Recovering Virtue Means Recovering Self-Government

by Tyler Syck

Since the age of Jackson, conservatives have been skeptical of democracy. In their eyes, the democratization in the early nineteenth century disrupted the republican order of the founders and unleashed a plague of moral vice upon the nation: majority tyranny, materialism, an unhealthy thirst for equality, and individualism. These critics of democracy are not simply reactionaries. There is a lot of truth to the problems they point out. It is clear to any but the blindest observer that the United States suffers from each and every one of the faults commonly associated with democracy. Political theorists seeking to address this problem tend to offer two kinds of solutions: institutional and cultural. The institutionalists seek to roll back the march of popular rule by restoring or empowering decidedly more elitist mechanisms of government than we currently possess. The culturalists take a different approach. They argue that only by inculcating virtue in the citizenry can the problems of the United States be resolved.

Though both sides of this debate make fair points, the culturalists are closer to the truth than the institutionalists. Mostly because turning back the tide on democratic reforms would almost certainly require a violent revolution, but also because even superior institutions cannot solve the problem of a corrupted culture. In fact, institutional democratization emerged largely as a by-product of an excessively populist culture in the first place. Only a restoration of virtue—the heart of any prosperous culture—can remove the rot. Having said this, the culturalists are not without their problems. The strongest voices currently seeking to rejuvenate virtue can be found among post-liberals who wish to dismiss the modern project and start anew. However, these voices time and again have displayed a faulty understanding of the true meaning of virtue.

Discovering Virtue

For many in the new right, virtue is something that can be legislated into being. By regulating human behavior, so-called post-liberals believe they can restore greatness to a regime set adrift by the individualism and materialism endemic to democracy. To that end, many have advocated such policy positions as an uncompromising definition of marriage and banning certain types of degrading media. Prudent legalistic efforts can do much to encourage virtuous behavior, but virtue is about much more than our actions. Virtue is a state of being—a way of thinking and feeling that shapes every interaction with the world. Undeniably, our actions reflect the state of our soul, but simply forcing someone to behave in a certain way does little to guarantee a permanent alteration in our interior life—especially if that person already has a hardened objection to the code of behavior being enforced. Knowledge, not unthinking habit, is the real key to a life of virtue. The Socratic dialogues and the parables of Jesus show time and again: virtue is gained through a sustained examination of both ourselves and the world around us. Such a constant inspection of creation, when done well, exposes both our faults and the solutions to them. Opening the door a little at a time to virtue.

These competing definitions of virtue—the post-liberal legalistic view and the more accurate humanist view—rest upon two different visions of man. For those who subscribe to a legalistic interpretation of virtue, man is utterly and irredeemably depraved. Hence why we cannot be trusted to simply choose virtue and why it instead must be formed through the inculcation of habit. The problem is that this portrait of the human character is hopelessly one-sided. Only a fool could doubt that we as a species are capable of the very worst depravities. But to make such an insight the sole foundation of human anthropology ignores the simple reality that man is capable of both great good and great evil depending upon the choices that we make. This is the aspect of our nature—its unformedness—that makes virtue possible. For it means that with the right tools, we can use virtue to improve our very being.

All of this is not meant to imply that certain habits cannot play an important role in the discovery of virtue. But the foundation of habits conducive to virtue must occur in a certain way to be effective. Firstly, habits must not be coerced by government. They should emerge from the instruction of parents, teachers, and role models. This allows for a more liberal, organic, development of mores that are capable of changing as culture evolves. Secondly, it is far too common on the post-liberal right to understand metrics such as not drinking too much or having intercourse in the correct way as the sum of virtue. Though these dictums may help on the road to virtue we should never mistake them for virtue itself. Instead, habits, customs, and traditions can serve an important purpose as tools that allow us to apprehend the fraternal love of all men that is the heart of a virtuous life.

The greatest tool required for the path toward virtue is a free society, one in which humans are capable of making moral judgments on their own. This is because all knowledge requires some form of experimentation—whether positivistic or dialectical. In short, we can only learn if people are free to try out different moral frameworks and witness the world in its unfiltered, largely unregulated, form. Of course, this means that people will make mistakes. In truth, a large portion of the population will fail to behave in a way that is morally righteous. This is the price of a free society and, for all its faults, a free society is the price of virtue.

Mass democracy deprives the people of the ability to use reason to shape their own lives. In short, it deprives them of the sort of free society vital to the cultivation of virtue.

This doesn’t mean that virtue is simply without content. Though it may not always involve particular moral strictures, virtue takes the form of a certain way of thinking. One that must first acknowledge the innate equality of all people. Meaning that despite all our differences, humans are united by a common nature and purpose which entitle each of us to be treated well by others. To put this differently, virtue requires an acknowledgment of human dignity. This egalitarian insight on its own is important but it only leads to a genuine state of virtue when followed to its logical conclusion: if humans are all equal then each of us has an innate responsibility to take care of one another. In short, to be virtuous is to be selflessly dedicated to others. For all the faults of the French Revolution, the motto embraced by its leaders captures the nature of virtue more succinctly than any great philosopher: liberty, equality, fraternity. Liberty gives us the space to rationally apprehend the equal nature of all humans. An insight that leads us in turn to embrace the mindset that defines virtue—one of fraternity.

Local Democracy and Virtue

Now knowing what virtue is and how humans can discover it, we can discuss the practical question this essay began with: how can we salvage our nation from the vices of democracy? The answer must begin with a frank admission of the problem we are confronting. Though the American regime has drifted from its intended republican nature, democracy itself is not actually the problem. The issue is the unique form of this regime adopted by the United States—mass democracy, a form of government characterized by many millions of people ruling over a vast territory. Because a democratic order that necessarily involves so many people cannot possibly permit them to direct policy, such tasks must be delegated to bureaucrats and professionalized social movements. Such a delegation deprives the people of the ability to use reason to shape their own lives. In short, it deprives them of the sort of free society vital to the cultivation of virtue.

But while post-liberals accurately diagnose the problems with democracy as well, it is not hard to see why their solution would not work. For they would simply compound the difficulties of mass democracy with an attempt to legislate moral action, both depriving us of control over the state and imposing upon us even less freedom in the private sphere. The inevitable result of such a sickening cocktail of tyranny would be to create the sort of unvirtuous slavish people they wish so desperately to avoid. They would have the state make us saints, but in fact, it would hasten our progress toward Nietzsche’s Last Man.

The key to embracing virtue is neither legislation nor the rejection of democracy simply, but a different form of democratic rule—local democracy, a regime in which people of a small geographic area come together to decide upon the issues that most affect their lives. Far from robbing the people of a chance to cultivate virtue, local democracy creates the perfect environment for such discovery. For the freest society is not simply one in which the government is restrained but one in which the people rule themselves. Local democracy aids the formation of virtue in another way: it forces us to interact with our neighbors. To work and collaborate with those around us on how we would like to structure our lives. To be so enmeshed with those we live around may sound horrific to some, but genuine virtue cannot develop in isolation. It is the rare person who comes to fully appreciate the inherent dignity of all men without interacting with his fellows. Likewise, the fraternal nature of virtue demands that we work together to alleviate the suffering of our fellows—something that likewise requires local interaction. To put this all more plainly, local democracy does not just provide a space in which virtue can exist, it provides an avenue for the attainment of virtue.

Though most think only of local government when contemplating local democracy, the true meaning of the term is far more capacious, encompassing all local institutions in which people can display their independent choices: schools, hospitals, unions, churches, and so on. Mass democracy with its overreliance on bureaucratic activists and government officials has over time robbed these intermediary institutions of most of their power. It is on restoring these institutions that all allies of virtue, whether conservative or liberal, should concentrate their attention. Fulfilling this endeavor requires the systematic dismantling of much of the regulatory state in the social sphere. By weakening the federal government, not by empowering it, can virtue be permitted to flourish?

However, merely removing the coercive aspects of the state from the throat of local institutions is not enough to revive them. One cannot free a starving man from captivity and expect him to immediately flourish. He requires food, water, and physical care. So it is with local democracy. Here federal lawmakers can remain helpful by instituting welfare programs, with no strings attached, designed to sustain the family and provide ample funding for local institutions to assume increased authority, while most of the work of stimulating local institutions conducive to virtue is left to us the citizens. As I have written elsewhere, we must ensure that a liberal arts education is within the reach of all. Likewise, a revival of spiritualism in America would do much to rob us of our materialist delusions and create a better path for virtue. It is important to note that with both reforms, even local democracy is not regulating human behavior to make men virtuous. Instead, these reforms simply create a place in which virtues can be discovered and developed.

The attempts of extremist intellectuals to drive the formation of virtue through a coercive state stem from a well-meaning sentiment—a genuine desire to revitalize American culture and morality. However, true virtue is something discovered through free inquiry and interaction with the world around us. In short, virtue requires freedom. Something that most people in America have seemingly forgotten. With both the left and the right clamoring to remake man in their image, we should remember that the best democracies—the most tolerant, selfless, and gentle—are formed not through an act of government but through organic local initiative.