Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Ivory Cubicle | Virtuous Citizenship

The last few weeks, we’ve been blogging our way through some of the troubles that face representative government. We’ve talked about how it is perfectly rational and a good use of one’s time to be ignorant of what one’s national politicians are doing. We’ve talked about how representativegovernment tends to be short-sighted, preferring laws that produce results by Election Day over those that produce long-term benefits. We’ve talked about why bureaucracy is impenetrable, continually expansive, and horribly inefficient. Finally, we’ve talked about how special interest groups bloat the government by dispersing their costs over large swaths of taxpayers.

In short, we’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of the troubles that face representative government. Is there any hope for a solution?

A Solution?

Well, in a sense, no, there’s not. Conservatives have a staunch opposition to any politics of perfection which promises to eliminate corruption and inefficiency, producing a slick-running, error-free system of government. Human beings will be human beings, and any form of government, however successful it may be among the angels, will eventually run smack up against the cold, hard reality of post-fall humanity.

The antidote to the vices that plague human nature is, quite naturally, virtue. This is what James Madison, and many other founding fathers, noted. The question to be asked, then, is how virtue ought to be inculcated.

Our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln (a man of considerable fame), proposed that virtue and law are inseparably joined together.  “Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap--let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;--let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice,” said Lincoln in his Lyceum Address. If the laws be enacted by the virtuous, then what can better foster virtue than adherence to those laws? In this sentiment, he stood with many of our founding fathers in the tradition of Montesquieu and was an apt figurehead for the party that would bear the name of their ideal form of governance – the Republican Party.

Whatever its merits, in Republicanism, as in all other modes of governance, the form itself is insufficient to preserve virtue. Hence Lincoln’s grave mistake later in the speech – “let it [fidelity to laws] become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.” The law must be virtuous, it is true, and an adherence to virtuous laws is undoubtedly more useful than harmful. Furthermore, it is a long established fact that the rule of law is essential for any orderly society. I’m hesitant, however, to give a government of laws as rousing of an endorsement as Lincoln did. Even if the aim be virtue, any form of government must ultimately fail in its task, as we have seen in the years following the Lincoln presidency. Conservatives in this day and age find themselves in opposition to ill-conceived laws, which often translates to a skepticism of laws as a whole. Justly so. The order supplied by the rule of law is essential for liberty to thrive, but in a free society, the laws should always aim towards ordered liberty. When a government forgets the end of liberty, aiming instead for a perfect order, the oft-hasty appeal to the legislative branch constricts the liberty of its citizens, and government becomes hostile to the very aim it sought to fulfill.

I suspect there may be a better instructor for virtue. Edmund Burke possesses the sensibility that communities were built by the “little platoons,” small groups of tight-knit neighbors that form the building blocks upon which the rest of society is built. For Burke, they are the “first link in the series by which we proceed to a love to our country and to mankind.” Love of country proceeded outwards from the family, to the neighborhood, to the township, and so on to love of the nation.

These platoons derive their power from proximity. Family, neighbors, communities, and churches are better equipped to train in virtue than government is, because operate in the same place that people go about their daily lives. Their power is informal, it doesn’t necessarily have the weight of law behind it, but it does have the weight of custom behind it. The trouble is, with power currently centralized in the national government, the power of local communities is subsumed within the cookie-cutter policies of a centralized state.

So is there a possibility to re-empower these informal institutions? Perhaps. But first, we need decentralization. We need a government that will back away from compulsive law making, and allow people the opportunity for self-government. We need people who will commit to making an impact on their local communities. We need people who don’t say “there should be a law” the first time anything goes wrong, but are willing to allow people to fail, and be there to pick them back up.

Of course, that’s not going to eradicate the problem. The problem is as old as human nature, and will be around as long as fallen humans are left on this earth. But I think there’s a possibility to take the situation we have and improving it the best we can.

By Nick Barden.
Picture: The Triumph of Virtue Over Vice by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588).

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