305. "The Politics of Virtue-Is Not Political at All," American Experiment Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, (Fall 1998), pp. 69-72.
An astonishing wave of conservative voices is calling for a stronger government. These voices have been dismissed by other conservatives, leaving the right camp deeply divided between those who champion virtue and believe that government can foster it, and those who seek first and foremost freedom from government. Signs of conservatives' weakness, all too evident when one compares the euphoria following the 1994 Congressional elections to the recent sense of drift, are often viewed as temporary. Various conservatives blame Clinton's craftiness, cite the Democrats' co-optation of the conservative agenda, and lament the lack of compelling national leaders.
There may be considerable truth in all these analyses, but there is no denying that the conservative malaise partly reflects the profound ideological split between social and economic conservatives, between those who are concerned about the social values that ought to govern Americans and those who seek to be governed less. There is a way to heal this profound split, but to do so we must grasp the motives behind the new (and revived) arguments of the social conservatives.
George F. Will opened the conservative campaign for an energetic central government, when he was being honored at the annual AEI dinner in December 1995. Will argued that people are self-indulgent by nature: Left to their own devices, they will abuse their liberties to become profligate and indolent. People require a "strong national government" that would be a "shaper" of citizens, help them cope with the weaker angles of their nature.
More recently, Will claimed that while there have been excesses in "welfare statism," the basic notion that "the ethics of common provision--the idea that some of the life's risk should be socialized" is a sound conservative ideal. And, he firmly believes, an "energetic national government," Hamilton's term, is required to revive American's love of country and its national greatness. Will is seconded by Walter Berns of AEI, who argues that one cannot fold conservatism's ideals into the notion of "freedom" and by Elliott Cohen, who maintains that the last thing the Founders envisioned was a "feeble government." Such ideas are enough for followers of Milton Freedman and Friedreich Hayek to see red.
But they are not alone. William J. Bennett stresses that while there is much to lament about big government, he is deeply troubled by conservatives' "increasing and reckless rhetorical attacks against government itself." He draws on Benjamin Franklin, who is said to have understood that "the strength of the nation depends on the general opinion of the goodness of the government" not a phrase often employed by economic conservatives.
William Kristol and David Brooks's recent analysis of the deeper needs of conservatism, follows a similar line. Anti-government themes provide too narrow a base for a winning ideological political agenda. Conservatives need to build on the virtue of America, on national greatness. In the process, the two authors even tackle an article of faith among those conservatives that are not viscerally against all government; Kristol and Brooks argue that the success of devolution to state and local governments will depend on "our national political health."
While most religious social conservatives do not put "national greatness" at the top of their list of virtues, most of them are much more concerned with the moral rehabilitation of America than with slashing the government. Indeed, many of them are more than willing to draw on the government to render divorce more difficult, ban abortion, censor pornography, and outlaw homosexual activities. While secular nationalism is unlikely to satisfy these conservatives as a fountain of virtue, national character, and discipline, their concerns are closer to the views of Will, Bennett and Brooks than to those of the let-me-be crowd.
Building a Bridge
The two conservative camps can find a joint platform which is of great merit by focusing on ways to shore up virtue that are not statist. These are often referred to as "changing the culture," a term Americans employ when they shy away from speaking openly about moral values and virtuous conduct. Study upon study, most recently in the August 15, 1997 issue of the prestigious Science, show that crime, drug abuse, and other forms of anti-social behavior are best prevented when the communities involved censure such conduct, and that they are very difficult to suppress without such support. John DiIulio, who is leading a major drive to draw on religious groups to fight crime in inner city neighborhoods, finds that rebuilding social forces is what is most needed, not more traditional law enforcement. Strong communities, strong values are precisely the reason anti-social behavior is less frequent in small-town America and in tight-knit communities even in urban centers, as different as Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Salt Lake City, and Korean Town in Los Angeles.
The basic fact is that practically all of us--the main exception being psychopaths--care a great deal about the approval of others in whom we are emotionally invested: family members, friends, and neighbors. Hence, if and when the social mores of a community support civility, responsible conduct, and other virtues, most members of such communities most of the time will conduct them in a pro-social manner, leaving to the law the recalcitrant exceptions. Professor Richard Epstein, a leading laissez-faire conservative scholar writes in a recent issue of The Responsive Community in support of "imperfect obligations," those that are under written by social sanctions rather than by law. (They are imperfect because absent the law, not everyone will abide by them.) Epstein's main point is that in numerous situations, adding law enforcement to social pressures, vastly increases the costs of compliance as well as saps the social mores.
Where there are no communal bonds, they can be formed by faith-based groups, civic associations, community colleges, and other communal organizations (of which there are many hundred thousands). Also a growing role is played by residential community associations, which encompass some fifty million Americans.
More challenging is to transform communities that have coalesced around anti-social mores. But even here, stronger government has turned out to be a very poor way of shoring up virtue as we have learned from our largely futile war against drugs and long ago from Prohibition. Creating opportunities for communities to fight drug dealers, recapture playgrounds and parks from aggressive begging, and discourage life on welfare have often entailed a gradual withdrawal of government, a priming of community action, and above all, coalition building among those pro-social groups found in all but the most lost communities. The much touted success of Boston, which reduced juvenile murder rates from by two thirds over the last two years, and the lesser known success of Tillamook County, Oregon in greatly curbing teen pregnancies, are two powerful recent accounts that show that communities can be won over to shore up pro-social behavior.
Advocates of this communitarian approach--Senator Don Coates, for instance, and many associated with the Communitarian Network--are about as leery of big government as laissez-faire conservatives are, and about as dedicated to social virtues as social conservatives are. Hence, it is these ideas of relying on community-building to shore up virtue--not on the government nor leaving everybody free to indulge themselves--that provide the bridge whereby social and laissez-faire conservatives may meet.
Why don't both kinds of conservatives line up in support of the Communitarian approach? Laissez-faire conservatives become nervous when promoting virtue is championed because they confuse freedom from the government with freedom from social forces. They need to see that there is a world of difference between an IRS or FBI agent or a state trooper on the one hand, and--one's mother-in-law, kin, friends, neighbors on the other. When the state enforces virtue, it is truly coercive: those who object to its dictates are carried away and locked up. Communities seek to educate, persuade, lead, promote, foster, and yes, even censure, but leave the final decision to the acting individual. Indeed, a major virtue of contemporary communities is that they do not have the power of old ones to banish or ostracize dissenters. They must convince people or they fail.
Many social conservatives have not yet embraced the communitarian approach, it seems because they are in a hurry to save the world, or at least America. They witness around them much that is profoundly troubling. Impatient with the slowness which relying on communities entails, they are willing to rush forward to legislate virtue. They need to be persuaded that to force virtue is to lose the battle, on ethical and pragmatic grounds.
Once both camps overcome their much smaller conniptions about the communitarian agenda than those they harbor about each other, the time will be ripe to forge the specifics of a conservative-communitarian agenda. This would entail developing shared understandings on the future nature of our families (e.g. how to sustain marriage without turning women into second class citizens); our schools (e.g. how to provide character education without liberal or any other indoctrinization); the proper place for faith-based groups in the fabric of needed social services; relations among the races in our communities; and determining what legitimate roles the government might play, the last item in the list. Polls show that such an agenda is one that most Americans would embrace.
Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at George Washington University and author of The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: BasicBooks 1996).