The Corner

Politics & Policy

People Who Need ‘People’

Francis Lieber (Mathew Brady/Library of Congress)

I open my new Jaywalking with a little meditation on the people. I mean, “the people” as a phrase, in the mouths of politicians. I even play a little music — the opening of Frederic Rzewski’s variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” (Rzewski is a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, but, I must tell you, he is also a good composer.)

A while back, when I wrote about “the people” — the exploitation of that phrase and concept by demagogues and power-graspers — I heard from a philosopher friend of mine, who quoted Francis Lieber. This is the German refugee who eventually settled in the United States and wrote the “Lieber Code,” i.e., the rules of engagement for the Union Army in the Civil War. This was a prelude to the Geneva conventions.

In his Manual of Political Ethics (1839), he writes,

Who are the people? Is it one individual or a number of individuals, called, for convenience sake, by one name …? Are the people an aggregate of a number of individuals with one mind, one will, one impulse, or do the people consist of a majority and a minority? Giving unbounded power to the people means, then, nothing less than giving unbounded power to a majority …

Often, when people speak of “the people,” they are not even speaking of a majority — rather, they are speaking of people like themselves (however numerous).

In any case, I don’t get too philosophical in this podcast — too Lieberesque. But there should be some food for thought, and a little music to go with it.

P.S. On Need to Know, Mona Charen and I welcome Gabriel Rossman, the UCLA professor who wrote a wise and much-noticed piece on campus conservatives, and the invitations they issue. Then Mona and I talk over the world a bit. Since she mentions the phrase “smooth operator,” and its origins, we of course end with Sade, singing.

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