May 5, 2005

The Public Interest Ends: The Fight for Morality in Government Continues

Marc Comtois

The journal The Public Interest is ending a 40 year run with this issue. In a "look back" article, editor Nathan Glazer recounts how the PI was "Neoconservative from the Start." Some of his pull-quotes from past issues illustrate that many of the same problems we are facing today are nothing new and were, in fact, predicted by the writers and editors of the journal.

We began to realize that our successes in shaping a better and more harmonious society, if there were to be any, were more dependant on a fund of traditional orientations, "values," or, if you will, "virtues," than any social science or "social engineering" approach. Consider Dan Bell writing on "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism" as early as Fall 1970, in the PI's special issue on "Capitalism Today":

"The deeper and more lasting crisis is the cultural one. Changes in moral temper and culture-the fusion of imagination and life-styles-are not amenable to 'social engineering' or political control. They derive from the value and moral traditions of the society, and these cannot be 'designed' by precept. The ultimate sources are the religious conceptions which undergird a society...."

Irving [Kristol, editor of PI] was in complete agreement with this thesis. Capitalism, Irving wrote in this same issue, had promised three things: affluence, individual liberty, and

"the promise that … the individual could satisfy his instinct for self-perfection-for leading a virtuous life that satisfied his spirit (or, as one used to say, his soul)-and that the free exercise of such individual virtue would aggregate into a just society…. It was only when the third promise, of a virtuous life and a just society, was subverted by the dynamics of capitalism itself, as it strove to fulfill the other two-affluence and liberty-that the bourgeois order came, in the minds of the young especially, to posses a questionable legitimacy."

. . . Irving wrote in Spring 1973 that "for well over a hundred fifty years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeois society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy, and that once this capital was depleted, bourgeois society would find its legitimacy ever more questionable."

In short, the fight we conservatives fight has been going on for decades now. We conservatives (sans neo) believe "virtue," and its necessary antecedent religion, should be brought back into both private and public life, not because we desire a theocracy, but because our American society needs a moral base from which to operate. History has shown that religion, more than philosophy or reason, is the most effective means of instilling the necessary values and morals required of a civilized society. The Founders, whether Christians, deists or atheists, realized this. In the words of George Washington:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.