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No Right to Do Wrong

Friday, September 1, 1995

Citizenship has always been an important question in America, and sometimes it is urgent. This is such a time. In the nature of our society, we leave much to private action. We do this as a matter of principle, in the interest of the liberty that is our entitlement. In America, it is our nature and our law to recognize this natural liberty. That is why private action is unusually important here. But today, private action is not doing its job.

We know the facts. A third of all children are born out of wedlock. Half of marriages break up. Thievery and pillage, rape and murder flourish at horrific levels. Our graduates know neither basic facts nor main ideas. Most Americans are economically dependent on the government in some way. Our world is richer and more sophisticated, yet there is a decline of civility, of responsibility, and of knowledge about the highest things, giving our society a low, even primitive cast. Americans have the feeling that something more than their greatness may be going. They feel the loss of goodness, and the emptiness of that feeling cannot be borne.

The liberals have a plan to repair this loss. It is the centralized, bureaucratic, administrative state. Its language is familiar: It calls us to "attack our problems on a national scale," "with the full resources of our country," "with the best minds in the nation," all "coordinated from the top." It reminds us that "Washington has a responsibility" -- for example, to keep children nourished. Liberalism finds its energy in utopian promise. Woodrow Wilson would "marry our interests to the state," as if we could be, in the literal sense, one grand family. Franklin Roosevelt would eliminate want, not just from the United States, but from the world. And he would eliminate fear while he was at it. Lyndon Johnson would guarantee equality of result. Hillary Clinton would "change what it means to be a human being in the 21st century."

Modern liberalism is progressive, visionary, and ever expanding, and has a conception of citizenship appropriate to its principles. The citizen under modern liberalism responds to policy. He knows that the progress to which society is destined requires progress by him, in his own person. He must be ready, when fashion shifts, to alter his pronouns, his diet, and his relations with his children. He must stay abreast of the shifting value placed on family, or patriotism, or history. He must, in short, be pliable, ready to be shaped and molded.

Liberals understand the importance of making their vision of citizenship compatible with, even necessary to, the old concept of citizenship that it replaces. When Bill Clinton was inaugurated, for example, he suddenly became "William Jefferson" Clinton. To emphasize the point that he is named after Thomas Jefferson, he spent the eve of his inauguration at Monticello, and traveled the same route that Jefferson did to arrive at the ceremony. He announced his tax increase on Lincoln's and Washington's official birthday, and spoke about their greatness and attention to duty.

President Clinton thus continues a tradition of successful modern liberalism begun by Woodrow Wilson and perfected by Franklin Roosevelt. Modern liberals know better than to reject openly the ideas of the Declaration of Independence. But they talk plenty about "completing them," which means changing them completely. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, invented a new demon -- "the economic royalists" --- to replace King George III. He claimed to be defending liberty, in the same way the Founders had defended it against the King.

But in fighting the economic royalists, Roosevelt attacked also the right to property, a fundamental right that the Founders took pains to establish. Because of this cleverness, the liberals are good at seeming public spirited and devoted to the old ideas. People have long trusted them to serve the community, to care about citizenship and neighborliness.

We conservatives are united in our opposition to the liberal idea of citizenship. We have seen that there is no liberty under this program. It extinguishes liberty by extinguishing the creature capable of liberty. By the force of government, it replaces him with some new being. It takes a lot of government to "change what it means to be a human being." Several million administrators, deploying a quarter of the largest economy on earth, do not seem to have finished the job in a full generation of trying.

If we conservatives do not like the liberal idea of citizenship, what do we like? There, more work is needed.

Recall the standard list of the things wrong with our society, such as divorce and illegitimacy and crime. I would add one generally forgotten: a loss not only of habit, but of knowledge, a loss not only of the exercise of good citizenship, but of the ideas that underlie it. In short, we are ignorant of the basis of our government and the way that it should operate.

Working adults know that the government is too big and wastes their money and tells them lies on a regular basis. But very few people know or understand even the basic issues of contemporary politics. They do not know, for example, that the cuts proposed by the current Congress amount only to a small fraction of federal spending. They do not know that each of the Clinton budgets called for large increases in domestic spending. They do not know that the welfare system pays its typical clients more than $22,000 per year in southern California, nor that this is more than double the minimum wage.

This ignorance is neither surprising nor worrisome, except that it betokens a larger ignorance of the high purpose of and the strict limits on government in America. Because of this, we tend to work out our policies practically. We will devolve welfare to the states because "the federal system has proved that it does not work." We hardly mention that the only real entitlement is to the money we earn for ourselves, and that we have no right to anything earned by another. In this respect, we compare poorly to the generation of Americans who would not pay a tax on tea because they were not represented in the legislature that imposed it. These earlier Americans could tell you, right down to the law of nature and human equality, why that tax was wrong, and why another one might be right. They were schooled in the business of being citizens. That schooling made it possible for them to win their liberty.

Our statesmen -- even those on the Right -- do not do a sufficient job recovering this lost knowledge. None of our statesmen called the Clinton health-care plan unconstitutional. Few oppose entitlements root and branch. What are we to do?

The recent debate on Proposition 187, California's illegal-immigration initiative, suffered from this failure. Good people supported the initiative, and good people opposed it. The good people who supported the initiative, with a couple of important exceptions, did not make a case about the meaning of citizenship. They talked about denying these so-called benefits of citizenship to some who did not deserve them, without saying what most of them believe: Citizens do not deserve them, either. The good people who opposed the initiative talked a lot about equal treatment, and they said little or nothing about the beliefs and practices that constitute citizenship in America. We were left with a debate about a side issue, and the main point was lost in the whirlwind.

If statesmen cannot do the work, then we citizens -- in private life -- must do it. I would salute, for example, the conservative writings that support the regeneration of fatherhood, and the sanctity of the family, and the necessity for religion to become powerful once again in our public as well as in our private lives. It is vital to add, however, that our problems are deeply political, and their solution will require hard political action, based upon deep political reasoning and unyielding political conviction.

Although the Bureau of This or the Agency for That may not be the answer to the evils we face, we are still a profoundly political nation, and our public life is infused with political ideas. Take, for example, the recent celebration of "voluntary and local associations" as we find in the writings of Marvin Olasky or Russell Kirk or Speaker Newt Gingrich. We have turned back to Tocqueville, and we know now that American life until lately teemed with these associations and was elevated and ennobled by them. Of course we are right, in one sense, to think that these local institutions are not at all political. They have no formal constitutional place, they function apart from political action, and they exist in one form or another wherever societies are found.

Still, in America these local, prepolitical institutions had a special vitality. That vitality was nourished by the political institutions of the country. Now that those institutions have changed, the local institutions of America have diminished in strength. Major social-service charities are worried that, under block grants, they will not get as much money from the states as they have been receiving from the federal government. These same charities do not, as a rule, provide actual direct help to the poor. Rather they assist the federal government in providing those services. Here, then, are "local and voluntary institutions" that are not really local and not really voluntary. Their character has been altered by a change in national politics.

When local institutions thrived in America, they did so under the influence of a great principle at the heart of the nation's politics. According to this principle, we are equal in our rights, and not to be governed except by our consent. Our citizenship itself operates under this principle of equality, a principle announced in the first organic law of the United States. It is a principle not of local but of national scope, a principle authoritative not because it was adopted by a town or even by a country, but known to every man who is rational. In America, local and voluntary institutions operate beneath the shelter of high national principles.

Conservatives rightly think that religion should play a larger part on the public stage, for religion has been a vital component of American citizenship from the beginning. Tocqueville observed that "there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America." Liberty is vital to religion, he wrote, and religion in turn is vital to liberty:

"Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs, as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom."

But it is important to learn from the Founders about how to speak of religion. The Founders were absolutely at ease with a civic acknowledgment of the Deity and its implication for citizenship. But they spoke in the language of reason as well as of revelation. The preachers of the Revolution spoke often and strongly about morality, both in public places and in their churches. In so doing, they addressed their countrymen not as parishioners simply, but also as fellow citizens. Take for example the words of Samuel West, a preacher and a member of the convention that wrote the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780:

"The most perfect freedom consists in obeying the dictates of right reason, and submitting to natural law. When a man goes beyond or contrary to the law of nature and reason, he becomes the slave of base passions and vile lusts; he introduces confusion and disorder into society, and brings misery and destruction upon himself. This, therefore, cannot be called a state of freedom, but a state of the vilest slavery and the most dreadful bondage. The servants of sin and corruption are subjected to the worst kind of tyranny in the universe. Hence we conclude that where licentiousness begins, liberty ends."

If we wish to emulate our Founders in our efforts to restore religion to the public square, we must do it in this way. This way is stronger than the appeal many religious conservatives put in its place today. It is stronger because it makes its claims upon an argument and evidence that applies to all, and not only those who are blessed with faith in the person of their Maker. While it supports that faith, and lays the ground for it, this way begins with reason, the faculty that perceives the natural law -- the basis of citizenship in our Founding.

The Founders were also conscious of the limitations citizenship places on religion. Consider the words of George Washington in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island:

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."

Religious liberty, Washington argued, is central to the American conception of citizenship. American citizenship is open to people of any faith or creed. Liberty -- the freedom to use one's property, to pray to one's God, to speak one's mind -- sets a limit upon politics that is inviolable.

At the same time, the basis of liberty sets a limit upon something more than politics. It sets a limit also upon what properly may be called religion. Religion is free in America from all oppression, and yet those who practice it must live under a political guideline. They must "demean themselves as good citizens." Nor is this standard simply a negative or passive requirement. Citizens must give their country "on all occasions their effectual support."

Citizenship, then, provides a standard against which religion itself must be measured. True enough, citizens may be exempted from military service if their religion requires it, yet the rules of justice that underlie citizenship can be enforced even in the face of a claim of religious protection. If, for example, the Davidians at Waco had been abusing their children, even if they were doing so in the name of God, then the use of force to extract those children would have been justified.

One "cannot say that people have a right to do wrong," said Abraham Lincoln, that great student of the Declaration and the Founders. If we know what is right, then we may with justice require right from others under the law. We may with justice expect a man who pledges his faith to a woman to keep that faith, a man who fathers a child to provide for that child, a man who is a citizen to fight for his country. The country is on the side of the citizen who does his duty. It belongs to that citizen; he and his fellows are sovereign in it. In return for their liberty, which the government does not give them but helps them to protect, they have obligations that they are bound to discharge.

I have described the attentive and pliable citizen who is the hallmark and aim of the modern, liberal regime. Another kind of citizen is implied in the heritage that comes to us from our forefathers. This is a citizenship that responds to the bidding of the natural law and human equality. Americans take up more space, speak more directly, and stand their ground more assertively than people in most other places. An American is more likely to start a business, to give to charity, and to care for his community.

Such a citizen has been shaped by hammer blows and the sting of the sword. These were the blows of the American Revolution and the wars that have come since. They were fought in the name of a faith and a creed that applies to all and is at the same time special to us. Winston Churchill, the son of an American mother, regarded the American people as the new great people of the earth, standing beside the Greeks and the Romans and the British among the leaders of mankind. When he cited the great documents that have secured the liberties of the English-speaking peoples, he did it on the Fourth of July. He named the Declaration of Independence as the greatest of them all, knowing full well that it covered all men, whatever tongue they spoke.

If private action is to do its job again in our country, it must not be seen as a private realm alone. Uniquely in our country, the rules that guide a private citizen, as he cares for his family, and works at his job, and serves his community, are the same rules that inspire the form and purpose of government. For that reason, the restoration of the private realm to its full vitality and decency requires the recovery of the ideas that form the basis for our politics. We must once again hold certain truths to be self-evident. We must meet the challenge that those truths lay before us.