Skip to comments.Virtue: A Democratic Problem
Posted on 07/16/2010 8:36:44 PM PDT by Salvation
Those who have ever taken a political science course which was not merely an exercise in advocacy may remember considering the strengths and weaknesses of various forms of government. Monarchy had its corruption in tyranny, oligarchy in plutocracy, and democracy in mob rule. For many centuries, most Catholic political theorists suggested that monarchy was the best form of government, because it mirrored the way God runs the universe. More recently, Catholic thinkers have suggested that democracy is most in keeping with human dignity, as it tends to foster the participation of each person in the political process.
I suspect that a great many thinkers simply find it easier to see the virtues of the form of government their cultures take for granted. For example, monarchists have often pointed to the fact that kings are trained from youth in the art of ruling (including, ideally, an emphasis on duty and responsibility), whereas democratic politicians receive virtually no preparation at all. More neutral observers have suggested that monarchical governments have a tendency to oscillate between the extremes of good and bad (or even evil) rulers, whereas democracy is by nature doomed to mediocrity.
Thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of the many governmental variations is a useful exercise, but perhaps only because it teaches us not to put our trust in forms. Whatever your preferences, I can drive home this point by identifying two obvious features of how modern democracies tend to function which are right now creating significant obstacles to solving contemporary problems. One of these features is vaguely ideological in nature; the other is distressingly pragmatic.
The ideological issue is that democratic theory carries with it an enormous assumption, the assumption that if you have the vote, then you have significant political control. Moreover, there tends to be a democratic mythology that wherever people have the right to vote, they must necessarily enjoy something the Western tradition prizes very highly, namely liberty. But the reality of the operations of democracy among massive populations in modern bureaucratic states (which tend to lack effective intermediary institutions) is that the governing classes gain greater and greater power while the significant choices available to citizenschoices that really make a differencetend to become fewer and fewer. The illusion of liberty tends to retard the realization of this trend. We are carefully taught that we are free; yet in many areas we remain almost powerless.
The more pragmatic issue is that as virtue declines in any given culture, it becomes increasingly difficult to direct government toward the common good. I will not argue here about the horrible impact the decline of sexual morality has had on national laws, judicial decisions and executive policies in the West. Instead, lets look at a problem far easier for everyone to spot: The immense difficulty of mounting effective economic leadership in a period of declining wealth. A single question is sufficient to make the point: Can any politician be reelected if he tells the truth about the need to live within our means at every level, personal and governmental, and if he proposes policies which match the available resources?
The specific case of France at present would be wonderfully amusing if it did not strike so close to home. The French government announced a few weeks ago that mounting deficits and an aging population required that citizens will have to keep working until they are 62. The retirement age had been 60. The French already get enormous paid vacations and are prohibited by law from working more than 35 hours per week. Nonetheless, Jean-Luc Mélanchon, head of the Left Party, reacted by saying today is a day of sadness and anger, and Frances labor unions immediately began planning for general strikes.
We may be tempted to laugh, but a similar unwillingness to face reality currently afflicts all Western democracies, and is especially obvious in a sluggish economy. In the United States, for example, those in power try to convince us they can save the economy by running up larger and larger deficits and putting the countrys international fiscal credibility at risk. But then politicians who tell the truth almost always lose. And given the mob-like tendency of millions of voters to approve whatever does not immediately threaten their own selfish benefits (whether economic or sexual!), the number of viable choices placed before the electorate generally falls just short of one.
The bottom line is that a form of government which enfranchises all citizens and remains ostensibly open to debate does little to guarantee constructive politics. It takes virtue in those who wield power at every level to do that, including the virtue necessary to understand and pursue the common good. What we are beginning to learn now, I think, is that despite all the rhetoric the mythology of democracy is no substitute for virtue. It remains to be seen whether we all need to go broke before enough people will recognize this truth.
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Very good post, right on and eloquently put.
It takes virtue in those who wield power at every level to do that, including the virtue necessary to understand and pursue the common good
To me, this virtue is lacking in the current administration, totally lacking.
Bush had it at the beginning, but this president does not IMHO.
I am not at all sure that the leading indicator is declining virtue, though one certainly needs to be clear about terms in making that kind of statement. When one speaks of virtue in the sense the author uses the term, one limits the meaning to actions that adhere to a personal moral standard and translate that standard to rules which are made taboo for the whole society. Thus, respecting marriage as an institution and not violating it through adultery would reflect this use of the word ‘virtue’.
However, ‘virtue’ in the original Latin meant ‘maleness’ and really meant self-reliance and willingness to carry one’s own weight in social life. In that sense, the ‘virtue’ in question would be more akin to the issue the author mostly deals with: the tendency for people to insist on being carried through life rather than being willing to carry themselves. That will certainly lead to demands that institutions take on responsibility for necessities that individuals are really much better off providing for themselves. This would be declining virtue. We might note that the Romans also noticed this (Will Durand was explicit: Stoic Rome, blessed with virtue and manliness, declined into Epicurean Rome and wallowed in vice).
To me, the real impetus for driving government to take up duties and take away ‘freedoms’ is the success civilizations have managed to achieve. To the extent that the civilization has successfully provided for itself in general and driven off competitors and enemies, the citizenry then has the luxury of seeking self-satisfaction. That erodes the self-reliance necessary to keep a civilization self-perpetuating and begins the downward spiral from liberty to ultimate anarchy.
So, it is paradoxically the success a civilization achieves that dooms it: unless there are competitors to keep the citizens wary, alert and industrious, they will relapse into laziness, bureaucratic rules and general malaise. The civlization will simply deflate.
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Unrestrained appreciation of our own worth
Immoderate desire for earthly goods
Hankering for impure pleasures
Inordinate desire for revenge
Unrestrained use of food and drink
Sorrow over another's good fortune
Laxity in keeping the Faith and the practice of virtue
I like that chart. I just shared it with my daughter.
I never feel more powerless than when I'm waiting in line with the other proles to vote. That's when I really appreciate the Constitution and the fact that my rights can't be taken from me by the vote of the guy in front of me and the guy behind me.
How old is your daughter?
Voting is so important. We all need to work extra hard to get out the vote this fall. I’m walking some of my precinct in an effort to talk to people. I had been going to only GOP houses, but I have half a notion to knock on everyone’s door.
I know that the people here aren’t happy with the economy and Obama.
My daughter is 11. I rephrased the chart a bit to make it clearer for her, and gave an example or two.
Envy is *sorrow* over another’s good fortune?
I always thought it was resentment.
Dern Catholic Church is always smacking me right in the gob with things I need to understand.
I think most people think of envy as resentment/jealousy. But I can see the sad part — sad that I didn’t get the award but that susie did.
Quite true, and as you pointed out, "Stoic Rome", based on virtue, became "Epicurean Rome", wallowing in vice. Now, at what point did this process truly begin? I contend that the process began when "Carthgo delenda est", when Carthage, Rome's main competitor for control of the Meddeteranean Basin was eliminated.
Not only was vast wealth gained from the sack itself, the continual stream of trade income aided the process of disintegration. Rome soon became mired in civil strife, largely about exactly who was going to control and benefit from the wealth. This lead, directly from Marius, to Gaius Julius, to Augustus, then to Tiberius, and presto, no longr a republic, per se, but an amalgamation of republic, and hereditary monarchy, with both factions continually vying for control, with other ambitious factions perpetually trying to cut themselves in, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
The average Roman in the street ceased to pay attention to what was happening to his society, being distracted by 'panem et cricensens', keeping the way for the personally ambitious clear for their machinations. These same average Romans, simultaneously, ceased to exercise the civic duty of defending their own society, the legions by that time being largely non-Roman in manpower...
“But I can see the sad part”
Yeah, I see it...now. If only I’d had another fifty-nine years to think about it, I could have gotten it on my own.
By the way, you do really good work here. Your posts are very educational and, sometimes, extremely comforting.
(Ow! Just lost two man cards.)
It’s interesting to see the different ways the Bible describes “envy” and “jealousy.” Envy is the reason Cain killed Abel, and the reason the authorities wanted Jesus crucified. However, God describes Himself as “jealous,” desiring the recognition of His sole claim to worship by His creatures.
Wonder what the position is on representative republic.
Excellent post. However, I think there’s an obvious connection between the civic virtue you’re discussing and the personal virtue mentioned by the author. One way in which a man demonstrates his responsibility is by not fathering children whom he is not intending to rear. This means he doesn’t have sex outside marriage. No means of contraception is guaranteed effective, and therefore *only* continence, except in marriage, prevents the development of the unsupported mothers and children who are such a powerful negative force on our republic.
At the source there was a link to email the editor — Jeff Mirus. I’m sure he would appreciate your input.
Good post, and good discussion, thanks.