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Conservatism’s Civic Virtue Deficit

Washington as Statesman at the Constitutional Convention by Junius Brutus Stearns

Support for the U.S. Constitution has been a consistent principle of the collection of activist conservative groups referred to as the “Tea Party,” a name that refers back to the patriots who dumped British tea into Boston Harbor rather than pay the duties demanded by the Crown and thereby helped set the stage for Lexington and Concord. But even a cursory examination of the positions that Tea Party groups have taken on other issues—particularly their overall opposition to federal government action on economic and social issues and their desire to shift decision making authority from the federal government to state and local governments—suggests that they may have more in common with the anti-federalists who opposed ratification of the Constitution in the 1780s and the “nullifiers” led by John C. Calhoun who sought to limit federal authority in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. National security is the one area in which some Tea Party members appear comfortable with the extensive exercise of federal authority, an exercise that ironically threatens the individual liberty that they claim to prize so much.

It is easy to forget how close the vote on ratification of the Constitution was in 1789, and how great the gap between the visions of the federalists and the anti-federalists before and after ratification. The anti-federalists never accepted the Hamiltonian vision of a strong federal government supporting the growth of domestic commerce and industry with public credit and investment in national infrastructure, or the Madisonian vision of a “super-republic” with a strong federal government whose powers would be kept in check by the balancing influence of many competing factions.

The anti-federalists were particularly concerned that over time the residual powers retained by the states and the people would be steadily diminished by the encroachments of expanding federal power. Underlying their rejection of both visions was a concern that the “civic virtue” of individual citizens, on which the long-term survival of the republic depended, would be increasingly difficult to cultivate and maintain as the nexus of political decision making moved further and further away from their local values and activities.

Both sides could find justification for their respective positions in the actual experience of the American republic since 1789. The federalists could point to the great success of the American republic in increasing the wealth and quality of life of its citizens, in safeguarding them from threats foreign and domestic, and in promoting its interests and values around the world to an extent unequalled by any other country in world history.

Hamilton could say that these great achievements would have been impossible without the forceful interventions of a strong federal government in exploring the continent; without acquiring large parts of it for settlement by purchase or conquest; without catalyzing the settlement process by land grants to settlers and railroads; without removing native Americans who sought to interfere with the settlement process; without building canals, land grant colleges, roads and dams; without supporting basic research; and without creating “the arsenal of democracy.”

Madison could say that competition among opposing factions has successfully limited the encroachment of federal power by protecting states’ rights, although such limitation has often been at the expense of individual rights; by giving motivated capitalists license to build wealth through “creative destruction,” although at great short-term social cost; and by slowing down social changes that offended minority values even when those changes had majority support.

The anti-federalists could point to the realization of every one of their fears about the creation of a strong federal government. Indeed, if you compare the ideas of the federalists, including Hamilton, to the ideas of those who since the Progressive era have supported an ever-expanding role for the federal government, you realize that the federalists might have been more sympathetic to the concerns of the anti-federalists if they had been able to foresee how powerful and intrusive the federal government would become.

Although resistance from representatives of Southern and border states and conservatives from other parts of the country slowed the process down, the federal government has accumulated powers and the revenues to support the exercise of those powers to an extent unimaginable to our founders. Two aspects of this growth in federal power in particular, the rise of the “regulatory state” administered by independent agencies with limited accountability to the people’s elected representatives, and the creation of huge programs designed to provide a social safety net for the less fortunate members of society, would have astonished them.

Federal regulation and the provision of a nationwide safety net have provided important social benefits such as greater economic security in old age, safer food and drugs, and cleaner water and air, but they have raised unresolved issues about the relative roles of different branches and levels of government and democratic accountability. They have also arguably weakened the “civic virtue” of individual citizens by becoming so complex and difficult to understand that they discourage citizen engagement, as well as by creating a sense of entitlement that undermines individual initiative.

The modern conservative movement has a unique opportunity to address these unresolved issues in a manner that strengthens both adherence to the Constitution and the spirit of liberty on which it is based. To exploit this opportunity, however, conservatives will have to focus on requiring all three branches of the federal government to adhere to the actual provisions of the Constitution. In particular, it will require them to push the Congress to exercise its powers under Article I in a responsible and effective manner.

Congress has allowed its constitutional powers to make laws and declare war to atrophy by a de facto unconstitutional delegation to the executive branch. Instead of passing clear and comprehensible laws that reflect well-crafted political compromises, Congress has fallen into the habit of writing unclear and overly complex laws that require the unconstitutional delegation of policy making authority to executive agencies for their implementation.

In order to be effective in inducing citizens to ask their representatives to write and enforce laws that are clear and effective and respect the Constitution, however, conservatives will first have to embrace the concept of citizen responsibility that is so central in the writings of great conservatives such as Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, and their classical forbears, particularly Aristotle. The darker passions of human nature threaten both individual well-being and social harmony. They must be checked from within or without. If they are not checked by cultivated moral sentiments from within, they will be checked by state power from without, however misguided the exercise of that power may be.

Unfortunately the modern conservative movement has operated under the false premise that economic self-interest will provide the necessary internal check. In an effort to counter so-called “liberalism,” postwar conservatives such as William F. Buckley substituted religion for the classical ideas of republican virtue and civic responsibility that are the foundation of earlier 19th and 20th century conservatism. By fusing a diffuse and undefined concept of religion with extreme libertarianism and its worship of free markets, postwar conservatives created a political philosophy that supports market competition as a good unto itself without any moral constraints based on a concept of the “common good” that transcends tribal preferences based on religion, culture, or race.

This philosophy is inconsistent with the Constitution in word and in spirit. It is inconsistent in word because it denies the competitive plurality of beliefs and ideas that is explicitly protected by the Bill of Rights. It is inconsistent in spirit because it not only denies our duty to pursue happiness together as citizens of the same republic, but also redefines “happiness” as the selfish pursuit of wealth, fame, and power in a manner incompatible with the moral principles of our founders. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle defines happiness as acts in pursuit of the highest virtue, carried out in the context of a complete life. Steeped in classical ideas, and particularly Stoic conceptions of virtue (Washington had his soldiers perform Addison’s Cato at Valley Forge), our founders would have understood, appreciated and internalized Aristotle’s definition.

They would not have understood or appreciated the economic partisanship and social atomism that is all too prevalent among self-described conservatives, including some Tea Party activists, many of whom are prepared to defend benefits of the welfare state that go to themselves and their families, but are willing to deny them to people who are less fortunate than themselves. There are valid reasons for criticizing Obamacare, but some conservatives appear to oppose it primarily because it appears to threaten their privileged access to benefits and make them pay for extending those benefits to other “less-deserving” citizens.

If the conservative movement continues down its current path, it will do lasting damage to the conservative brand and limit the Republican Party to representing an embattled and diminishing minority of the American electorate. Yet genuine conservatism has an opportunity to reshape the legacies of the New Deal and the Cold War in a manner consistent with conservative values, through such ideas as individually managed health care accounts, a simpler and flatter tax code, and reassertion of Congress’s constitutional right and responsibility to determine when the country goes to war. Such ideas should appeal to a majority of the electorate. But they are unlikely to prevail unless conservatives return to conservatism’s old values of civic virtue and universal opportunity for all to pursue happiness as our founders conceived of it.

William A. Nitze is President of the Committee for the Republic and Chairman of the Oceana Energy Company. He has previously served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment, Health and Natural Resources in the Reagan and Bush 41 Administrations and Assistant Administrator for International Activities at U.S. EPA during the Clinton Administration.

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