The City on a Hill

Author: Gary Hart

“Oh, how hard it is to die and leave one’s country no better off than if one had never lived,” said Abraham Lincoln in a moment of despair as the nation stumbled toward civil war.  For anyone who has dedicated part of his or her life to the improvement and progress of the nation, these words are haunting.

Having always subscribed to Thomas Jefferson’s belief in “the progress of the human spirit”—and how else can one live?—these are not happy times.  A marvelous new book by Timothy Egan, Immortal Irishman, about Thomas Meagher, reminds us of the ugliness visited on immigrant Irishmen by the Know Nothing party in the mid-19th century.  The Know Nothings were not a fringe element in American society of that day.  They controlled city halls and councils and nominated candidates for president.

Like immigrants of today, the Irish were loathed because they competed for the lowliest jobs, […] Continue Reading…

A nation’s role in the world is never static.  Its “greatness” is gauged by its ability to offer its citizens opportunity to improve their lives, its ability to protect them and secure their safety, and its ability to conduct mature relations with sister nations.  Policies must adapt to new realities to achieve these goals.

But being “great” is relative.  Great compared to what.  Between the end of World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States bestrode the world like a colossus.  But during that period two things were happening: globalization and the rise of other powers.

Globalization included the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the imposition of oil exporting embargoes, the rise of foreign competition in manufacturing, and the beginning of mass migration of low-wage workers, among many other changes.  During this period Japan rose, then fell, and China rose, then at […] Continue Reading…

Privacy’s Highest Protection

Author: Gary Hart

Amidst the current sound and fury as to whether we should trust Apple or the United States courts and the Fourth Amendment to protect our privacy, it is instructive to consider the history of searches and seizures.

As the eminent early American historian, Professor Gordon Wood, documents in his Introduction to “The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate: 1773-1776”, following Great Britain’s success against the French in 1763, it found itself with an expanding empire without the means to pay for its administration.  Among a number of legislative revenue measures was the Sugar Act of 1764 whose enforcement in the Colonies required increased use of writs of assistance, today called search warrants, to guarantee commercial compliance with the Act.

Abuses of this authority soon led to protest and resistance as well as increasing demands by citizens and commercial enterprises that searches be conducted only after authorities could demonstrate to a […] Continue Reading…

The Age of Adults

Author: Gary Hart

At its most positive conservative means preservation of the best of our past.  At its most negative it means resistance to all change.  There is much in our history and culture that is worthy of protection, even against cultural change.   One has only to mention slavery, however, to illustrate why progressive change is required where our history and culture did not reflect our values.

The law of life is change.  Thus, conservatives have their work cut out for them when they seek to resist it.  A great deal of the current anger in conservative circles is generated by America’s social changes in gender and race.  The ranks of color are growing.  The traditional ranks of whites are shrinking.  Nothing dramatizes this fact more starkly than the elections of an African-American president.  Women have entered the workforce, often in competition with men, and people are marrying same-gender partners.  These are profound […] Continue Reading…


Author: Gary Hart

Mary Beard’s history of ancient Rome SPQR (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus) offers disturbing lessons for 21st century America.  Efforts to draw direct parallels can be too forced.  But as countless commentators since Santayana have pointed out, failure to learn from history quite often guarantees repeat of its mistakes.

Ancient Romans were powerful above all others, class-structured, dismissive of their early republican principles and institutions, arrogant, increasingly ridden by power struggles, overly focused on leadership images and cults, and finally destroyed by internal corruption.

In the final decades of the Roman Empire, following erosion of the Republic, the caliber and quality of leaders—emperors– declined dramatically.  After the long reign of Augustus, there followed a series of small-bore egomaniacs, all mentally and morally challenged, all dismissive of the ideals upon which the original republic was founded.

The third century CE saw emperors come and go like presidential primary candidates.

There were exceptions, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius […] Continue Reading…

To govern is to choose, so it has been said.  The choices are not just between A and B, but one choice is not to govern at all.

We are living through one of those recurring anti-government periods, fueled by unending right-wing media rants against virtually everything our government does.  Old style conservatism used to argue for devolution, moving power to the States and local governments.  Today’s ultra-conservatism is against any government at all, in other words it advocates anarchy.

Of all political ideologies the one most appealing for its simplicity is anarchy, every man for himself and devil take the hindmost.  Simplicity is favored by those who wish not to be troubled by reflection, logic, science, complexity, or rational thought.  All well and good in the Neverland of no self-doubt, except no society in history has found a way to solve its problems without some kind of government.

The Murdock/Limbaugh axis, […] Continue Reading…

Whither America

Author: Gary Hart

Politics is shaped by culture more than culture being shaped by politics.  Consider cultural trends that may have contributed to the current lamentable condition of American politics.  Erosion of respect and dignity.  Loss of privacy.  Coarseness in communications.   Juvenile entertainment.  Fragmentation of society and erosion of social cohesion.  Suspicion of difference.  Media attention to outrageousness.  The sacrifice of dignity.  And the list goes on.

Some of this is attributable to anxiety and fear brought on by the rise of radical fundamentalism and its resort to terrorism. Globalization of markets has destroyed and threatened economic stability and financial wellbeing, and the failure of nation-states has shattered regional stability.

But today’s dismal state of American politics is domestic and cultural and cannot be accounted for by global trends.  We are becoming a different country, not simply because of immigration, as demagogues in politics and the media claim, because American history is a history […] Continue Reading…

This Land Is Our Land

Author: Gary Hart

Much of the media seem as confused as the occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Sanctuary about Western land ownership.  Some stories include demands by the local ranchers and farmers to “return” the land to them.  It cannot be “returned” because it never belonged to the local ranchers and farmers in the first place.

Between the Louisiana Purchase in 1802 and the Mexican Cessation in 1848, much of the land in the West was owned by the people of the United States and administered in trust for them by their national government.  Of course, the Westward expansion also came at the expense of the first Americans.

Various administrations and Congresses have enacted laws, most notably the Homestead Act, to make specific lands available for private ownership or adopted regulations permitting private use, for grazing, mining, or logging, under specific guidelines.

Current or successive administrations and Congresses can transfer ownership of the disputed acres […] Continue Reading…


Author: Gary Hart

It is axiomatic in U.S. business circles that we favor a market economy, entrepreneurship, competition, and boldness.  If so, then why does corporate American have somewhere around $13 trillion in cash, retained earnings, profits, call it what you will, that it is not investing in new markets, technologies, laboratories, and products?

The standard answer is: “uncertainty”.

Uncertainty?  The world is uncertain.  Tomorrow is uncertain.  Politics is uncertain.   What happened to the idea of risk-taking so central to private enterprise and capitalism?

There are two big uncertainties: globalization and government policy.  We manage globalization, that is to say foreign competition, through trade agreements, such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which establish fair rules for tariffs, environmental protection, wages and working conditions, dumping, currency manipulation, and so forth.  Many large corporations, that is those in the international marketplace, favor international trade agreements that create level competition rules.  Leave aside the fact many of […] Continue Reading…


Author: Gary Hart

For many of us the end of year holiday season is a time for spiritual reflection, including counting our blessings.  Among my many blessings, by definition unearned, is the opportunity to express occasional views produced over a long lifetime of experience and reflection.  Even greater is the blessing of welcoming a hardy band of readers and observers who share their opinions of those views and express their own.

To all of you, I send thanks and deepest gratitude., not simply for taking the time to read my reflections but more importantly for caring about our nation and our world.

Given recent events in the steadily declining civility in the presidential contest, preserving decency, respect, and even humanity in our public discourse may prove a challenge in itself.  Perhaps, in some small ways, forums such as MattersofPrinciple offer a 21st century version of the ancient public square where concerned citizens convene to […] Continue Reading…