The moral foundation of politics

Every once in a while I find it useful to pause and recall the claims which first motivated me to start this blog.  The selection by  our two political parties of their candidates for the presidency, and the upcoming campaign for that office, provides a fitting moment to do so again.  In the coming months, we’ll hear a lot of bluster and speechifying — let me lay down the Vulgar Morality position in advance, and then move on.

The first claim is that morality trumps politics.  While the Founding Fathers understood this simple truth, we are less clear:  our chattering classes surely prefer to wield the compulsive power of the state to unleash some vast collective effect, than face the embarrassment of preaching good behavior.  Morality is private, they assume.  Politics is public business.

But no system of government can survive unless the people embody the virtues necessary for its preservation.  Despotism, for example, requires that obedience become a virtue.  Liberal democracy, which exalts individual freedom, must value behaviors that navigate the narrow channel between servility and social chaos:  the virtues of self-rule, self-reliance, and public-mindedness, for example.  Such virtues are demanded of the individual, and of the people as a community of individuals.  Morality begins with home and family, but it is everyone’s business.

A democracy with an electorate of five-year-olds will soon disintegrate into conflict and multiple absolutisms of me.  Similarly, an electorate composed of infantilistic adults, obsessed with personal or tribal grievances, rights, and prerogatives, yet indifferent to the fate of others in the community, won’t retain their freedom for long.

De Tocqueville  predicted that infantile majorities in Europe would elect powerful, centralized “schoolmasters,” different from despots only in having been elected.  He might have been writing about the European Union.

Freedom is a moral condition.  Free political structures will be corrupted by a selfish, unrestrained people.   Corruption in turn will breed unfreedom, whether as mob rule in the style of the early French revolution, or as Napoleonic tyranny.

And we Americans shouldn’t think ourselves immune.  When I first moved to Fairfax County many years ago, all of Virginia was in the grip of a political organization, the Byrd machine, which decided elections with a confidence worthy of the Soviet Politburo.  The bargain was to keep the races separated.  For that deal with the devil, the Virginia electorate became like children in the hands of Harry Byrd.

The primacy of morality over politics means that the legitimate function of government must be to open and protect as large a space as possible for individual decision.  That, again, goes against the grain of the chattering classes, who are perpetually discovering “crises” which demand collective solutions.  Issues treated this way abound, but let me mention just two:  global warming and health care.  Regarding these issues, the question isn’t whether or not a problem exists, but whether, given a political problem of any magnitude, the solution should be left to a brilliant clique of technicians or to the moral choices of millions of citizens.

The answer will depend on whether one considers the electorate to be made up of responsible adults — or only the political class.  Many politicians, for obvious reasons, tend to believe the latter.  Their importance grows with the promotion of existential “crises” to which they, and they alone, can provide a mandated “solution” — saving us from ourselves by the application of power from their schoolmasterly hands.  This is the tempting path of Robespierre’s Terror, and of Stalin’s purges:  feeling the buzz of self-righteousness while acting on naked self-interest.

Robespierre and Stalin both were rationalists — and rationalism, readers of this blog will know, throws a simple-minded, mock-scientific veil over questions of immense complexity.  The rationalist is never humble in the face of his own ignorance.  He knows an answer — the answer — and must impose it on his less gifted neighbors for their own good.  Rationalist solutions invariably take the form of an abstract formula:  these can be vague (the greatest happiness for the greatest number) or untested (the drastic reduction of CO2 emissions), but their political effect, always, is the removal of decision-making from the individual to a technocratic elite.

Yet collective decisions are sometimes necessary, and a government must exist powerful enough to implement them:  the enforcement and dispensation of criminal law, for example, can’t be left to individual choice.  A key question is how to tell when collective action becomes necessary.

The answer constitutes the second claim asserted in this blog:  that only public opinion can decide when morality must become compulsory.  In fact, a second’s reflection will reveal that, in a liberal democracy, only public opinion can arbitrate the outcome of moral disputes.  Religion, science, reason, nature — all the grand systems and absolute principles — can inform one side or another of the argument, but none has authority.  Opinion alone owns legitimacy, and must be the court of last appeal.

The rule of opinion drives rationalists into a frenzy of despair.  Opinion is arbitrary, they maintain:  morality and justice must rest on “objective” principles.  Opinion is the product of a dull conventional crowd, they insist.  It’s superstition.  Truth requires a higher standard, attainable only by the keenest intellects.  Versions of this argument have been put forward by rationalists great and small, from Plato to John Kenneth Galbraith.

But public opinion is humbler, and far less arbitrary, than the formulas proposed by rationalists in their search for objective principles.  Our opinions on moral and political matters aren’t just made up on the spot:  the are received, by way of family and community, from traditions that have survived the test of time.  We know ourselves to  stand on the shoulders of moral and political giants, and few of us are foolish enough to wish to jump off to the bog below.

Human morality is a consequence of biological evolution.  We are born with a moral sense which the community tailors to its specific circumstances.  Traditions are the outcome of historical evolution.  They weave a rousing story about those behaviors the community has, over the centuries, found adaptive to its circumstances.  Public opinion merely propels the current scene of an ancient morality play, featuring the ghosts of the illustrious dead and the claims of those not yet born.

Our moral traditions are accessible to everyone regardless of education or wealth.  On this domain, the garbage collector can easily be superior to the college professor and the billionaire.  Such moral equality is what Jefferson meant by “all men are created equal.”  It’s the foundation of political democracy, which at bottom is nothing more than the citizen’s insistence that he alone can decide the moral course of his life.

Public opinion rooted in tradition is deeply felt, but — like human nature — inconsistent.  A people can glorify equality and worship excellence, as the ancient Athenians once did, for example — and, I fondly hope, as Americans do today.  Yet inconsistency is the bane of the rationalist politician, who dreams of a symmetry and mathematical exactness found nowhere in human life.

If equality is the ideal, then every traditional grouping of citizens — a workforce, a student body, a social club — must be mandated to embody some abstract formula of equality.  And if the formula is not met, then a power must be erected to compel conformity on those who have failed the ideal.

The practical results of rationalist political formulas are of course more arbitrary and inconsistent than any outcome tolerated by tradition.  One government-protected group, women, includes welfare mothers but also billionaires like Teresa Heinz Terry.  Another such group, “Hispanics,” counts Portuguese-speaking Brazilians of African descent, but not those who trace their origins to Spain — unless they or their ancestors detoured through Latin American, in which case they do count.

None of this should surprise us.  When moral equality is disregarded, even for the best intentions, all that’s left is power disputed among individuals and groups.  When tradition is rejected as the arbiter for collective action, the criteria for decision becomes whatever is found inside the heads of the people in power.  That’s the political nirvana of the rationalist and our American articulate classes:  they think, they decide, we obey.

The politics of collective action, even when conducted by elected officials, are inherently anti-democratic.  The president of the United States, because he wield enormous power, can inflict enormous damage to the fabric of our traditions, customs, and opinions.  Political wisdom resembles the medical kind:  above all, do no harm.  Candidates who make extravagant promises, who exalt change as if it were a virtue, who everywhere find “crises” that require drastic “solutions” — these will do harm proportionate to their skills, and should be sent back to private life by the electorate.


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