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On Self-Government

Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Families, congregations, and civic associations are
America’s most important "schools of liberty."
The progressive project threatens them all

In his breathtaking new book, A History of the American People, English historian Paul Johnson writes, "The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures. . . . The great American republican experiment . . . is still the first, best hope for the human race" and "will not disappoint an expectant humanity."

It is often noted that outside observers of the American experiment tend to express a more profound appreciation for the remarkable achievements of our nation’s Founders than we do ourselves. Burke and Talleyrand, Gladstone and Tocqueville, Thatcher and Maritain have all marveled at the truth of a proposition that, before the exceptional birth of freedom here, had been considered at best problematic: that the people have the capacity to govern themselves.

Following this well-trodden path, but with a somber note of caution, is Pope John Paul II. When Lindy Boggs, the newly designated U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, recently came to present her credentials, John Paul took the occasion to remind her that our great experiment in self-government left America with a "far-reaching responsibility, not only for the well-being of its own people, but for the development and destiny of peoples throughout the world."

John Paul then embarked upon an eloquent review of the fundamental principles upon which American self-government is based. The Founding Fathers, he noted, "asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain ‘self-evident’ truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by ‘nature’s God.’ Thus they meant to bring into being, not just an independent territory, but a great experiment in what George Washington called ‘ordered liberty’: an experiment in which men and women would enjoy equality of rights and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness and in service to the common good."

It was outrageous enough, to contemporary sensibilities, for John Paul to connect self-government to the notion of eternal human attributes implanted by God. But he then went further, suggesting that self-government did not imply simply freedom to live as one wishes, but rather the capacity to fulfill one’s duties and responsibilities toward family and toward the common good of the community. The Founding Fathers, he noted, "clearly understood that there could be no true freedom without moral responsibility and accountability, and no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others."

In this remarkable discourse, John Paul identified several critical features of American self-government: that it is rooted in a view of human nature governed by self-evident truths that are fixed forever in the human person by "nature’s God"; that the political consequence of human truth is an irrefutable case for self-government, so long as our freedom is shaped and ordered by moral and civic virtue; and that we come to be fully human, fully moral, and fully free only within "natural units or groupings"—family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary association—which we form to pursue the higher purposes of life.

The Two Meanings of Self-Government

How does this sophisticated understanding of self-government compare with our own understanding at home? Ours, I regret to say, tends to be a rather superficial, political view. Self-government to us means simply doing whatever we, collectively as citizens, choose to do.

But we see in John Paul’s message a second and more substantial understanding of self-government—that it must mean, as well, our capacities as individuals for personal self-mastery, for reflection, restraint, and moral action. And here is the critical, uncomfortable fact: In a well-ordered republic, government of the self is necessary for government of society to work.

The authors of the Federalist Papers are famed for their clear-eyed assessment of the weaknesses of human nature and their careful arrangement of governing institutions to minimize those flaws. James Madison nevertheless wrote in Federalist No. 55 that "as there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form." [Emphasis added.] If people were as bad as some opponents of the Constitution said, he wrote, "the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government."

A people deficient in moral restraint or civic virtue, Madison understood, could not long govern itself; unbounded human passions would finally tear the republic to pieces. Utterly undisciplined peoples are not fit for self-government, he insisted, but require "nothing less than the chains of despotism [to] restrain them from destroying or devouring one another."

Cultivating Self-Government

But how are American citizens to acquire the moral self-mastery required for self-government? To be sure, the Founders did not suppose that their new government would seek directly to inculcate those virtues in its citizens. Rather, as Federalist No. 55 suggests, American self-government "presupposes" moral self-mastery. Here again, John Paul’s remarks help us understand what this means.

Not only does freedom mean moral responsibility, he insisted, but there can be "no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others." Alongside the formal and artificial constructs of American government, in other words, there stand certain "natural units or groupings," such as family, church, neighborhood, and voluntary association, that are responsible for the full development of human character through rigorous and sustained moral and civic education.

It was precisely the great efflorescence of these natural groupings in America that Alexis de Tocqueville understood to be the key to the perpetuity of our free and democratic political and social institutions. For they take into their bosom the unformed child and, through tireless repetition and reinforcement of the same moral lessons over a lifetime, slowly forge a morally responsible human being. They serve as the first and most important "schools of liberty," introducing the morally self-governed individual to the broader public rights and responsibilities of the self-governing republican citizen.

It probably never occurred to the Founders that the centrality of such presupposed, bedrock civil institutions could be forgotten or neglected. But we are now nearing the end of a century that has shown anything but "respect and support" for the institutions of civil society that undergird our noble experiment in self-government.

How did we arrive at this parlous state of affairs? How could it be that we require instruction from a spiritual leader from abroad on our own nation’s political underpinnings—on the apparently forgotten importance of moral self-mastery and civic virtue to self-government?

The Legacy of Progressivism

For this, we may thank American progressive liberalism and its ambitious quest over the past century to build a great "national community." Perhaps the most eloquent and forceful formulation of this quest is to be found in Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life (1909). Croly called for the creation of a genuine national community, a far-flung family of millions whose members would be bonded tightly by feelings of compassion and neighborliness.

In Croly’s words, there would be a "subordination of the individual to the demand of a dominant and constructive national purpose." A citizen would begin to "think first of the State and next of himself," and "individuals of all kinds will find their most edifying individual opportunities in serving their country." Indeed, America would come to be bound together by a "religion of human brotherhood," which "can be realized only through the loving-kindness which individuals feel . . . particularly toward their fellow-countrymen." To preach this new religion of national brotherhood, we would require a powerful, articulate president—"some democratic evangelist, some imitator of Jesus."

What, then, becomes of all those countless petty, parochial, partial communities of family, neighborhood, and local association? Why, we must transfer their authority and responsibilities upward, to a powerful, centralized national government, which will embody and develop the national community.

Does not this transfer of authority away from civic institutions undermine them, and thereby erode the foundations of civic virtue? Of course it does, but progressive liberalism never entrusted the fate of its grand project to ordinary citizens and their presupposed civic virtue. Rather, the governance of the new national community was to be in the hands of trained, professional elites schooled in this century’s new sciences of society.

The new, omnipotent social sciences taught that public affairs could now be rooted firmly in objective and statistical facts gathered by researchers, turned into public policy by centralized, nonpartisan, often unelected public agents operating at considerable remove from the untutored opinions of the toiling masses, and executed by "scientific managers" organized systematically into vast, bureaucratic pyramids.

The American republic would no longer require civic virtue from the ordinary citizen, nor moral and civic training by the natural groupings. It would require only the scientific expertise of its trained, governing elites. Indeed, civic virtue, insofar as it rested on a view of man as a religious being, was not only unnecessary in the new national community, but downright noxious. Religion, characterized by so many benighted and retrograde sects and schisms, tended to divide and distract the popular sensibility that enlightened science was now trying to harness to coherent, rational public projects.

If self-government, understood politically, no longer required civic virtue, what of self-government understood morally, as the self-mastery required for the full enjoyment of freedom? Clearly, the progressive social sciences raised serious questions about the need for any such self-mastery. Science had come to understand that human nature is not rooted in certain self-evident truths fixed by "nature’s God," because there is no nature and there is no God.

And so the self is foolish if it continues to submit its pleasures and passions to entirely mythic natural or divine norms, or to steer by the now obviously arbitrary rules of families, neighborhoods, and churches. Far better if the passions are given full and free play, to serve as guideposts in the self’s new and daunting task of expressing or creating itself, in the face of a relativistic and contingent universe.

In this dispensation, the most important—indeed, virtually the only—political virtue becomes absolute tolerance of the myriad forms of self-expression. Since the self is by nature nothing, self-government means to be governed by nothing. Anything goes; the only sin is judgment.

If judgment is sin, however, the new regime of tolerance is soon discovered to be massively intolerant in one crucial respect: It cannot abide the presence or the open public participation of those who base their views on an idea of absolute truth, especially religious truth. Emptied of any moral content, of any deluded notion about moral self-mastery, self-government is now to be understood only in the most superficial political sense, as the power of the majority to do what it wills, indifferent to notions of right and wrong.

Small wonder that Pope John Paul believed it necessary to issue this warning to Ambassador Boggs, after his discussion of our founding principles: "It would be a sad thing if the religious and moral convictions upon which the American experiment was founded could now somehow be considered a danger to free society, such that those who would bring these convictions to bear upon your nation’s public life would be denied a voice in debating and resolving issues of public policy."

Progressive Politics Today

We might think that the new progressive republic would be profoundly repellent to the average American. But if we are to prepare ourselves to challenge the progressive republic, then we must first understand fully its enormous and corrosive appeal. To be sure, the citizen is asked to forgo engagement in the everyday affairs of his immediate community. But that was a great hassle, anyway. Now he may sit back, relax, and express his idiosyncratic self, with none to judge him. Experts are always available and eager to take over the responsibilities of community affairs, at which they profess to be more adept. Even something as seemingly personal as family responsibilities can—and if we listen to the experts, should—be turned over to day-care workers, family therapists, and teachers. After all, it takes a professionally credentialed, therapeutic village to raise a child.

None of this, of course, will be presented to the citizen as a loss of freedom. Instead, it will be explained that government is simply supplying the goods and services necessary for the citizen to achieve his full potential, to express himself ever more freely, having been relieved by government of the inhibiting responsibilities of caring for family and community.

To be sure, the moment may come when the individual finds idiosyncratic self-expression to be too lonely or too demanding, even with the therapeutic state providing the material and psychological wherewithal. But the warm, comforting bosom of the national community always beckons, promising the lonely self a renewed sense of purpose, belonging, and membership. The late Robert Nisbet explained more eloquently than anyone the paradoxical but nonetheless direct link between modernity’s full liberation of the individual self, and the self’s subsequent eagerness to be reabsorbed into the modern state’s great community once it realizes just how alone in the cosmos it truly is.

"Dependent Individualism"

To appreciate some of the real and immediate dangers posed by the progressive republic, we may examine a realistic portrait of what our republic might look like under the most comprehensive implementation of progressivism’s vision. The picture is provided by Fred Siegel’s splendid book, The Future Once Happened Here (1997), which surveys the recent history of New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., the three great American urban centers where liberalism has enjoyed its most long-lasting and secure grasp on the levers of public policy.

So what do we find? The radical politics of the 1960s, Siegel notes, introduced to New York City in particular a philosophy of what he calls "dependent individualism." Government elites expanded their regulatory reach into every corner of the city’s economy, he noted, slowly strangling free and productive economic activity. At the same time, liberalism "looked to judicially minted individual rights to undermine the traditions of social and self-restraint so as to liberate the individual from conventional mores." Self-liberation soon precipitated the utter collapse of natural groupings like the family, neighborhood, and community. The result was not a liberated utopia, but explosions of crime, welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, and a host of other pathologies.

The only beneficiary of this wholesale collapse was, as he puts it, the "state-supported economy of social workers and other members of the ‘caring professions,’ who, whatever their good intentions, came to live off the personal failings of the big cities’ dependent populations." With the tax base shrinking and the multitude of government-supported dependents and their "helpers" growing, New York City—once the liveliest and most energetic metropolis in the world—had by the 1980s become a lifeless and anoxic swamp of human dysfunction, saddled with an enormous and inefficient government it could no longer afford.

Can we not catch in this gloomy portrait a glimpse of our nation’s future under progressive liberalism? Is it not time that we draw the necessary conclusions from this experiment with "dependent individualism"? For surely by now we see that the project of liberation from the natural groupings of family and community is immediately responsible for the social pathologies that have come to plague us as a nation.

Once invited in, the service providers eagerly expand the definition of treatable trauma, making the self ever more acutely aware of the burdens imposed upon our personal creativity by other human beings—especially parents, spouses, and children. The therapeutic state, in turn, insists on absorbing yet more authority and function from society’s repressive natural groupings, eroding them still further.

That this process leads to an ever more expensive and meddlesome "nanny state" is, in some respects, the least of our problems. The far graver threat is that we permit ourselves gradually to come under the thrall of the benevolent, professional governing elites. In our moral and spiritual debasement, we relinquish all claim to self-government in even the most immediate and basic aspects of our lives. We become less and less capable of even minimal levels of productive human endeavor, to say nothing of civic activity.

By now many readers will have heard echoes of the famous passage in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, in which he struggles to describe the "species of oppression" most likely to menace democratic society in the modern age. Its way is prepared when all the natural groupings that once drew the individual into active association with others have disappeared, and he now "exists only in himself and for himself alone." Above this idiosyncratic self-creator will rise "an immense and tutelary" power, a power that is "absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild." For its citizens this benevolent government "willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry. . . . What remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the care of living?" This all-encompassing power "does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals of which government is the shepherd."

Signs of Civic Vitality

As we ponder this depressing but prescient portrait of America as a nation of timid sheep, we ask ourselves: Is there to be found no sign of hope, no glimmer of discontent or unrest, no hint of spirited rebellion against such a degrading state of affairs? Happily, there is. I am pleased to report that, in the schools and neighborhoods of inner-city Milwaukee, a great citizen insurrection is even now underway, known as parental choice in education.

Over the past decade, more and more of Milwaukee’s inner-city parents have decided that they’ve had enough of sophisticated education methods that teach their children to be spontaneously creative, but that have somehow neglected to teach them to read and write. They’ve had enough of the public schools’ "enlightened," uninhibited moral atmosphere, which leaves their children helplessly exposed to the creative self-expression of drug dealers and armed thugs. They’ve had enough of teachers and counselors who tell them, if they complain about their children’s failure to flourish in these chaotic, liberated classrooms, that their children suffer from some arcane learning disability or pathology—requiring, of course, consignment to a government-subsidized therapeutic program.

When these parents try politically to challenge this system within their school, they rapidly discover that education is perhaps that segment of American life most assiduously organized according to the progressive science of management. Lines of accountability run ever upward and away from the neighborhood school, through layers upon layers of bureaucrats, to distant centers of power inhabited exclusively by insulated, arrogant professional elites.

With the help of privately and publicly funded vouchers, low-income parents all over Milwaukee are opting out of progressivism’s school system. Many of them are turning instead to schools that believe the human self is less something to be expressed than to be shaped or molded, its impulses brought firmly under the tutelage of rigorous moral and religious doctrines. In these schools, hallways are quiet and classrooms orderly, because they are disciplined moral communities. Expectations for performance and behavior are elaborate and demanding, precisely the sort of "repressive" atmosphere that progressivism disdains. Students are treated with utmost respect even, or especially, when being disciplined, because they are understood to be responsible and accountable creatures of God, endowed with all the dignity the Founders believed every American citizen to possess. Although the schools reflect a variety of moral and religious traditions, they share a commitment to the education of self-governing citizens who are both morally self-disciplined and able to participate knowledgeably in the governance of the community and the republic. The schools, in turn, are centers of the surrounding community’s public life and commitment to citizenship.

In short, having come face to face with the human devastation wrought by progressivism’s program of self-liberation and management by insulated elites, parents instinctively turn back to institutions that reflect the divinely inscribed and eternal character of human nature, that understand freedom to require moral self-mastery, and that root the child securely in at least one natural grouping that nurtures him and prepares him for a productive role in family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary association.

Inspired by this courageous uprising against the social service state, we at the Lynde and Bradley Foundation have begun to look around the country for similar indications of civic vitality in our inner-city neighborhoods. And we find them everywhere. In city after city, grass-roots groups have grown weary of waiting for some progressive expert to arrive and undo the damage inflicted upon their neighborhoods by progressive self-liberation. Borrowing from Tocqueville’s art of association, they begin to form neighborhood patrols to suppress crime and gang warfare, community facilities to care for the young and the elderly, programs to reclaim the drug- and alcohol-addicted, housing agencies to construct low-cost housing, and community development corporations to bring economic vitality back to the city.

The Bradley Foundation hopes to spread those convictions, and thereby stimulate similar initiatives, in other communities throughout the nation. We call this program the "new citizenship."

At the heart of these initiatives is the belief that it’s time for Americans to stop regarding themselves as passive, helpless clients of the bureaucratic social-service state and start thinking of themselves once again as proud, self-reliant citizens, capable of running their own affairs. But this requires the restoration of the idea of self-government in its older, more comprehensive sense of personal and moral self-mastery. It is no surprise that a great many effective community efforts are faith-based, with the summons to moral self-mastery rooted in a view of human nature as governed by certain "self-evident truths" planted therein by a real and benevolent God. Only a human being confident of the eternal truth inscribed in his soul will be able to resist, not only the call of the streets, but also the subtle allure of dependency upon the state.

New citizenship initiatives remain the best way to instill the moral habits of self-mastery in the child through constant repetition and reinforcement, and are also the main schools for teaching civic responsibility and accountability. To help reinvigorate these critical civic institutions, a new citizenship must reverse progressivism’s transfer of authority and function to centralized state bureaucracies. Only if civic institutions once again have substantial and meaningful functions to perform will they be able to serve as effective teachers of citizenship skills and civic virtue. Decentralization alone will not automatically lead to a revival of civic virtue; it is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition thereof.

Will a New Citizenship Spread?

But will the larger audience of Americans, those in the comfortable middle class who have not experienced so tangibly the failure of progressivism, heed the message of the new citizenship? After all, such Americans are themselves the recipients—and, in many cases, the suppliers—of a vast range of services offered or mandated by the therapeutic state. In short, is there any likelihood that the renewed idea of self-government could become the basis of a major citizens’ movement among Americans at large, or will it be contained in isolated pockets of the nation and ultimately strangled?

Just over two decades ago, many Americans were asking themselves this same despairing question as we faced humiliation abroad and double-digit inflation and run-away growth in government at home. The establishments of both major political parties had long since resigned themselves to this state of affairs, so Americans gradually became accustomed to dramatically diminished expectations. Of course Big Government was bloated and inefficient; of course Big Government spent and taxed too much; but, of course, Big Government was here to stay.

But then, up from Dixon, Illinois, via Sacramento, California, came a political figure almost unanimously ridiculed by the political and intellectual elites of both parties. In late September 1975, he gave a speech entitled "Let the People Rule," in which he boldly attacked the federal government’s "collectivist, centralizing approach" to our problems. "Thousands of towns and neighborhoods," he said, "have seen their peace disturbed by bureaucrats and social planners, through busing, questionable education programs, and attacks on family unity." The speaker seconded liberal Richard Goodwin’s view that "the most troubling political fact of our age [is that] the growth in central power has been accompanied by a swift and continual diminution in significance of the individual citizen, transforming him from a wielder into an object of authority."

And then the speaker issued this stirring summons:

"I am calling for an end to giantism, for a return to the human scale—the scale that human beings can understand and cope with; the scale of the local fraternal lodge, the church congregation, the block club, the farm bureau. It is the locally owned factory, the small businessman who personally deals with his customers and stands behind his product, the farm and consumer cooperative, the town or neighborhood. . . . It is this activity on a small, human scale that creates the fabric of community, a framework for the creation of abundance and liberty. The human scale nurtures standards of right behavior, a prevailing ethic of what is right and what is wrong, acceptable and unacceptable."

The speaker, of course, was Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California. His speech laid the theoretical foundations for his landslide presidential victory in 1980, and guided this century’s first serious effort to trim federal programs and to reinvigorate our nation’s states and civic institutions. As he explained in his first Inaugural Address, President Reagan simply refused to share progressivism’s view "that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government of, by, and for the people."

Why did the American people, including vast portions of the comfortable middle class, respond to President Reagan’s summons to renew our commitment to self-government and moral self-mastery within our "human scale" communities? I suspect it’s because we understand in our bones that these commitments are somehow fundamental to us as a people—they make us who we are. Once the choices are made clear to us, as they always were by President Reagan, then we will always choose self-evident truth, civic virtue, and civil society’s natural groupings over the bribes of the progressive elites, no matter how generous the social services or seductive the self-liberation. The only time we seem to choose otherwise is when the choices are not made clear to us—when, say, a progressive candidate for president creates a new persona just in time for the election that appears to stand precisely for these traditional American principles.

The Enduring Struggle for Self-Government

Perhaps, more broadly, it is the defining American experience periodically to revisit this struggle between self-government and civic virtue, on the one hand, and comfortable materialism and moral cynicism, on the other. Engaging in that struggle, in moments of crisis, may well be the way we come to rededicate ourselves to certain enduring propositions at the heart of our great nation. That was certainly the consequence of the greatest struggle over our national soul, a critical chapter of which unfolded in that famous political contest between Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.

Drawing on historian Harry Jaffa’s brilliant recreation of the arguments in that 1858 Senate campaign, we recall that Senator Douglas faced the great moral question of his time, the issue of chattel slavery, and famously pronounced that he "[doesn’t] care whether it is voted up or down." Douglas was a proponent of today’s hollow, contemporary view of self-government, defined simply as the morally indifferent "competence of the people to decide all questions, including those of right and wrong," as Jaffa notes. In fact, any discussion about absolute right and wrong, any appeal to trans-majoritarian moral values, actually endangered democratic government, in his view, only fueling the fury of moral extremists.

Happily, Lincoln understood the long-term moral effect of slavery on American self-government and denounced Douglas’s views as contrary to the principled understanding bequeathed us by the Founders. There are certain divinely inspired "self-evident truths" embedded in the Declaration, he insisted, according to which slavery was unequivocally "a moral, social, and political wrong." And by that fixed moral standard we must firmly guide our conduct if we are to remain free.

To do otherwise—to act as if the Declaration’s truth did not exist—was not only to leave slaves to their bondage. It was also to deny the possibility of self-government for anyone anywhere, he understood. If there are no rights of liberty and equality accruing to man as a matter of irreducible moral principle, then any one of us is subject to being enslaved to the man whose self-interest or passion may so incline him, and whose force of self-expression is greater than ours.

Thus, Jaffa writes, Lincoln professed that he "hated" Douglas’s position, because "it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting there is no right principle of action but self-interest."

Do we not find in Abraham Lincoln’s views the definitive response to those who argue that self-government means simply majority will? To those who would deny the idea of self-government’s moral foundation in self-evident truths, and would drive moral discourse from our politics?

As we face today’s confusions and misconstructions about the American principle of self-government, it may be comforting for us to look back at the great contest between Lincoln and Douglas, finding there the assurance that this is by no means the first generation of Americans—nor will it be the last—to be tempted by wrong-headed and relativistic understandings of what self-government means. Even more should we be comforted by the realization that in that great moment of testing nearly a century and a half ago, we Americans had the wisdom and the courage to decide the issue of self-government aright.

And so today, when progressivism says to us that there is no nature’s God, and so no divinely inscribed "self-evident truths" in the human soul, let us reply that without such truths, there is no sure foundation for human freedom and self-government. When progressivism insists that the human being is utterly free to create or express himself without limits, let us reply that "there can be no moral freedom without moral responsibility and accountability," and no political freedom without civic virtue. When progressivism insists that family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary association are parochial and repressive constraints on our self-expression, let us reply that only through such institutions can we as free people "exist, develop, and seek the higheer purposes of life in concert with others," and come to a proper understanding and practice of self-government.

With our past as the foundation of our hope, let us embrace this new struggle over the meaning of self-government, as the means by which we may once again refresh our flagging spirits at the wellsprings of our national character. Not daring, at such a critical moment, to rely solely upon our own arguments and devices, let us join Pope John Paul II in his prayer that "our country will experience a new birth of freedom, freedom grounded in truth and ordered to goodness."