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Feature 09.06.2022 5 minutes

The Work of Virtue

USSR

A free republic depends on citizens who can take their prosperity into their own hands.

Mark T. Mitchell has written a book that addresses the specter haunting our decayed and decaying American republic. The title of the book gives that specter an apt name: “plutocratic socialism.” This two-headed creature combines the worst of an imperious oligarchy with the illusions of a socialism that is at once paternalistic, woke, and despotic. The principles of our republic remain admirable and choice-worthy, to be sure, but their presence in our common life has become attenuated with each passing day. The soul of our great republic has become hollowed out, because we have lost touch with the virtues that animate responsible citizenship in a free society.

More fundamentally, we have lost an appreciation of self-government in the most capacious sense of the term. The plentiful rights guaranteed by our constitutional order (and by “Nature and Nature’s God”) too often degenerate into excuses for self-destructive hedonism, veering inconsistently between impulsive self-assertion and debilitating passivity. As Mitchell persuasively argues, rights must be accompanied by the self-limitation that makes political liberty—what Aristotle called “ruling and being ruled”—possible and sustainable. There can be no self-government in the political sense without the governance of the self, and some self-conscious effort to put order in the human soul. Here the classics, Christians, and the American founders have more in common than we sometimes realize. Despite their elevation of rights as the central political category, the founders never broke with the Great Tradition’s understanding that “statecraft is inescapably soulcraft,” to cite the old locution of a more conservative George F. Will.

The subtitle of Mitchell’s book points less to a solution than toward a salutary way forward against the contemporary plutocratic trinity of wealth, wokeness, and “expertise” as supreme titles to rule. In some sense, the path forward lies in the diagnosis of the malady. The plutocracy described by Mitchell in his book is both arrogant and self-righteous, and more or less contemptuous of the old middle-class virtues. Our new elites have substituted ideologically-charged political correctness for self-restraint and moral virtue. They are content to buy off the polloi with an array of welfare state benefits and technological goodies that do nothing to foster thoughtful citizenship or moral responsibility. As Mitchell says so well, “The plutocrats will anxiously dole out enough baubles to keep the citizens distracted, enough services to blunt the despair, and enough fear-mongering to keep them cowering all in an effort to prevent the socialist continuum from playing out to its logical conclusion,” which is the evisceration of political liberty and moral responsibility altogether. Mitchell therefore points in the opposite direction, toward the resuscitation of a middle-class republic, one “characterized by the ownership of property” where “citizens possess both the power to govern themselves and the virtues necessary to do so.” Like Madison (see his 1792 essay “on Property” and assorted writings) and more contemporary authors such as Wilhelm Röpke and Christopher Lasch, Mitchell sees grave dangers in both ideological assaults on private property, and the undue concentration of wealth. But, dissenting from some strains of thought on the New Right (especially integralism and the mixture of moral traditionalism with para-Marxism in evidence at the on-line journal Compact), he sees no salvation in socialism of any kind. He forthrightly proclaims that “plutocratic socialism energized by a woke agenda of race ideology and climate hysteria is not a path to liberation but to certain degradation and bondage.” About that, Mitchell is surely right.

The excerpt from Mitchell’s book the editors of The American Mind have chosen to highlight eloquently makes Mitchell’s case for property, properly understood. Mitchell begins by providing a short but accurate précis on the meaning of virtue as understood by the classical Christian tradition and, in a somewhat attenuated or abbreviated form, by the American founders themselves. This tradition also affirms the indispensability of virtue to self-government. To be sure, the founders were “modern” to the extent that they relied on institutional structures and a full array of “auxiliary precautions” (familiar to the readers of the Federalist) to keep despotism in check in a large extended commercial republic. But Madison himself made clear in Federalist #55 that republican government presupposes virtue more than any other form of government. The founders surely presupposed it. They wanted to encourage it, however, not through a despotism of virtue (which could lead to terror à la Robespierre), but indirectly through the broad encouragement of civic spirit and religious faith, and through the cultivation of the moral sense inherent in human beings and of the middling virtues necessary for free human beings and citizens to live in civic concord. As Mitchell ably shows, a certain understanding of the connection between property and virtue was necessary to this morally serious, if decidedly non-utopian, political vision.

One of Mitchell’s core insights is to correct an undue emphasis on the place that sheer acquisitiveness plays in the political economy of liberal republicanism. Neither Mitchell nor the founders he appeals to see wealth as a moral problem per se. Mitchell suggests that Christ’s jarring assertion goes both ways: if the poor will always be with us, then so will the wealthy. And poverty per se, in the socio-economic sense of the term, is not coextensive with virtue. Mitchell thoughtfully reminds us that property ownership can be conducive to self-government precisely because it teaches us “the wisdom of limits,” through economic enterprise well conducted and the proper use of what we own. The creativity inherent in the use of what belongs to us is not infinite, since possibility is always accompanied by restraints and limits.

Private property thus encourages what we might call the middle-class virtues, rooted in a wisdom tied to responsibility and self-control. Even an open, dynamic economy that allows for economic opportunity and development, and the unleashing of creativity on the economic plane, still requires the cultivation of self-government in the “personal sense” of the term. This necessarily entails an active effort “to govern our impulses, appetites, and desires.” Mitchell demonstrates that corrupted citizens who act as “spoiled children” are hardly ready for self-government, precisely because they cannot govern themselves. They will soon, and “incessantly,” demand that their limitless stream of desires be satisfied as immediately as possible by a tutelary state that keeps them in “perpetual childhood.”

Here, Mitchell renews Tocqueville’s enduring insight that true freedom requires a subtle mixture of proud independence and the shared affirmation of humanizing civic and moral bonds. Both are incompatible with “the siren’s song of goods and services from the omni-benevolent hand of the state.” The political theorist discerns here the influence of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s insight in his 1948 classic On Power, that the paternalistic state is necessarily informed by a rapacious egoism all its own. Humanitarians, Christian progressives among them, make a terrible mistake in identifying the common good with an omnicompetent tutelary state, destined if not designed to undermine the whole sphere of personal responsibility.

Mitchell also renews the classical argument, going back to Book 2 of Aristotle’s Politics, and continued by St. Thomas among others, that private property, well understood and well used, promotes the exercise of generosity, liberality, and—to use an image closer to home—neighborliness. Mitchell speaks movingly of “a community of interdependent neighbors” who combine self-sufficiency with a genuine concern for others. Tied to self-restraint, deterred gratification, foresight about the future, and solicitude for those who are down and out, such an ethos is at once immune to the siren calls of collectivism and at odds with an individualism that ignores the social nature of man. It sees that modern collectivism aims to permanently infantilize human beings in the name of a misplaced notion of social justice.

Mitchell’s political psychology is rich and discerning. He appreciates that the state informed by plutocratic socialism “wants power” even as it gratifies “immature citizens” who are far too readily wooed by the promise of enhanced “goods and services.” His Tocquevillian conclusion is as clear as it is compelling: plutocratic socialism offers “post-citizens,” as we might call them, “a life without responsibility…a perpetual childhood” marked by “the absence of obligation or responsibility.” In contrast, Mitchell puts forward a public philosophy where “self-governing men and women” uphold when necessary both “sacrifice and service” and at the same time reject the degeneration of freedom “into the vortex of childish demands and the inevitable frustrations that ensue when those demands are not met.” One could not describe the logic of self-enslavement that informs plutocratic socialism any better.

Mitchell’s account of the intrinsic connection between property, virtue, and self-government rightly understood is quintessentially American and profoundly countercultural. Quintessentially American because it has deep roots in our tradition, American and Western, and countercultural because we have forgotten, or largely forgotten, the moral grounds of republican self-government. How do we proceed from our decadent condition? That is difficult to discern at the present moment and requires a prudential application of the principles Mitchell expertly outlines. A renewal of what Walter Lippman called “the public philosophy,” in his 1955 book by that name, is undoubtedly called for. No matter how difficult, the effort must be made, and not a minute wasted. As Irving Kristol wrote in a suggestive 1992 essay entitled “The Cultural Revolution and the Capitalist Order,” neither the market order nor a republican political order worthy of the name can survive the near complete dissipation of the old bourgeois virtues. As Kristol wrote at the time, it is a grave illusion that political self-government and economic prosperity can long survive “the elevation of nihilism” in place of decency and the old middling or bourgeois virtues. We should be grateful to Mark Mitchell for pointing us back to these old insights and for showing just how much plutocracy and socialism hold in common in an America on the verge of losing its soul. The difficult work to recovery is incumbent upon us. Let the work begin.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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