For America to flourish, it doesn’t need a “libertarian moment” or even a conservative moment, with the latter’s emphasis on “traditional morality.” It needs libertarians and conservatives to come together to defeat their common enemy—radical utopian statists and their centralized, ever-expanding welfare state. If our liberties are to be protected, conservatives and libertarians must stand united on the principles of limited government.
What America needs is a “constitutional moment.”
The Founders, particularly James Madison, understood above all else the complexity of human nature. Men are not angels, but neither are they demons. Men are physical creatures with material needs, but they are also spiritual with an eye and obligation to the transcendent. Men are rational, but prone to appetites. Men are individuals, but made to be social, to live in community. Men are free to do as they wish, but they are not free to violate others’ rights. Men are self-interested, but they sometimes choose evil (even contrary to their own self-interest)—and that evil increases with an expansion of power.
Madison and men like Thomas Jefferson, who were well steeped in John Locke’s philosophy of natural rights, sought to establish an ordered society out of these seemingly irreconcilable contradictions—contradictions that radical liberals are always futilely trying to “fix” in their ideological quest for utopia. But the Founders, with their minds informed by the Western Judeo-Christian heritage as well as the rationality of the Enlightenment (another apparent, though not actual, contradiction), were realists and accepted these contradictions. In doing so, they created a political system based on the true nature of man. The Founders learned, as Bacon said, to command nature by obeying her.
It is significant that the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were themselves men of complexity. They were, as Walter Berns wrote in “The Need for Public Authority” (an essay inside “Freedom and Virtue”), private men, committed to their families, their churches, their civic organizations, but they were dedicated to public service. They had left the Old World for the New. They were informed by a civilized heritage and educated in the great traditions of the past, but were on the cusp of a new age of seemingly endless possibilities, economically, politically, and technologically. They were self-interested individuals who were deeply concerned about others.
These men, with all their complexities, came together to form a government unlike any the world had ever seen—but it was no easy task. Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In forming a government, which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Government Still Can’t Enforce Morality
The solution was to limit government. Men are not angels, so they need to be governed, but government is made up of imperfect men who are easily corrupted; therefore, their power must be limited. Hence, federalism was born.
The Founders saw limited government with all its checks and balances on power as foundational to liberty and virtue. government with all its checks and balances on power as foundational to liberty and virtue. They understood what many people fail to grasp—that an overly intrusive government corrupts virtue (as is evidenced in “too big to fail” policies, where businesses are bailed out when they should be allowed to fail, thereby giving them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and come back stronger and better). If you’re not free to choose between good and evil, between virtue and vice, between success and failure, you don’t learn accountability and responsibility; you’re not choosing to be virtuous.
A totalitarian government suppresses virtue more extremely, as people are not free to choose the good but are coerced to comply with whatever the state deems “moral.” Coerced morality in whatever form is not virtue. As has been said, “The answer to ‘1984’ is 1776.”
Madison was fervently opposed to the government being an enforcer of morality because it is a wretched caretaker of the soul. He believed that if men are left to themselves, they will be better off. Just as he had faith in the free markets, he had faith in the individual to flourish, guided by the “invisible hand.” “If industry and labor are left to take their own course,” Madison said, “they will generally be directed to those objects which are the most productive and this in a more and certain and direct manner than wisdom of the most enlightened legislature could point out.”
The wisdom of people as individuals, not the collective, was paramount in Madison’s thinking. He believed in competition, consequences, and allowing people to pursue their own self-interest, according to their own values and religion. With this in mind, he and the Founders constructed a government in which power is so dispersed that no one faction could form a majority and violate the rights of others. If government remained limited, even unruly factions would not gain power over the rest of the citizenry. Of course, a caveat must be added here: Even Madison would have recognized, and did, that if there is acomplete breakdown of morality in society, to the point that there is not “any virtue,” chaos would ensue and, inevitably, tyranny would be the result.
Privatize the Cultivation of Morality
Madison knew that society needed to be virtuous—it needs the liberal virtues of industry, personal responsibility, and cooperation—but he believed that nature and free associations were better teachers of morality (along with family and the church and other private institutions) than the state.
These views became very clear when Madison opposed a bill Patrick Henry introduced in 1784 in the Virginia House of Delegates, authorizing “a moderate tax or contribution annually for the support of the Christian religion.” Henry, who was concerned about moral decline in the nation at that time, said his goal was not religious, but secular, even pragmatic: “The diffusion of Christian knowledge has a natural tendency to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society.”
The bill would have allowed people to pick which church or ministry they could send their tax money, and it exempted people of other religions such as Jews and Muslims. Henry did not consider his bill to be a form of state-sponsored religion. People weren’t pressured to espouse a religion they didn’t agree with; they were merely compelled to help facilitate that virtue which was so necessary for their freedom and happiness.
As Berns points out in “James Madison and the Future of Limited Government,” Madison opposed the bill because he was concerned about state power in a multicultural environment, even more than moral decline. If you give the state power to support one religion through taxes, he argued, then you give it the power to support another. “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion to all other sects? That the same authority which can force citizens to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
Berns wrote that another reason Madison didn’t think churches should be supported by taxes was because they had not done a very good job themselves of maintaining purity: “During almost fifteen centuries, has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial?” Madison wrote. “What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
This, from the man who said virtue was essential to the republic’s survival. Obviously, Madison’s realistic view of man extended to the church. If it was difficult for people to be virtuous, even in a religious setting—if they’re so prone to vice—who would grant them arbitrary power with the full force of the state behind them? Better have fallen men, endowed with reason and the little virtue they do have, work out the messy details of life among themselves. Better to have the invisible hand of the marketplace guide their lives than the heavy hand of tyranny.