In November I closed by indicating that I would follow up with some thoughts about our cultural trend in the direction of Europe and on how difficult our choices will be in diverting ourselves from this disastrous path. Over the holidays I revisited a 1995 collection of essays edited by Digby Anderson for National Review under the title This Will Hurt: The Restoration of Virtue and Civic Order and was reminded that we didn’t just lately develop the social and cultural decay that have led us to this point. It was the second of two collections on the issue, the first being an in-depth description of the problem entitled The Loss of Virtue: Moral Confusion and Social Disorder in Britain and America. I recommend them both. Clearly, they represent further evidence of the old adage that “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.
Shortly after the publication of the second book, Digby Anderson wrote an article in National Review in which he summarized the essential points in both collections. Parts of it are worthy of quoting at length:
“So what is the significance of the new talk about virtue, the reassertion of personal responsibility, the ache for order, community, ease, and goodness? It is not trivial. Even the renewed use of moral language is very important. But it is not enough to put the clock back. That demands both an intellectual project and a revolution in human commitment. The project is to disentangle the strands of the Enlightenment legacy, to mark, for instance the proper limits of rationalistic scientific understanding, to re-anchor law in morality, to make pleasure a by-product, not a goal, to reassert the moral aspects of social problems, to redeploy social sanctions such as stigma. This will hurt. But what will hurt even more is a new human commitment and for this to ask: how much is modern man, even conservative modern man, willing to give up for virtue? The problem does not lie with the clock. Its hands can be moved in either direction. The problem is whether men want to turn its hands back, want to do so enough to suffer the consequences.” Pretty strong stuff, huh? But that’s where we are.
People often ask me, what have morality and all this talk about virtue to do with our enormous economic problems? My answer: almost everything. In fact, the free market cannot and will not survive without the realization of and renewed emphasis on the fact that most of the virtues required for its successful operation are those that the market itself cannot produce, and by the way, neither can science nor technology. David Brooks makes the point quite well as related to the current European crisis when he notes: “The scariest thing is that many of the people browbeating the Germans seem to have very little commitment to the effort-reward formula that undergirds capitalism. On the one hand, there are the technicians who are oblivious to values. For them anything that can’t be counted and modeled is a primitive irrelevancy. On the other hand, there are people who see the crisis through the prism of some cosmic class war. What matters is not how people conduct themselves, but whether they are a have or a have-not. The burden of proof is against the haves. The benefit of doubt is with the have-nots.”
Further to the point, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal appropriately notes that “Europe’s crisis is not simply fiscal and monetary; it’s also a crisis of vision and character”. Hmm, wonder where those things come from?
The genius of our founders provided us with a system that they hoped would protect our republic from the various tyrannies originating from our basest human instincts, and in a recent visit to the Federalist Papers I am reminded that arguments based on virtue, civic or otherwise, played almost no role in the debates on the ratification of the Constitution. In fact, a case can be made that the Constitution is intentionally designed to function without reference to, or even in spite of, deficiencies in human virtue. However, notwithstanding their pragmatic approach to its design there is significant evidence of their presupposition that such a system was suited only for those men of deep understanding of and appreciation for the civic and moral virtues necessary for its success. One can search history in vain for a classically liberal or conservative economic theorist, including Adam Smith (who was after all a moral philosopher), who could conceive of any free market system surviving in an environment of cultural nihilism and moral relativism. Folks, our country’s problems are not primarily with government policy and economics.
Since Aristotle we in the West have been instructed that, by our nature, we are directed to an end beyond our nature, the ideal fulfillment of which requires certain virtues. St. Thomas Aquinas expanded and elaborated on these virtues and identified those that require habitation–temperateness, courage, justice, and prudence–as well as instruction often reinforced by law, both natural and human. As it has turned out, these virtues and the laws informed by them over the centuries have served us pretty well, but I would bet that if Madison and Hamilton were here to survey the current situation, they would quickly see that we have stretched their model pretty far on stored moral capital and would probably recommend that we need to significantly replenish it very soon.