Our American government was founded on the ideal of res publia, the republic. History is filled with earnest attempts to create this ideal—Athens, Sparta, Rome—all of which served America’s founders as the intellectual backdrop for a true new world order. The original conception of a classical republic held public virtue in highest esteem. Rulers, magistrates, and officeholders were to be disinterested (not uninterested) players in government. In other words, political leaders were to set aside personal interests, whether parochial, professional, or business, and seek the best interests of the state or community in which they served. They were to be statesmen. Government service for personal gain was seen as immoral and lacking virtue, as was constituentism in any form. This was the ideal.
This ideal was inseparably connected to the practical benefits of liberty and virtue. Men dependent upon the graces, mercies, finances, and greed of others—not to mention the compounding of dependency caused by their own uncontrolled appetites—were unworthy of public trust. Public servants were to be independent of influence peddlers and, hence, at liberty to govern for the commonwealth. This prerequisite did not disqualify businessmen or any other group of men with commercial interests from public service. The essential quality of independence, although an important factor, was not necessarily of a material nature; rather it was more particularly moral. Classical republicanism held that fallen man could refine his nature to an exceptional degree, morally elevating himself to a level at which he could actually function independent of special interests and personal gain.
Now imagine the collective nature required of the electorate if this were the criteria for officeholders. Could they be any less virtuous or disinterested? Both the real strength and weakness of republican government is that it requires a moral citizenry. Its entire constitutional structure hangs on the virtue of its citizens. In fact, in ancient republics only “virtuous” people were allowed to be citizens. Certainly slaves could not be citizens. Neither could charlatans, drunkards, prisoners, or debtors. Who could trust any of these types with the future of a nation?
Of course, all of this high-mindedness was excused, if not expressly then conveniently ignored, almost immediately after its public enunciation due to the real nature of fallen man. For all their rhetoric, each ancien regime was soon corrupt and, even if later, fallen like its people. Even so, the ideal of a republic has captivated minds for centuries, not the least of which were the minds of our Founding Fathers.
Benjamin Franklin expressed it well when someone asked him what type of government we had in this new land, and he said “a republic if you can keep it.” In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” And George Washington was equally eloquent when he stated in his Farewell Address that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” It was the same George Washington who, in his First Inaugural Address, renounced “every pecuniary compensation” in the name of public virtue and republican government.
Understanding that the ideal of a republic permeated America’s infant political structures can help shed light on many of our modern civil contentions. Take the right to vote. Children taught civics today may very well take universal suffrage for granted, and yet not long ago voting was limited to a privileged few—to those classes viewed as disinterested; that is, their moral standing (largely determined by temporal holdings) allowed them to remain aloof of special interests so as to maintain the common good. Today such civil restrictions are generally viewed as the result of gross elitism and class distinctions of the worst kind.
Even if antirepublican special interests have been victorious to date, the rhetoric of republican government is still with us in various sickly shades and hues. Consider the decorum of Congress, which mandates that colleagues address each other as the “distinguished gentleman” and “my esteemed friend.” Perhaps we think that if we say it enough, it might come true. Even further, examine the reputation of lawyers in our society. While Roman lawyers such as Cicero were once held in high esteem, our Founding Fathers suspected this “genteel profession” to a degree that remains with us today. They were seen by the Founders as parasites on society practicing a “groveling, mercenary trade” and incapable of participating in good government. Big businessmen were seen in a similar light. Nearly all of our instinctive suspicions regarding a variety of professions are a result of America’s deep attraction to the ideal of republican government. To this day we still suspect somewhat the shaky backgrounds and complex financial dealings of individuals seeking to govern us.
The clearest evidence that republican government no longer exists in America is the size of government itself. If public servants are to be disinterested and removed from the selfish demands of special interests seeking favors, then surely one way of measuring their success at remaining aloof is by looking at the size, nature, and scope of government. Fortunately, for the purposes of a relatively short article we do not need a microscope to exact a measurement of our current standing. Millions of federal employees, tens of thousands of congressional staff, volumes of regulatory morass, years of backlogged court cases, trillion-dollar debts, an entrenched welfare state, cradle-to-grave intrusions, and marbled halls dripping with corruption are but a few examples. Not only does public virtue barely exist, there are few incentives for it ever to flourish again! In fact, it could be reasonably argued that public virtue existed in America only for brief moments, at our nation’s inception and perhaps at a few other times, and that ever since each new day has brought its further diminishment.
In our failure to maintain the republic envisioned by our Founding Fathers, we have established a politics of self-justification and have elevated it beyond cult status to a point where it has become a sign of American patriotism—to suggest that any other way of governing ourselves exists is out of touch with reality and distinctly un-American.
The essential ingredients of this status are (1) the absence of truth or any real accountability or responsibility combined with (2) an ever-present reassurance that, though mortal, we are basically a good and decent people.
One practical illustration of the politics of self-justification is the modern welfare state. Our American system of government-provided welfare is founded upon the “moral” imperative to assist those in need regardless of their circumstances. In fact, to assess a person’s circumstances, such as the reason he ended up needing assistance or alternatives to government help, is considered highly offensive, insensitive, and a disregard for humanity. Displays of compassion are to be unconditional, our compliant assistance mandatory, in such a system. We entered this extreme realm, as we always do, in our desire to cover our sins. We make mistakes and, not wanting to admit we are wrong and repent, we establish a social infrastructure to relieve us from their natural consequences. We have moved beyond the exercise and innate benefits of pure and undefiled religion to actually removing public incentives to be responsible, industrious, cautious, patient, and, above all, moral. We spend countless billions of dollars every year on idolatry in our quixotic quest to repeal the Fall absent the Atonement.
Another illustration of the self-justification practiced by our decayed society is sex education in the public schools. The underlying premise at work here is that all children will have sex regardless of what any of us adults do or say, so we might as well fortify them with instructions on how to avoid the pitfalls of illicit sexual relations. Of course, not all children fit this model. But a larger point is that many children have sexual relations out of wedlock precisely because of what we adults do and say! Liberal parents create radical children—or more precisely, unrepentant parents create unrepentant children—and what better way to insulate parental guilt than by establishing sexual promiscuity as some inherent human quality? We certainly see this pattern in other aspects of our culture. Alcoholism, drug addiction, violent behavior, homosexuality, male promiscuity, and female emotional imbalances are just a few maladies wc try to excuse as the result of genetics or hormones.
Maybe the best example is the Congress of the United States where, in great and spacious buildings, the politics of self-justification have been refined into a multi-trillion-dollar industry. As semper fi is to Marines, “tax, spend, and elect” is to Congress. When political charlatans threw off the confining shackles of limited government once and for all during the New Deal, they soon deduced just how easy the task of buying votes became. Congressmen were more than happy to console dysfunctional families and anesthetize them from the devastations of parental inattention and folly, as well as the toll from government intervention in the economy, to get themselves reelected to a cushy job with no heavy lifting. One glance at C-SPAN provides more than ample evidence that flimflammery is still in session and flourishing. Note how they posture, what they debate, and how they are all so glad to be part of such a distinguished body. You might soon forget that they produce nothing in society except managed chaos, empty pocketbooks, and hot air. But they, like everyone else who pretends to an earthly throne, know what is best for us—while we are more than happy to let them govern our lives. What is the price of slavery compared to the joy we find in self-justification for wrongdoing?
Public virtue, collectively speaking, is gone, yet it remains the key to a successful republic. Without it there is no hope of success. Without it there is no more America as it was once envisioned. We might as well call it something else. In fact, finding a new identity for ourselves seems to be a national pastime. Because there is no public virtue without personal virtue, the real answer to our national woes, fears, and identity crisis is found within each of us. It is man’s search for happiness. It begins with the acceptance of what we used to call self-evident truths. It leads each of us to examine our lives honestly and then to make changes where necessary. It requires us to move off of comfortable plateaus, to sacrifice process for substance, and to do courageously anything necessary to remain free and “disinterested.”