A Case For Government

By Wilson Carey McWilliams for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

In this hitherto unpublished 1995 lecture, Wilson Carey McWilliams sought to persuade a conservative audience (at the University of Dallas) for an arguably “conservative” case for government support of “decencies” in an age prone to indecency. While it’s doubtful he persuaded many in that audience, his argument on behalf of a need for public support of basic decencies, in light of the erosion of informal norms, is distinctive and refreshing. This is especially the case today (and particularly in the midst of a mind-numbing debate over the debt ceiling) when the respective parties defend either government profligacy in support of unsustainable social programs, on the one hand, or the fantasy of a spontaneous and self-regulating free market on the other. An argument for the appropriate place of the public realm in defending such decencies as frugality, honor and family is jarring and unfamiliar, and a welcome departure from rutted ways.

Many of McWilliams’s best writings are now available in two volumes co-edited by Patrick J. Deneen and Susan J. McWilliams: Redeeming Democracy in America and The Democratic Soul.

(Posted by Patrick J. Deneen)

At the Dawn of a New Millennium

Wilson Carey McWilliams

Suddenly, we are beyond the barricade. America has outlasted its antagonists, yet more than ever, the United States is involved with humankind, part of an international politics that lacks the old landmarks and limits, and still abounds in dangers. But there are also bright possibilities in this new world, bound up with the success of aspiring democracies, and as the world’s oldest liberal democracy, the United States has something invaluable to teach the nations.

This is especially true since, for all our shortcomings, we are the most successful example of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial polity. Too many regimes have abandoned or seem inclined to give up that ideal, but there are others that still teeter on the razor’s edge. For all countries, however, America is the obvious champion of the idea of the state—of a political society in which membership is defined by laws and which affords civic equality.

In the past, other peoples have been prone to dismiss America as a model even if they admired the American achievement. ‘The United States, it was argued, had too much space and too much wealth, and its public was too free from constricting custom and too familiar with self-government, to say much to nations that are poor and novices at democratic life. The very problems of contemporary America may make it easier to listen to American teaching, just as we, in turn, may find that we have something to learn.

Yet paradoxically, although the prestige of liberal democratic institutions has never been greater, American intellectuals find it difficult to defend the principles of the regime. In the prevailing doctrine, all ideas are relative, tools for power of political groups, so there is little if any distinction between repression and education. Most of our colleagues are comfortable in arguing only that liberal democracies are better than their competitors, and better because emptier, less forceful, and less restrictive. Those who founded our institutions, however, held a more positive brief, and for our own sake, as for humankind’s, Americans need to look to the cornerstones of our politics and to “the rock whence ye are hewn.”

* * *

To the Framers, government has a moral title to rule because it ordains and protects our rights and our civic equality, but they also held that, despite their grandeur, the appeal of these general goods is diffuse, too weak in its hold on the passions. To make an effective claim on its citizens, government requires an appeal to interest, a promise of safety and well-being.

However, while interest is indispensable, it is also inadequate as the basis for a regime. Human beings need the constraint of law, in the familiar argument, because immediate passions and satisfactions tend to outweigh “remote” considerations and the rights of others. For example, while the Framers surely meant to free enterprise from the limitation of small regimes and markets, they recognized that the “spirit of enterprise” is “unbridled,” straining against prudence and propriety in the same way that “sharp-sighted” avarice, left to itself, is apt to be short-sighted and narrow. And more positively, the law’s guarantee of reasonable order and stability is required to allow and encourage individuals to act on long-term designs and projects. Most important, interest can enthrall: “It can easily be in one’s interest to accept satisfaction at the cost of one’s freedom,” Harvey Mansfield writes, whenever freedom is “costly or irksome or dangerous.” The Constitution is designed to advance our interests, but also to promote and protect self-government, and to that end, the Framers relied on supports outside the laws.

In the first place, America benefited from very special economic conditions. In Jefferson’s well-known thesis, abundant land peopled by proprietors meant a public able to avoid the economic dependence which is all too likely to lead to political servility. Moreover, as Jefferson observed later on, given labor scarcity, even those who worked for wages could expect “comfortable subsistence,” the ability to provide for old age and a generally “satisfactory situation,” so that even wage-earners enjoyed a citizen’s portion of independence. In this latter argument, the critical factor is not income, although a socially adequate wage is clearly part of Jefferson’s case. By itself, affluence can make one more dependent on a benefactor: political independence turns, rather, on security of employment, the worker’s confidence that he or she will be able to find work at adequate wages, so that no worker feels dependent on a particular employer. Economic inequality, under these circumstances, does not threaten political equality.

Additionally, Jefferson observed that Americans were not “crowded within limits, either small or overcharged.” American citizens, in other words, had psychological space even when they did not have physical space. Their relations with one another were of relatively low-intensity, and they did not need or care about one another overmuch. This allowed for a good deal of tolerance and a willingness to let one another alone, so that government could be like a distant relative, not much needed or often seen. But Jefferson’s comment implies that as citizens became crowded, they will be more apt to bump into each other, and the frequency of collision will increase the intensity of concern. This, in turn, points to our growing dependence on a complex network of social services and relationships, and the concomitant need that others perform their tasks well. And that, as Jefferson knew it would, has added to the calls on government, a point to which I will return.

However, the Framers also leaned on other, less economic, virtues. For example, they recognized a need for honor, at least to the extent of keeping one’s word, even when doing so no longer seems in one’s interest, for that excellence was necessary to upholding the social contract itself. In the Framers’ theorizing, the success of political society makes citizens ever more prone to forget the harsh necessity which drove human beings under governance. We are all tempted to believe that we are clever enough to evade same laws without detection, or that others will not imitate our lawlessness, or at least, that the potential gains outweigh the risks. And this danger is especially great for peoples or generations whose consent is tacit, and who feel a weaker obligation to the laws. With reason, the “obligation of contracts” has special status as the only duty mentioned—saving the oaths of high officials—in the Constitution, and the founding generation tended to agree in seeing promise keeping as a sacred duty, beyond the calculations of interest.

The Framers recognized, moreover, that republican government depends on decencies—a devotion to family and friends, for example, and even a somewhat diffuse sense of fraternity or sympathy—and dignities like patriotism, the love of liberty, and the devotion to self-government. They never doubted that republican citizenship includes at least some willingness to sacrifice one’s personal interests, or even to sacrifice oneself, for interests more broadly defined, or—to put the matter more precisely—a readiness to subordinate the body and its goods to what the soul loves and regards as worthy.

Nevertheless, the Framers did not articulate these pillars in the Constitution. They were inclined to think that moral education, the shaping of the soul, is no business of government. Indeed, they were more concerned to keep religion, and hence the soul, from attempting to dominate political life: they wanted religions and souls that are law-abiding, surrendering their this-worldly claims to rule. Similarly, the Framers preferred to base law on the standard of necessity or interest, especially because so many of them regarded self-preservation and need as the foundations of natural or rational morality. In any case, a great many were disposed to think that moral decencies and virtues—or most of them—are included in a moral “sense” or “instinct” inherent in the body, and likely to manifest themselves more or less automatically in the absence of constraint or distortion. And they assumed that moral education would take place, as needed, in families, churches, local communities, and schools, so that the private order was an unspoken part of the American regime. Given these private securities, the law could be designed to promote freedom, to loosen the hold of and attachment to particular places, peoples, and ancient doctrines, making the political order, to the greatest extent possible, a sphere of rational freedom.

The Framers’ reliance on the public’s decencies and dignities points directly to Tocqueville’s celebrated saying that the “habits of the heart” were the most important factor in explaining the success of American democracy. Yet that fine phrase can be deceptive, for Tocqueville recognized that American customs, like America itself, are not immemorial, but the result of more or less conscious design. It does not exaggerate too much to say that, in America, a people is engaged in making itself. This peculiarity of American custom—the extent to which culture is a perennially political issue (as it is in “multiculturalism” today)—emphasizes the importance of the ruling principles of civil society.

Tocqueville praised Americans for blending the “Spirit of Religion” and the “Spirit of Liberty,” an achievement especially “admirable” because the two doctrines are very much at odds, and stand on speaking terms only if civil conversation tolerates a very broad sphere of ambiguity. Consider only the two different understandings of equality: to the Spirit of Religion, all are equally subject, all held accountable to the same standard by the same Divine authority and given duties to God and to neighbor; the Spirit of Liberty holds that all are equally free, naturally subject to no one (and without claims on anyone), obliged by no standards to which one does not consent. As Tocqueville observed, America had made the two spirits compatible, by and large, by assigning religion the sphere of morals and private life, while making liberty the basis of the laws. Even so confined, religion provided an invaluable political balance by proclaiming positive duties and by encouraging yearning, the reach for perfection beyond interest and beyond life.

However, the laws—the highest public standard—are decisively on the side of liberty. While the Framers relied on the Declaration of Independence, and hence on the Creator, or at least, on nature and its laws, the Constitution does not refer to those authorities. It forbids religious tests or establishments, and it mentions—contracts aside—no civil relationship, group, or duty, so that its units are simply individuals and states. Moreover, the American proliferation of sects made it impossible for any one to predominate, and with time, increasing variety has thinned the original sphere, and the social force, of religious agreement. Lauding the fact that religion was given liberty and allowed to prosper, Tocqueville made clear that in America, religion could not hope to rule, that it could only check the spirit of gain, and that it would have to adapt itself and its teaching to the laws.

This is particularly evident in the problem of speech. In general, Tocqueville argued, aristocracies are not really more virtuous than democracies; they are only more inclined to talk about and celebrate virtue. This excellence in speech is not ineffectual: it sets standards of seemliness and influences outward behavior, affecting habits and moral education. By contrast, democracies, at least on the American example, are more apt to talk in terms of “interest rightly understood,” aid this doctrine is “best suited to the wants of men in our times.” However, such language underrates the virtues of democratic citizens, who are broadly compassionate, whenever it does not involve great cost to themselves, and sometimes show genuine altruism and nobility. American speech, Tocqueville noted, does justice to American “philosophy”—the doctrine that human beings act from motives of self-interest—rather than to Americans themselves.

This habit of speech, in the long term, helps to legitimate interest and to undermine moral conduct, so that Tocqueville expected that the principle of individualism, left to itself, would overthrow public virtues and would gradually sap private ones, threatening to make citizens into emotional isolates trapped in the body and the present. And all too much of our contemporary life supports that view. In Albert Hirschman’s terms, American politics abounds in avenues for Exit—for leaving problematic groups, communities, or relationships—while Voice—making an effective argument addressing the problem—is more difficult and less certain of success, especially when speech itself is forced into the language of individual rights and interests.

Nevertheless, Tocqueville offered the hope that democratic political institutions, by teaching the “art of associating together,” might be able to check the tendency toward fragmentation implicit in democratic society, and with it, the tilt toward tyranny of the majority, the great danger of democratic laws. Political participation, Tocqueville argued, ordinarily originates in necessity, the desire to protect one’s estate against some political threat. Yet political association often “brings a multitude of citizens permanently together who would always have remained unknown to each other and the experience of association, cemented by political friendship, can make subordinating the self to a common purpose into a habit and a taste. This is especially true because local politics, which has the strength derived from the “power of meeting,” is a sphere within which citizens are more apt to be known and have voices, so that dignity is satisfied or even enhanced. In small affairs, Tocqueville noted, it is possible for the many to acquire the skills and understanding necessary to appreciate the great affairs in which, inevitably, participation is limited to a few. Local association is thus the first link in a democratic chain binding rulers and ruled, replacing the old hierarchies of aristocracy.

It is also important to note that the press, in Tocqueville’s day, was essentially local and subordinate to party. A national press, Tocqueville recognized, has greater power than local newspapers, but its ties to its readers are less intimate; a mass press pays the price in authority, and is more likely to “give way to the current of the multitude.” The American press was far from faultless: although it spoke in “a thousand different ways,” its common qualities were vulgarity and the tendency to slight principles and issues in favor of the treatment of individuals, pursuing public persons into their private lives. But the press was close to citizens: a paper and its readers were a virtual association in which, trusted to keep the gates to the wider world, the press helped citizens to see the connection between private interest and public policy.

In the structure of democratic politics, party was the capstone, a representative body that fulfilled some of Jefferson’s hope for a system, founded in wards, that could convey authority “by a synthetical process to higher and higher orders of functionaries.” Tocqueville understood that in America, a national political party is a work of “inconceivable” difficulty and art, a coalition created out of opinion divided into “a thousand minute shades.” Appealing to interests, American political parties also reflected implicit great principles: the distinction between support for and opposition to “popular authority,” Tocqueville observed, is the “main point and very soul” of partisan conflict. Parties may agitate and trouble a community, but they are required courses in the curriculum of association, indispensable counterweights to the tyranny of the majority. And in general, democratic political institutions were democracy’s recourse against the erosion of habit, the republic’s possibility of renewal.

* * *

All that seems very long ago. Contemporary Americans are enmeshed in a national and international economy of great scale and intricacy. It affords us considerable abundance and, through the division of labor, opportunities for personal difference and expression. At the same time, economic life is a network of dependencies. We rely on millions of unseen and unknown others; we are constrained and shaped technology; we are subject to great organizations, public and private governments, at home and abroad. There is still a resemblance between American wage-earners and Jefferson’s portrait of the independent worker, but it is a good deal slighter than it used to be.

Still relatively well-off, American wage-earners are troubled, and not only by the recession. In 1991, the Economic Report to the President indicated that the average weekly wage of blue-collar labor had declined almost 20% since 1972. Middle-class families have generally been able to keep their incomes stable or rising, but working longer hours and relying on a second wage-earner have become something like the rule. According to a good many calculations, middle-class income has been more or less stagnant for a decade, while the U.S. Census Bureau recently announced a slow decline in the proportion of the population that can be considered middle class at all. These murmurings are not confined to officialdom and the left: Charles Murray calls our attention to the growing disparity between the very considerable numbers of the well-to-do—a 10-20% affluent enough to “bypass institutions it doesn’t like”—and the rest of the population, fearing that civil society is being divided into the exempt and the trapped.

I know that others have a different reading of the data, but as Jefferson’s argument indicated, the independence of wage-earners is at bottom a matter of psychology rather than economics, and it is simply the fact that middle-income jobs, in factories or in offices, seem less secure, even to those who have them. The current recession has been unusually disturbing because so many layoffs have come in the white-collar sector, and whole layers of management may be disappearing for good. And it does not help that so many companies are priding themselves on being “lean,” with a flexibility derived from part-time employees. Increasing numbers of American wage-earners feel vulnerable, convinced that their personal and organizational resources are inadequate to the time.

These current worries only underline a well-established point: in contemporary life, government cannot guarantee economic and civil freedom simply by protecting private rights, narrowly defined. Government must attempt to assure or provide reasonable security and socially adequate employment, the preconditions of economic independence and civic equality. Americans disagree, of course, about the kind and extent of government intervention in the economy, but even conservatives, on the whole, accept a fairly broad role for government. Ronald Reagan promised us a “safety net”; the Reagan and Bush administrations have committed billions to protect depositors in failing banks and savings and loans; it is agreed that the Federal Reserve Board should manage interest rates to promote growth without inflation or even to “jump start” the economy; it has became a political axiom that government needs a policy designed to result in something like full employment. And many diverse voices are urging heroic measures to make America competitive in world markets.

This call on government is given added force by the weakening of our social and moral resources. Technology, the media, and the market penetrate and transform the private spaces of life. It begins early, in the shaping of the souls of children. Families and localities have lost much of their old autonomy; the electronic media insert their “hidden curriculum” in infancy, before literacy and, to some extent, even before speech. But the media are not alone in promoting “spectatorial personalities.” Change and mobility teach us that persons, places, and ways of life are not safe or reliable for very long, and their implicit lesson is that one is well-advised to keep roots shallow and commitments superficial, protected against loss in a fortified self. This prompting to live for oneself and in the present injures the older disciplines of work and saving in favor of consumption and the hope of “striking it rich.”

There is a more sinister dimension. The growing sense of vulnerability to crime dissuades citizens from frequenting public spaces, and it bars doors when it does not prompt a move to some place of relative safety. The pattern is pervasive: the affluent are tempted to seek private solutions and immunities, while the less fortunate have their own forms of privatization, most destructively, in the autoanesthesia of drugs.

Once again, although their prescriptions differ, Americans across the political spectrum expect government to play a significant role in shoring up the republic’s social and moral foundations. Even presuming good will and concern for our fellow citizens, after all, the scale and specialization of our society mean that we will lack personal contact with those in need. Even benevolence must be administered by large-scale organizations which allow us to address the “needs of strangers.” There is not much debate about the proposition that the national government has a decisive role to play in law enforcement, education, and the care of the elderly. And while conservatives and liberals have plenty of heated arguments about the family, both look to the law to support and encourage at least the minimal decencies of family life. It is also indicative that, with little dissent, government is taking a stronger role in the preservation of national memory.

It is not hard to make a case for this turning to government. Government alone cannot make us good, but it can encourage decent behavior. Decency needs assurances: its self-restraint is threatened if we see—or even if we fear—that we are being victimized because of our decencies. As we all know, taxpayers are angry if they notice that others are not paying their fair share, and very few can resist the temptation, supported by a plea of self-defense, to imitate the underpayers. But let me offer my favorite example. The slow pace of airline baggage service leads more and more passengers to carry their own luggage, and this means that on crowded flights, there is likely to be a shortage of space for bags. Experienced travelers know this, of course. Consequently, when airline personnel announce that they are boarding the plane, beginning with the last dozen rows, a large number of veteran travelers rush on board, whatever their seat assignment, hoping to preempt space for bags. I have never seen an airline agent stop a passenger from boarding out of the announced sequence; airlines, part of the private sector, prefer not to offend a paying customer, even an offensive one, and this policy was tolerable when only a few broke the rule. Now, however, the violations are numerous enough that the reluctance to use constraint threatens another civility.

The value of constraint goes beyond deterring criminals; it reduces the psychological cost of decency and affirms the law-abiding. And when our social constraints, associated with coherent and stable communities, grow less effective, we rely, naturally enough, on the formal restraints of law. Of course, private organizations and corporations can and do constrain us, but such private governments are only distantly accountable, and we do not always trust their principles: their power, in fact, prompts us to ask public government to regulate their conduct by reference to public standards.

Government can also make decency more rewarding in a positive sense. Saving, that vital decency, is hard to begin, because at low levels of income, the cost of saving is relatively high and the return from saving (given the small amounts saved) is absolutely low. Like many decencies, saving gets easier as you go along, especially since the market always gives a larger return to large savers, for good economic reasons. The habit of saving, consequently, might be encouraged by tax laws that reward saving in small amounts and for the long term. On the same principle, we might benefit from laws rewarding investment in a genuinely long term (rather than the one year of the tax code), or that give benefits to stable families, or to the creation of jobs at socially adequate wages. In general, we need to evaluate laws and policies in terms of the moral “bottom line,” the impact of American life and law on the American soul.

Yet while government may have to play a major role in social reconstruction, it certainly is not type-cast in the part. Liberal democratic states are always uncomfortable with judgments about the soul, and this uneasiness is magnified to the extent that citizens distrust government and hedge it round with suspicion. So beset, officials are even more likely—and they are always over-ready—to prefer objective tests and quantitative standards to judgments of quality. We know, for example, that poverty, the social problem, is a “condition of life,” not an income level: monastics and graduate students can and do live below the “poverty line” without being worrisome. But a definition of poverty in terms of income has always been easier for officials and researchers, and such ideas tend to become the basis of policy. In the same way, critics of affirmative action are right to worry that, whatever the statutes say, the policy will result in quotas, because officials feel less exposed when they can appeal to quantitative measures.

And American citizens are feeling more distant from and distrustful of government. More and more of us experience politics as a sphere of indignity, an arena of massive scale and towering technicality in which we feel both weak and stupid and are treated with no respect. The political linkages that Tocqueville described—the interlocking hierarchy of local association, press, and party—have been damaged or shattered by a combination of technology and “reform” legislation, so that a growing number of citizens are connected to government and public life only by the mass media.

As Tocqueville surmised, while the media have great power, each network has only the weakest of holds on its audience. Desperately fearful of offending us—or worse, boring us—the media speak in the least demanding of terms, in the language of private values and sensibility, spoken in ever-shortening “sound bites.” In one sense, voters are closer to government than ever, since the media inundate them with information and drown leaders in “opinion.” But what the media articulate is less than public opinion: the media address individuals in private settings, through images more than words. In the school of the media, public speech matters only as a cue to strategies and interests, reinforcing the suspicion that politics is a dangerous sham in which voters are only too likely to be deceived.

Noticing the extent to which elections are dominated by money, citizens worry that government may be equally subject, and they seem more inclined to regard corruption as the political rule. An increasing number of Americans simply stay away from the polls: the percent of adult Americans who voted in 1988 was lower than in 1960, despite the barriers that kept Southern blacks away from the polls three decades ago, and despite the generally stiffer registration requirements that prevailed at that time. In part, this decline reflects the privatization of American life: a private individual calculating utilities will find only skimpy justification for going to the polls; voting tends to presume involvement in a community if not a sense of civic duty.

Even those voters who make it as far as the ballot box, inclined to doubt their own judgment and to fear commitment, have hedged their bets by dividing the national government between the parties. But the govern¬ment’s resulting inability to take strong and decisive action—an event like the Gulf crisis partly excepted—also disgusts citizens and deepens their disenchantment. And while this decline of confidence “has been steady, not precipitous, and has led to a grumpy cynicism rather than a revolutionary fervor,” it is no good portent for the republic.

More than anything else on the political agenda, America needs to strengthen government’s title to rule, its claims on consent. Wherever possible, we should be reforging the political links between citizens and their government. We need to reduce the weight of money and the media in the political balance, and we must prod the media into giving candidates more substantial blocks of time, provided that they appear and speak in person. It would be at least as valuable to strengthen political parties, especially local party organizations—and with them, more traditional, non-media forms of campaigning. In general, we should be trying to preserve or create local institutions with significant power, where citizens can meet one another as persons with names and faces, where they can speak and listen, and where they can learn and appreciate the arts of association and politics.

The republic can also draw on the substantial strength of America’s diverse cultures, as “multiculturalism” tries to do in its bumbling way.

In the end, however, we come back to the principle of equality that is the moral foundation of the regime and the ultimate standard of public’ regulation. We need to remind the partisans of multiculturalism, for example, that cultures are not always or not easily compatible—with each other or with democratic politics—that cultures not only contradict each other, but often include racism and sexism, and that they hanker after aristocracy or develop souls uncomfortable with democratic life. With all its ups and downs, America has accepted its diversity–attempting to make a nation, Chesterton said, “out of any nation that comes along”—not necessarily in the belief that old cultures will melt into indistinction, but out of confidence that the cultures will be forced to yield any claim to rule that runs counter to equality and equal rights. American multi¬culturalism is gently contemptuous of the cultures, convinced that equality and the rights that go with it are qualitatively superior because—unlike stories and legends—they rest on the facts of human nature.

Americans today have particular reason to cherish that older understanding of equality that is at least the counterpoint of the republic’s melody, and perhaps, the ark of our civic covenant. So conceived, equality does not insist that we all be treated in the same way. On the contrary, it often demands that government recognize and compensate for at least some of the inequalities of nurture and fortune in the interest of something closer to nature and to effective civic equality. Such compensations, of course, are properly relative, shifting with the terms of disadvantage: recent policy has been engrossed with the inequalities of race and gender, but as more women and minorities achieve places of advantage, inequalities of class may deserve first place in public concern. For example, it is absurd, as Justice Thomas said, that his children should qualify for scholarships denied to working-class Appalachian whites, especially since Thomas’s children would probably be closer to the cultural mainstream.

In the same way, equality is not simply a matter of rights and entitlements. Rather, it suggests that within the limits of our opportunities, we can be held accountable to equal standards. More and more Democrats—and even liberals, here and there—are beginning to observe that “in providing for the poor, we must also make reasonable demands on them—for work, schooling and, yes, sexual responsibility.” Human beings know they are more than appetites, and their dignity requires a contribution, within their means, to the common life. Perhaps it is even time to suggest that all Americans owe a period of service to the republic.

I realize that once again I am saying kind words about constraint. But the most valuable teaching America can offer the aspiring democracies is that political freedom includes a kind of restraint, a set of things not chosen. We do not choose to be equal by nature or to have rights, and we cannot undo or alienate either status. In the American tradition, the “consent of the governed” presumes a prior consent to nature and to the order of creation, and hence, to that government beyond the city that is the ultimate foundation of human and of democratic life.

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