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The Founding of America and Experimental Governance

March 31, 2010

From “A Summer Seminar on The American Experiment” (PDF), this passage is rife with parallels to experimental governance systems like seasteading, charter cities, and federalism.  I’ve bolded the ones that stood out to me:

That America is an “experiment” is announced by Alexander Hamilton on the flat page of The Federalist, where he says that the American people are deciding for mankind whether self-government is possible; and it is repeated by James Madison in The Federalist, where he speaks of “that honorable determination . to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” These statements were not unique. Many other Americans, speaking just before The Federalist was written and long after, said the same, most memorably Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. Tocqueville too looked to the New World to see the first and most complete modern democracy. He hoped the United States might be a model for Europe, not in the particulars of its laws, but as a more or less successful attempt at “the organization and establishment of democracy.”
What does it mean to say that America is an experiment? As an experiment, it is first of all something chosen. America did not come about gradually in the course of time; it was founded at a certain time by certain men known as “Founders” who deliberated together in a constitutional convention. Although all looked to, George Washington to be the first president, he was not the sole founder choosing the regime by himself. The Constitution was proposed by a few, then debated and ratified by many.
Second, as an experiment the American regime was something new. Although much was inherited –institutions of the British Constitution and of state constitutions, and ideas from political philosophers in Europe –America was not a, regime devoted to tradition. Its best inheritance-the space of a continent-was an opportunity. The first Americans, the Puritans, chose to come to the New World, and they were followed by waves of immigrants. These immigrants came over to escape persecution and poverty in their homelands, but they were not mere refugees or exiles wandering where chance might take them. The Puritans came purposefully to the new world to live a life of their own; later immigrants were attracted by the promise of America.  The essential Americans have not been those born in America so much as those who chose it, or those, once in America, who left for the frontier. Today, Americans pick where they will live; few of us live where we were born, and none of us does so without ever thinking of moving.
Third, the American constitution is an experiment on behalf of all mankind. It would fail if it proved not to be valid for all peoples but for Americans alone because of their particular circumstances or national superiority. Whereas the English pride themselves on “the rights of Englishmen,” Americans take pride in the rights of man or, as we say today, in human rights. American say to the world: “You can have what we have, and we are superior only because we have shown this Americans are not content with liberty merely for themselves, but they would be untrue to their principles, especially the right of consent, if they were to attempt to force their way of life on others as do most other revolutionaries. So they tout it or “sell” it to the world.
The American experiment is an experiment of an hypothesis. When America was founded, one could not be sure that self-government would work. At that time the question was not “decided,” as we tend to believe today. And it was an innovation to found a nation by constructing a government that had not yet been tried indeed to make its founding the trial of a theory as yet untested in experience or tradition.  American political practice has not merely been shaped by theory, but it was deliberately intended to serve as the test of theory.
Our thesis at LATNB is quite simple: America demonstrates that large leaps in governance quality can come from explicit, consciously chosen experiments with new systems whose worth is uncertain.  Therefore, if we want to continue to improve governance, we need to repeat The American Experiment many more times, and try out a wide variety of innovative systems.
Any scientist knows that you improve theories by testing them, yet in the sclerotic oligarchy of politics, experiments are looked upon as threats.  As indeed they are, for disruptive technologies enrich consumers, but they threaten the privileged position of the political elite.  Which is a good thing.  Like the European aristocracy, today’s democratic aristocracy needs to be unsettled by competition, for the good of the world.


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  1. Jason Swadley » Experimentation in government

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