glasnost and perestroika as conservatives and conservative hardliners. “Well, weren’t they opposed to radical change?” Yes, but. When Deng Xiaoping began his campaign to reform Chinese economic policies, the Marxist-Maoist true-believers who opposed him were described in the Western media as “conservatives.” 

Certain progressives and Democratic partisans are very invested in the notion that the Democrats who opposed equal rights for African Americans were “conservatives,” and if by conservative we mean people who take a skeptical view of the welfare state, income redistribution, economic regulation, high taxes, etc., then, sure, some of them were—but mostly they weren’t. Mostly they were ordinary progressives and New Dealers who were also hateful and eager white supremacists. That American progressives might also be poisonous racists should not surprise anybody who knows anything about Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt or the history of the eugenics movement. If conservatism means the political line that connects the founders to Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley Jr., Phil Gramm, George Will, Russell Kirk, Tom Wolfe—those segregationist Democrats were something else, not mainly because of their ugly views on race (obviously, lots of conservatives have had pretty noxious racial views) but because of their views on most everything else, from Social Security to farm subsidies.

This all ends up getting kind of confusing and a little bit ironic: The conservative movement that coalesced around Buckley and National Review came into being in strident opposition to the Eisenhower Republicans who had made their peace with the New Deal, and found its champion in Ronald Reagan, who was not even an Eisenhower Republican but a Roosevelt man, a New Deal Democrat who stuck by his party until the social radicalism of the 1960s finally drove him out. As a policy matter, Donald Trump was the least conservative Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt, but, somehow, conservatism came to be defined as fealty to the man himself and to his fanciful and fickle agenda. 

George Will offers a very useful description of conservatism (conserving the principles of the American founding) in his book The Conservative Sensibility. If more than one of the clowns in the anti-McCarthy clown car has read it, I would be very surprised. 

Elsewhere

The minimum wage has been going up, but pay for low-wage jobs has been going up faster, with workers in the bottom 10 percent earning on average a third more than the minimum wage. As social-welfare programs go, there’s nothing like a tight labor market. More in the New York Post, an Alexander Hamilton joint

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In Closing

January 9 is celebrated by Christians as the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, commemorating Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan at the beginning of His ministry. The biblical scene is a remarkable one, particularly in its emphasis on humility. John, who is highly regarded as a holy man, insists that he is not worthy to untie the shoes of the Savior who is coming, and, when Jesus shows up to be baptized, John refuses to do it: 

John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?

And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.

In our time, when every public figures talks like Muhammad Ali—“I am the greatest!”—that kind of humility is almost impossible to imagine. It is an example to us all. 

Speaking of Muhammad Ali, two things:

First, on a tour of Rome several years ago, the tour guide pointed out that the great alabaster pillars at the Church of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls were a gift from Muhammad Ali. He paused for a beat. “The real Muhammad Ali.” He meant Muhammad Ali the viceroy of Egypt, of course. That Muhammad Ali was a great man in many ways. He also was a slave trader on a massive scale, his slaving enterprise an enormity. It is very strange that when he had his political and religious awakening, the gifted boxer Cassius Clay, named for a great abolitionist, took the name of one of history’s greatest slavers. But it isn’t his politics that we remember him for. 

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.