In 2009, the Independent Institute held an essay contest to choose its Sir John M. Templeton fellows on the question, Which virtues contribute the most toward achieving freedom, and how can the institutions of civil society encourage the exercise of those virtues? This question was prompted by Benjamin Franklin’s remark, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” The following essay won second prize. Some of my students have said that they found it very helpful and suggested that I post it here. I have restored a couple of sentences that had to be cut for reasons of length.
Liberal Education for Liberal Democracy
“The political men of Greece, who lived under popular government, did not know any other force capable of preserving it than virtue. Those of our own day speak to us of nothing but manufacturing, commerce, finance, wealth, and even luxury.”
Montesquieu, On the Spirit of the Laws, Bk. III, chap. iii.
The most authoritative voices in our tradition inform us that our political system does not rely upon virtue, that our Framers eschewed a reliance on it, and this because no community can long last that places its faith in the goodness of its members. In the Federalist Papers we find the famous counsel, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. … It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary” (Hamilton, et al. 1788, 51:290); such is the argument of a work commended by the University of Virginia and with Thomas Jefferson’s blessing as the best epitome of the thought behind the ratification of the Constitution (Jefferson 1984, 479). While Montesquieu named virtue as the principle of republican government, the spring that permitted it to flourish rather than decay into despotism, virtue was not required in the government of England, and it was his description of that constitution that the Federalist relied upon in saying that checks and balances could take the place of virtue (Montesquieu 1757, bk. 3, chap. 3; bk. 11, chap. 5–6; see also Hamilton, et al. 1788, Nos. 9, 47).
We find assertions to the contrary, of course. These do not speak of the virtue of statesmen but instead of the people. Benjamin Franklin noted, for example, that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters” (Franklin 1906, 569). John Adams asked rhetorically, “Have you ever found in history one single example of a Nation thoroughly Corrupted, that was afterwards restored to Virtue, and without Virtue, there can be no political Liberty” (Jefferson, et al. 1959, 550).
Such statements do not, however, tell us what this virtue is. To say that the meaning of “virtue” was assumed, a part of a shared discourse, conceals rather than resolves the problem. If true, it would be just another way of saying that the meaning of virtue was unexamined; Franklin’s independent inquiries into virtue would remove him from any shared discourse.
But there wasn’t this shared discourse. Machiavelli, for example, split the virtue of great men from that of the people, saying that the latter merely had to be law-abiding and patriotic (cf. Machiavelli 1531, I 17.3; II 2.1; III 1.2–3). Montesquieu said that virtue was a love of the homeland and its equality, distinguishing it from any sort of moral or Christian virtue (Montesquieu 1757, foreword, bk. 5, chap. 2–3). James Winthrop associated virtue with the Christian religion, good morals, manliness in war, and industriousness in peace and averred that it has been preserved in New England (Rhode Island excepted) because of its refusal to naturalize immigrants (Bailyn 1993, 1:628 [Agrippa No. 9]). Noah Webster equated virtue with simple patriotism, distinguishing his definition from Montesquieu’s (Bailyn 1993, 1:158). “Brutus” claimed in a single breath that the highest purpose of government is “the attainment of virtue” and “the proper direction of its internal police, and œconomy,” as though there were no tension between these (Bailyn 1993, 1:693 [Brutus No. 7]). Jefferson claimed that “the essence of virtue is in doing good to others” (Jefferson, et al. 1959, 492). Franklin listed thirteen virtues in his Autobiography, none of which involve patriotism, courage, or compassion (Franklin 1987, 644–45).
In any event, the rhetoric of virtue declined. One might wonder how a constitution that relied upon virtue could neglect explicitly to provide for how it was to be fostered. A perceptive observer a generation after the Founding could assert that the American moral dogma was self-interest well-understood (Tocqueville 1835–40, esp. vol. 2, part 2, chap. 8–9). That is, the Americans he encountered spoke as though in unwitting agreement Kant—a political system that respected the rights of each could be fashioned for a nation of devils, if only they had intelligence (Kant 1795, first supplement). And while Tocqueville did not for a moment believe that the Americans were such a nation of devils (Tocqueville 1835–40, 502), our forebears had come to speak of themselves as though they were.
We, like Tocqueville, are inclined to judge the works of the early Americans more favorably than what they said about themselves, for we too conclude that our nation succeeded because of the virtues of its statesmen and citizen body and that its continued flourishing will require that these virtues be maintained or regenerated. Our dissatisfaction with a purely mechanistic, calculative understanding of politics has stimulated a rediscovery of forgotten traditions from our Founding, e.g., civic republicanism. If the Federalist Papers cannot be brought into alignment with these new traditions, other voices certainly can—witness the resurgence of interest in James Wilson, the disparate group known as the Anti-Federalists, and a host of now-forgotten pamphleteers, sermonizers, and the like (see Bailyn 1992, Storing 1981, Wood 1991; but cf. Pangle 1988, esp. 28–39). We more and more remember Benjamin Franklin’s judgment on the Constitution, namely, that it “is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other” (Franklin 1987, 400)—and that this was not high praise.
Again, however, we are faced with the problem of what this virtue is. For as it stands it is merely a placeholder for a line of inquiry, not an answer to what is required. We sense that the relevant political question for a nation of devils—how to identify the despot that will govern them best, their being unable to govern themselves except as a myriad insecure despots—Hobbes’s question—is somehow deficient, but this does not clarify the sort of virtue or virtues that true freedom actually does demand.
The question of civic virtue is more limited than the question of virtue, simply. Our tradition regarding the latter question descends from Aristotle, and his was primarily an inquiry into human happiness. There was no guarantee that the virtues he described would contribute to good citizenship, and indeed the conflict between the good man and the excellent citizen held an important place in his political thought (Aristotle 1984, bk. 3, chap. 4). Yet when we speak of “civic virtue” we mean precisely what it takes to be a good citizen.
Our civic virtues should be related to our civic vices; if virtue is to be the one thing most needful in politics, it should counteract or replace the vices from which we may expect the greatest danger. Tocqueville was right to worry that democracies seem destined for either rule by a tyrannical majority or administration by a new, soft form of despotism (Tocqueville 1835–40). For liberal democracies to remain strong, the two most important virtues (because most easily lost) are pride and good judgment. Yet, while governments may impede their development, no liberal democracy can actively encourage them. This is because the content of what is prudent politically, of what one should be proud, are contested, partisan questions. To answer them authoritatively would be to abandon liberal democracy’s claim to toleration; state and party would become one. Yet what can be done to promote them without utilizing the laws is quite limited. Free government depends upon a society which the liberal state cannot bring about. The institutions of liberal education are best positioned to contribute to such a society.
The Character of Modern Liberty
Franklin’s claim that a nation is capable of freedom only so long as it is virtuous must evoke more than the eternal vigilance and willingness to water the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants that Thomas Jefferson pointed to (Jefferson 1984, 911). These things, after all, evince only a resistance to being ruled, not a capacity for rule. Franklin, by contrast, is clear that a people can “become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other;” some nations “have more need of masters.” Franklin therefore relies upon the distinction between liberty and license that is foreign to the liberal doctrine, even if honored with lip service. 1 A people, governing itself under the Constitution, may nonetheless stand in need of masters. The virtues of a free people must extend beyond spirited opposition to tyranny of the sort so well embodied by Hitler and Stalin that some have forgotten that despotism can have a gentler bearing, that the cult of personality relies upon a mass movement and so need not be opposed to all the forms of republicanism (cf. Tocqueville 1835–40, vol 2, part 4, chap. 6, where it is a matter of some indifference whether democratic despotism retains republican forms). A rational creature might nevertheless lack the virtue of a citizen.
In order to understand the character a free people must have, we must confront squarely how the institutions classically associated with liberty are insufficient to guarantee it. We must state with greater specificity what it is that makes a society “free” and why it was thought that bare self-interest would suffice. This requires an examination into modern liberty.
It is an ancient truism that democracy more than oligarchy is amenable to tyrants. This was echoed by Machiavelli when he advised ambitious men to side with the people rather than with the great. This affinity between democracy and tyranny is also manifest in the paradox of Thomas Hobbes, that advocate for the absolute authority of kings who nevertheless began from principles so liberal in character that it is not a stretch to call him the father of liberalism. To dismiss Tocqueville’s forebodings of democratic despotism as an aristocrat’s conflation of non-democratic governments with democracy is a mere semantic quibble over what forms of social organization to call democracy, not a substantive confrontation with what results when it is the people who set the tone for the entire society (cf. the treatment of Tocqueville in Losurdo 2004).
This is to say nothing more than that there is not a necessary connection between democracy and freedom, though we may well wonder how free a society can be without some significant aspects of republicanism. A majority that elects a party with absolute power in exchange for wealth or revenge against a hated minority, be it racial or simply “the rich,” has sold its freedom, even if traditional forms are observed. We need recall only that the office of emperor was formalized long after Rome had ceased to be a republic, that Augustus did not hold the title at all, that he drew power from traditional sources, and that the senate continued to meet for several centuries, all because, as Edward Gibbon astutely observed, Augustus “wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty” and was not “deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom” (Gibbon 1776–88, 1:63-64). It would take more than the satisfaction of international election observers to establish that Venezuela is free, or any place where politics is merely civil war pursued by other means or the humiliation of a defeated enemy.
This is to say, using Constant’s language, that we demand both the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns (Constant 1819). To understand why, it is good to begin with Thomas Hobbes, for the liberty prized by liberalism is to a significant degree defined in opposition to Hobbes’s argument that there can be no liberty in civil society except that to obey the laws, whatever they are. This conclusion required that one accept that one is still free when one submits to coercion; one chooses to give one’s wallet over to a robber as the lesser of two evils no less than when one chooses freely to hunt or forage for food. Both are responses to necessity and, moreover, there is no other kind of choice. Only the assertion that considerations involving human beings differ in kind from those involving other natural phenomena could justify treating these as different sorts of choices, but this assertion arises from a willingness to bow before anything so long as it is not another human being. This is pride, and for Hobbes there is no greater sin (Hobbes 1651, chap. 21; on the status of pride in Hobbes’s thought, see Strauss 1936).
This does not dispose of the question but instead focuses it, for our continued disagreement with Hobbes reveals that freedom must include more than the bare presence of choice but instead an opinion we have of why we choose: did we bow down to a human being, someone with whom we compare ourselves? Did we act out of a feeling of strength or weakness when we chose? One need only reject Hobbes’s opposition to pride in order to transform this analysis into a positive doctrine of liberty. John Locke defined natural freedom as the ability to do what the law of nature permits without being hindered by any other man (Locke 1689, sec. 4). Montesquieu took this a step further when, after surveying the various definitions of liberty put forward by others, he reduced it to the tranquility of spirit that comes from not fearing another individual (Montesquieu 1757, bk. 11, chap. 6; this must be taken to revise the definition provided in chap. 3–4). This tranquility of spirit might be had under a benevolent despotism, but the pride that stands against Hobbes’s mechanical understanding of liberty forbids us to tolerate a recognized despotism. We demand at least the shadow of self-government.
It is this understanding of liberty that underlies liberalism. Crucially, a regard for this liberty has gone hand in hand with the recognition that there is no reason to respect that of others. One might reasonably desire not to be afraid, but this provides at best a prudential reason to avoid inspiring fear in others—and a contingent one, at that. In reality people are not equal and the threat of retaliation from those too weak to prevent the injury rightly seems negligible to those powerful enough to inflict it. Human beings may not be wise, but we are clever enough that one can safely conclude that injustice does pay under certain circumstances, given how much of it there is.
The potential benefits of injustice, together with the possibility of avoiding retaliation, have not been lost on those in government. It was in vain that Locke sought to persuade rulers that the “prince, who shall be so wise and godlike, as by established laws of liberty to secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind, against the oppression of power and narrowness of party, will quickly be too hard for his neighbours” (Locke 1689, sec. 42). To say that the problem is a lack of enlightened despots seems like wishful thinking:2 most despots are enlightened enough to know that they have more to fear from their subjects than from foreign rivals. For this reason, liberalism sided with the people rather than with princes.
This same argument against the sovereign power of the prince was also applied against the acceptance of sovereign majorities. Locke never calls the government “sovereign,” for example, only supreme within its sphere, a sphere the limits of which are not for it to decide authoritatively (Scott 2000). In order to prevent one segment of society from oppressing another, Montesquieu abandoned Locke’s language of legislative supremacy and instead reinterpreted the English constitution as a system of checks and balances. Our Constitution attempts to achieve the same result by substituting different modes of election for the different (and antagonistic) social classes that underlay the English system and ensured that each body had an incentive to oppose the predominance of the others. No one must be in a position so great that exploitation is a good bargain; everyone must be weak enough to fear another’s rise to such a position. The contingent prudential considerations regarding injustice must be made to apply universally.
While Montesquieu complained that the political men of his day no longer spoke of virtue, he did not seriously attempt to remedy it. He accepted this as a fact. In any event, the freedom of the ancients seemed to him analogous to that of monks loving an order precisely because it did not set them free (Montesquieu 1757, bk. 5, chap. 2), and so he sided with the Modern attempt to preserve a new kind of freedom without having to rely on virtue. This new freedom aims at satisfying one’s tranquility of spirit more than flattering one’s pride; the question is how well it can succeed. It is the problems with such a system that reveal the need for virtue, or rather establish just what sort of virtue is needed.
The question of virtue presumes that it is possible to lack it. Even if we affirm that this virtue is simply good, so that its possession or the desire for it requires nothing more than self-interest well-understood, this virtue would still have to be different from the bookkeeper’s balance-sheet mentality. Everyone can think solely in terms of material profit. To see that one’s self-interest includes more than wealth, on the other hand—or that one’s self-interest actually has a negative impact on one’s wealth—that is a greater hurdle. More than the sort of pride that underlies modern liberty is required. One cannot simply opt for the freedom of the moderns, as though it could be had without something of that of the ancients, and one cannot have the latter if it is valued merely in an instrumental sense.
The functioning of a system that seeks to render exploitation irrational requires this more elevated sense of one’s good. A system of checks and balances works so long as the powers available to each branch are weighted properly; such weightings change. The president has benefited greatly from the rise of parties and television, for example. Those with an interest in restoring an upset balance are by that very fact too weak to do so. Checks and balances can be preserved only if great statesmen choose not to press the advantage they have. Indeed, in this case, such statesmen would have to care more for the process than for achieving the policies they think most just.
It may be unlikely, then, that a constitution could ever operate according to the dreams of liberal political technologists, i.e., as a mechanism not requiring virtue. It may even require a greater virtue than can be expected from most people, given the sort of civic education that can be made universal. The influence of such statesmen in a popular government relies on their having the support of the electorate, however, and the electorate cares more about the systems that politics maintains than about political procedures. What sort of virtue must they possess, then, if they are not to reward politicians willing to press every political advantage for their supporters’ particular interests?
The paradigm of such a non-exploitative system is often taken to be the market, but experience shows that a market economy cannot be supported solely by the profit motive. This is not for any of the standard anti-market canards. Markets, where they exist, do function well. Yet it is not in everyone’s interest that a market be maintained. It is profitable to gain an unfair regulatory advantage. It is profitable to increase the consumer’s information costs, or externalize production costs. Those who take pluralism seriously as a moral doctrine have no stake in maintaining a level playing field. With the death of communism, threats to the market will not come from statists but from those who treat politics as business by other means.
The preservation and maintenance of a market, therefore, depends on the sense that a market is more fair, not that it is simply more profitable. If one had to describe this concern for justice in terms of self-interest so that justice did not appear to be bad for the just person, we would have to say that a commitment to markets can arise only if the majority counts self-respect as a component of their interest.
Those who would manipulate arguments about justice in order to skew the market in their favor will always exist, and the only liberal means of dealing with their influence is to stymie them. Those who do so, without simply being another vulture battling over the carcass, would have to hold those who in their souls are mere bookkeepers in contempt such that, if not actually excluded from politics, at least their policies would not gain political traction. It is nauseating to see the parties, each a confederation of pluralistic concerns, castigate each other for being beholden to special interests, but the sense of citizenship that this charge taps into is a healthy one. In order for this struggle to be rewarding, it would have to be deeply satisfying to their pride. They must hold that pride, which elevates them over the avaricious, to be of higher value than what the avaricious seek.
This more elevated conception of self-interest is not egalitarian. It holds certain types of pursuits to be worthy of contempt. It is not, therefore, a devotion to “fairness” or to a Rawlsian conception of justice. It is not enamored with toleration because it is opposed to inequality. Indeed, in celebrating a kind of higher good it is very intolerant. But such a conception is not nakedly partisan, for many of those who undermine the market cannot fairly be accused of venality. Legitimate policy differences may occur between those who see more than their investment portfolio when examining politics; I use the market merely as the paradigm of a case in which the participants in a fair system have no necessary attachment to that system. A contempt for narrow cupidity, an aristocratic taste, is a necessary precondition for devotion to a higher calling. A liberal democracy that does not wish to be torn apart by faction must cultivate this taste more broadly than the term “aristocracy” might suggest but cannot do so by opposing all notions of a rank ordering of human goals. Pride and contempt go hand in hand. The most important aspect of pride for liberal democracy includes a healthy contempt for materialism.3
Adams put the question to Jefferson, “Will you tell me how to prevent riches from becoming the effects of temperance and industry? Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury? Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy intoxication extravagance Vice and folly?” (Jefferson, et al. 1959, 551). Any nation that does not encourage industry cannot withstand one that does, so modern societies cannot meet Adams’s challenge in the ancient way, that is, by keeping the people poor (cf. Machiavelli 1531, I 37.1; II 7, 19.1; III 16.2, 25; Montesquieu 1757, bk. 5, chap. 3–6); the causal chain must instead be broken at the effect this wealth has on the people’s souls. Here, only a detachment from the wealth they possess can insulate them from the effects of that wealth.
Limited government, however, encourages materialism. The laws, limited to the protection of life, liberty, and property and touching only these with their sanctions, teach that these are the important things. Everything else is private, not shared, and as social creatures we are keyed in to what is shared; what is private, left to our personal arbitrary choice, is unconsciously devalued regardless of its true value. “For whatever the authoritative element conceives to be honorable will necessarily be followed by the opinion of the other citizens” (Aristotle 1984, bk. 2, chap. 11, sec. 11). Something other than the laws must counter this education.
What precisely is higher than commodious living, the vantage from which bare satisfaction with well-being is contemptible, is the most important question for a human being. To answer it authoritatively, however, is to abandon any pretense of individual liberty; it is certainly incompatible with modern liberty. From the narrow perspective of civic virtue, however, the content of the higher life is irrelevant: it can be any species of anti-materialism whatsoever. If this neutrality cannot be maintained, then liberalism will always remain a mere promise, one never to be fulfilled. However much civic virtue may be in tension with the inquiries associated with virtue, simply, a healthy politics requires that its citizens take virtue seriously. Their pride must be engaged against more than mere subordination, though such would at least militate against despotism, democratic or otherwise; it must ripen into an opinion that it is base to be overly concerned with one’s material welfare. It must be more akin to the pride or high-mindedness that liberalism has historically overlooked (cf. Pangle 1988, 89–111).
James Madison pointed to “the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity” from government as the great innovation of modern constitutionalism (Hamilton, et al. 1788, 63:355). The people would not have to be able to judge the wisdom of every policy, but instead how they had fared in general over the course of their representatives’ terms. In short, the people could be inferior in judgment to their governors; Madison advocated their exclusion from politics because the reality was that they were. Yet this is not an arrangement for the long-term health and security of a liberal polity (see Mansfield 1991, esp. 177–92). The exclusion of the people was favored for the sake of good governance, a great contributor to Montesquieu’s tranquility of spirit, but the people cannot be excluded if this good governance is to be free governance, as well. Consequently, the people cannot be of a sort that their exclusion is necessary for good governance.
Liberal democracies have fallen. They have fallen because liberal democracy is lauded as the best means to the preservation of private goods, what we refer to as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the citizens’ hearts can stray if these things are not supplied to their liking. It is now fashionable to say that liberal democracy has a difficult time dealing with “crises,” and we note how civil liberties and democratic legitimacy have often been sacrificed in the name of combating foreign enemies, domestic revolutionaries, and even (as in Weimar Germany) economic crises (see Ackerman 2006; Agamben 2005; Feldman 2008; Lazar 2006; Posner 2006; Rehnquist 1998; Schmitt 1985; Schmitt 2004; Yoo 2005).
This is not the place to discuss what actions are necessary in the face of what threats. These are policy questions. The deeper constitutional question, however, involves the fact that there can be manufactured threats, a possibility heightened by how elastic the definition of crisis is (for the elasticity of the concept “crisis,” see Agamben 2005; Schmitt 2004, 67–83; Schmitt 2005, esp. 5–15). Whether there can be an economic crisis, calling for extraordinary action in the same way that war does, for example, depends on what the regime stands for; it is not a question that can be asked by inquiring into the nature of a “crisis.” It depends, therefore, on how upset the people are about a given state of affairs. As a consequence, there is always a path to power available even in well-structured constitutions, for these cannot prevent the perceptive demagogue from asserting that now is the time to take extraordinary action, that those who object are short-sighted or self-interested. Everyone concerned to protect their rights or political influence is a special interest.
The opportunities for such demagogic claims arise from the very structure of liberal democracy. John Locke famously insisted that the executive power may do nothing but what the laws explicitly permit; he was consequently compelled to permit the prince to do just about anything under the rubric of “prerogative,” checked only by the threat of popular revolution (Corbett 2006). The American Constitution, following Montesquieu more than Locke here, permits the executive a greater degree of latitude under the law so that fewer things need be done extralegally, but this is simply to say that the rhetoric of crisis and emergency has been brought within the constitutional structures, not that it has been banished (Mansfield 1989).
In a system where governors are seen as deputies of those with the actual right to rule, it is sensible that all extraordinary action be liable to judgment by those in whose name rule is exercised. In democracies this is the majority. The majority must then be capable of this judgment. This requires that the people, normally obedient subjects more concerned with their livelihoods than with politics, not only be willing to challenge or defend their governors’ actions, to tip the partisan scales in whichever way is most efficacious, but also that they be able to form the correct judgment of these things.
This good judgment requires more than an education in one’s rights, the necessity of government, and the balance between the two—the education George Washington said should be promoted by Congress (Washington 1997, 750). Legalism and a concern with obligation are not useful dispositions in the actual practice of politics. What one may or may not do is of little help in determining what should be done. We have been witness to the fruitless debates that result from this perspective. The president claimed that Congress could not require that he obtain warrants in the conduct of foreign intelligence surveillance because national security required that he conduct warrantless wiretaps. Opponents said that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force did not authorize the invasion of Iraq because the latter did not actually advance the war against al-Qaeda. The proper question in both cases, however, should have been whether the action was necessary, something not best determined by utilizing the lawyer’s mental toolset.
What is needed is more than the bare formation of judgments, but of informed judgments. It is relatively easy for the people to judge whether they are richer or poorer now than they were before, but to distinguish among the claims put forward by various political leaders requires a basis for judgment beyond what “opinion leaders” tell them to think. This is doubly important as political spin and grandstanding have greater entertainment value than analysis and so will invariably dominate mass media.
The reliance on opinion leaders is not a problem of citizens’ refusing to exercise a faculty which they possess, having been awed by assertions of expertise, for opinion leaders do not exercise a different mental faculty (contrast Beiner 1983). On the contrary, it seems that the major problem that liberal democracy faces, in practice if not to theorists, has less to do with technocrats than with demagogues and inconstant, ill-advised policies. The reason individuals take their cue from whomever speaks from a privileged position is essentially that provided by Tocqueville for the omnipotence of majority opinion in a democracy: given that our attentions are directed elsewhere, we are correct to doubt ourselves (cf. Tocqueville 1835–40, vol. 2, part 1, chap. 1–2).
Our political system stands against the formation of this capacity for judgment. Citizens who are subject to the law in many aspects of their lives naturally think in terms of what is permitted and what is not, which is to say that being administered inculcates legalistic habits of mind even if one is administered well.4 Moreover, the fact that citizens are excluded from the executive side of government means that they are isolated from the consequences of their decisions or favored policies. They can support a war without fighting it and favor a law without enforcing it. The shear size of many states means that oftentimes they do not even see the effects of propositions they approve. So once again they are thrown back upon reliance on media personalities chosen by the size of the audience they can attract and who usually have an axe to grind. Once again, the ability to campaign and to organize replace the ability to govern as the prerequisite for rule.
Reading Tocqueville’s description of New England township democracy is like reading the fabulous tales of a traveler returned from abroad. Not only is execution of the law and public works now undertaken without any participation whatsoever by the average citizen—what Tocqueville called administrative centralization—but many municipalities have handed over most of the powers formerly exercised by a mayor or town council to a city manager, for what we desire is technocratic expertise, not partisan bickering. This is to say that, in many parts of the country, the people do not even elect and therefore supervise their governors—they instead elect those who supervise their governors.
Citizens are as engaged in politics as shareholders are in running a corporation. That is precisely what we have desired. It is probable that the public is more competently administered as a result. Yet this exclusion of the people from politics means that the people lack the sort of political experience that contributes greatly to making good judgments. Yet the need for them to make good judgments is not eliminated by their usually being administered well. Liberal democracy requires citizens with an elevated sense of self and the capacity for good judgment; our political institutions foster neither.
One cannot expect civil society to counter the education provided by the laws. The laws have inducements that just about everyone can appreciate and speak with authority; civil society cannot coerce and is a part of what the laws treat as one’s private life. Even where successful, however, a civil society at odds with the vision of the good life implicit in the laws would make those most affected by it out of place, strangers in their own country. There is an additional difficulty peculiar to democracy in seeking to have a civil society that counteracts the vices of a political system: there, the character of civil society at large cannot be opposed to that of the political institutions, for they both have the same source. So the question must be the role of civil society in promoting civic virtue in a political system not so fully hostile to it as ours. Could such a civil society sustain the system? Then we might ask whether some aspect of civil society might be used in the meantime to push our system in a more noble direction.
To repeat, the total exclusion of citizens from the practice of politics, except as voters, reduces the likelihood that they will acquire the good judgment necessary for them to function as voters; such judgment now develops in spite of the laws rather than because of them. A system less hostile to the development of this virtue would be more participatory; it would have less of what Tocqueville calls administrative centralization. The professionalization of the law, the military, the police, public works, and the like is another way of expressing the centralization of administration. What is needed is not so much more opportunities for deliberation—what certain academic theorists call for—as greater involvement in the execution of policy.
Such a society would of course be more democratic. It would resemble more the New England townships creatively recounted by Tocqueville. We would have more in common with the ancient democracies than we do now. One result of this is obvious: the dangers to be expected from democracy would increase, dangers which we should not discount. If we must be on guard against democratic despotism, it is notable that Tocqueville thought that 19th-century Americans had more to fear from the tyranny of the majority. In Athens, Pericles was followed by Cleon; Rome lost its liberty to the party of Marius. Modern politics, the exclusion of the people from governance, was intended to banish these vices. As democracies of the past have shown, the bare involvement of the people in government does not render them less venal, superstitious, or imprudent.
The chief role of civil society under more favorable conditions than our own would be to educate against these vices. We might wish that the laws provided greater support for such an education, condemning with the moral weight of the whole society certain cupidinous views, but that would be a wish that society no longer be liberal. What we are examining is a liberal solution to liberal dilemmas. The most important institutions of education belong, therefore, to civil society. The most important part of that education is liberal education.
That part of education controlled by the state could be less hostile to liberal education—it could be less obviously devoted to technical training, valuing primarily the ability to do well on standardized tests and consequently encouraging attention only to easily answered questions—but it cannot mandate a more capacious understanding of life. What is needed is an education to gentility and refinement, an education that was formerly reserved to gentlemen but which, owing to our mastery of nature, can now be opened to significantly more people. This is the sort of education in which Jefferson saw the “natural aristocracy” ripened and upon the altar of which he dedicated the University of Virginia (Jefferson 1984, 1304–10).
Such education is more than an expedient against the vices of democracy, vices whose potential impact cannot be squashed if the people are to receive the kind of prudential education that comes only from actual participation in politics. For a base, materialistic conception of self-interest argues against such participation in politics. The rewards of public service are intangible; the burdens real and easily appreciable. The laws can make public service obligatory, but service cannot be approached with the same enthusiasm as paying one’s taxes, at least if it is to be done well. Ancient philosophers criticized the attractions of political life, but their analysis presumed some experience of them; a liberal education that reacquaints students with the attractions of political life can point beyond itself while still serving the public need for public spirited citizens, willing to contribute more to the functioning of government than just their taxes (which are, after all, extracted by the threat of force). Liberal education does not simply makes its beneficiaries proud; it introduces them to the right kind of pride.
Such an education is never neutral regarding the greatest questions, but it is also not didactic. In engaging seriously with great books, treating physics as more than just as-yet-unapplied technology, and debating the history of humanity, it is the importance of certain questions that comes across most clearly, even as the professor’s answers can be discerned. Liberal education opens students to plausible contenders for the good life without diminishing the question’s importance by the professor’s refusal to reveal his or her own thoughts. It therefore elevates one above quotidian concerns as the only concerns in a manner that need not offend liberalism.
Given the importance of education in the functioning of democratic institutions, it would be foolish to move the laws in a more democratic direction when that education is absent. A better society than our own would make greater demands of its citizens with regard to participation in politics than we do; making these greater demands is relatively easy, and so might seem like a good first step in the right direction; yet such action would merely rearm all of the vices which the Framers of the Constitution sought to defang by excluding the people from the business of government. If Franklin and countless others are correct that free institutions can be maintained only if the people is already free in their spirit, then a change in the laws cannot precede a successful popular education to liberty. Yet other kinds of laws hinder this education.
An education that attempts to combat the vices of a society must make its students—precisely its best students, those it has the most success in reaching—strangers in their own society. Strangers, then, there must be. In a democracy civil society at large must invariably mirror the people, but elements within it can attempt to sail against the current.
An education that seeks only to prepare students to earn an income can succeed, but such is a limited education. It might better be referred to as technical training. This training will always be supported by the laws, which is to say that a public education system will always tend toward training. Every parent wants their children to do well financially, and the parents having been illiberally educated it is improbable that they will demand that the school do more; doing more means higher taxes and less technical training. Liberal education also requires that the class keep up with its fastest members, which means that more students must perform inadequately, which means that more parents’ children be singled out as less capable than their peers—this does not bode well for such children’s financial prospects.
By chance, however, higher education in this country is largely in private hands; this has set expectations of self-governance for state universities, as well, even if these are frequently disappointed. The universities, having had their birth in another era, have at their core the liberal arts. Fortune, therefore, has smiled on us. There is an element already existing within society that has the potential to mold good citizens, i.e., people who are a bit out of place in our society, even if this potential is usually unmet.
Liberal democracy requires and presupposes liberal education. When this education is lacking, democracy becomes hostile to it. Legislators attempt to impose curricula upon those universities they fund; even when this imposition is done in a spirit friendly to liberal education, it damages the university’s independence and hence its ability to combat other, more malignant meddling. More and more state universities, especially below the flagship level, are pressured to provide technical training. It is difficult to attract students to major in the liberal arts and sciences rather than in the schools of business, no matter how poorly the latter actually prepare students for the workplace. And when students must mortgage their future, as well as their parents’ homes, in order to cover tuition, their choices become comprehensible if not entirely defensible. The sort of education that liberal society needs is at present available only to a few.
The dangers to the American university as it currently exists have been pointed out by countless others. Political correctness is opposed to the very spirit of liberal education, which presupposes and seeks to further encourage free inquiry and serious engagement with uncomfortable and discomforting thoughts. An emphasis on a specific canon and a curriculum that seeks to ensure that particular lessons be didactically extorted from that canon shares the same spirit as political correctness, even if it issues from a different partisan orientation. Conceptualizing students as “consumers” of a “product” who must be “satisfied” is a sure route to ensuring that students are not challenged. When primary and secondary schools fail adequately to impart even the technical competence around which their curricula increasing revolve, there is little that a university can do to undo the damage, once again restricting access to the kind of education that our conquest of nature should be broadening.
It is not my purpose to repeat the observations of those concerned with the deteriorating state of our universities (for example, Bloom 1987; Bloom 1990, 348–87; Pangle 1992). Instead, my purpose is to highlight the contribution that the American university system can make to our civic health.
Nor do I wish to discount the various other ways in which some segments of civil society can and sometimes do contribute to the formation of good citizens. Patriotic organizations serve to indicate to children that politics and public service are things to be taken seriously, which can make them more attentive when it comes time to learn how to do these things well, for example. I do wish to suggest, however, that the greatest contribution that the other aspects of civil society can make toward the cultivation of civic virtue is to render a generation receptive to a liberal education, should any of its members be fortunate enough to come across an opportunity for one.
I am loathe to multiply examples or point out every way in which I think that trends in our current educational system contribute to the cultivation of a generation fit to be “well administered.” They will not merely seem petty. They are. If one were to survey proposals to reverse these trends with a critical eye, the distance between the degree to which they might impact civic education and the desired goal might—does—seem so great that to suggest them appears an act of desperation or impotent fulmination. This applies also to what can be hoped for from a genuinely liberal education. The amount we can change, the degree to which we can push society in the right direction, is pitifully small. Yet the urgency of a problem does not render a solution undertaken with a sense of urgency more likely to succeed.
The likelihood of success is so small that there can be no duty to make real sacrifices to bring it about. Love of country demands that one sacrifice for it, but sacrifices made in vain are not sacrifices for anything. Still, this is not a justification for failing to put one’s effort into the attempt. There is every indication that it will be insufficient, but that does not mean that it cannot be done. And a liberal education, unlike many other things that patriotism might call for, is pleasant and choiceworthy for its own sake. The provision of such an education to others requires that one engage again in the subject as a student. What is called for is no sacrifice. Bringing about the conditions that conduce to a kind of modern civic virtue requires the exercise of virtue in the old sense: Aristotle’s ethics was largely an inquiry into the nature of human happiness. In the tug of war over the souls of the next generation, this is the one advantage that liberal education possesses: it is also a part of the good life.
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- John Locke, for example, insisted that the liberty of the state of nature is not license, but what the law of nature in fact demands is that one support a political system that does not distinguish between liberty and license—only between a liberty that can be allowed to all and one that cannot—and so renders the distinction between the two as private a matter as whether to wear gold in church (cf. Locke 1689, sec. 6 with sec. 135–42; see Coby 1987; Pangle 1988; Strauss 1953). Benjamin Constant felt free, after 130 years of Locke’s waxing influence, to affirm that the liberty of the moderns includes a right to abuse (some of) one’s rights (1819, 311). ↩
- This is not to say that a human being must value the things that exploitation can bring. Instead, one wonders why someone who does not value these things would seek despotism. Even if one sought only to be honored, this is no reason to be satisfied only with so much honor as one deserves, assuming that even this amount were actually forthcoming. That is, it does seem a rule that those who seek despotism will value the things that exploitation can bring. ↩
- Tocqueville ultimately identifies individualism, not materialism, as the gravest danger to democracy—materialism contributes to individualism. But individualism is unavoidable in mass society. Or rather, the extent to which it can be combated seems guaranteed by the minimal requirements of our social nature. The link between individualism and materialism is not as strong as he suggests, however (cf. Tocqueville 1835–40, vol. II, part 2, chap. 10–11), and so the degree to which a mass society must be materialistic can vary more widely. As such, we can ask what virtues compatible with liberal democracy can ameliorate it. ↩
- For the relationship between acting and the cultivation of judgment, as opposed to being acted upon, according to Aristotle, see Beiner 1983, 75–77. This is broader than the conclusion drawn by Judith Shklar (1964), who noted that those habituated to legalistic thinking readily apply it to all spheres of life but limited her analysis to lawyers and judges. ↩