Private Virtue, Our Only Hope
Our country was founded upon discussions of virtue and freedom and it only feels natural to begin 2019 with such a dialogue. For the moment, let us forget about the shutdown, Syria, and the wall. Let us listen to the White-Throated Sparrow outside our frosted window panes. “Sometimes, the very best something is to do nothing” and the most profitable beginnings are achieved by standing still. Let’s approach this new year with this old conviction.
The American Founders were students of history. They observed that all life (especially political life) tends toward decay and entropy. From Nebuchadnezzar’s Siege of Jerusalem to to the fall of Rome, Nature’s tendency to corrode and degenerate has been stable and accountable.
Energy, however, is the opposing force to entropy–the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In addition to forming our Constitutional Republic upon “a dependence on the people,” they understood that “auxiliary precautions” were a necessary bulwark against political entropy. The energy required to sustain (or stave off) the decline and degeneration of their proposed government was that of ambition.
Our Founders argued that mankind’s inherent desire for ambition could itself be the cure to the entropic germ that plagued previous regimes. By using ambition to “counteract ambition,” they hoped to secure a permanence never before seen in civil society. By pinning energy upon energy, they would, in effect, check the “interests of the man” by the “constitutional rights of the place.” In other words, the American Constitution channels the historically negative energy of ambition into an entirely positive corrective and sustainably balanced force.
Although our country was founded upon this energetic contest, our Founders also stressed the importance of personal and civic virtue. Benjamin Franklin argued that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Notice that Franklin argued that political corruption follows a lack of virtue, not of ambition.
Can ambition truly counteract ambition, therefore, if the equation is devoid of virtue–or freedom? Asked another way, if ambition is the desire to grow, to consolidate, to accumulate, to advance some motive, then can it be positive if it is not also virtuous? Perhaps, the American Founders would argue that, although man’s energetic desire for growth is inherent, it must both flow in the proper direction and exist within the proper restraints, or goals. The Constitution, which is founded on the universal and natural rights of man, is such a goal. Without it, personal and political growth would simply be a climbing arrow on an unidentified cartesian plane. While focused forward and upwards, its questionable success would be unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable.
Take for example the economic metric of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In the mid 1930s, the American Congress commissioned Simon Kuznets to create a equation to determine America’s yearly income—what became known as the GDP. Since its creation, the GDP has grown from a simple economic equation to help guide the United States out of the Great Depression to the panacea of most all political ailments. Today, it is the great economic indicator and we pursue its growth like we pursue a decreasing waste line.
Under this updated and misapplied use, the GDP metrics are directionless. Kuznets himself stressed that his singular equation was intended to provide a singular metric (the market value of goods produced within the general economy during a period of time). However, the GDP fails to recognize the immense value of goods produced by local societies and daily life, and, as Kuznets himself identified, it ultimately fails to account for both the local trade of such goods and how income and consumption are circulated between American households.
Why does this matter? Nearly sixty years ago, Kuznets argued that “distinction must be kept in mind … between quantity and quality of growth, between its costs and return, and between the short and the long term.” In other words, growth must align itself in service to a common good in order to be good itself. The goal of Kuznet’s equation was to deliver a static number–the goal was quantitative. Today, we wrongly employ it to show the quality of the economy.
For instance, a nation’s GDP benefits when adults forgo parenthood, becoming careerists instead. If the primary metric for a healthy economy and society is a growing GDP, then parenting, reproduction, and the family generally understood become obsolete. The State’s focus on growth replaces humanity’s focus on the home and the hearth–where private virtue is cultivated.
Of all people, Adam Smith, the founder of classical economic thought, argued against an unchecked and undefined ambition for growth. He argued that economic growth’s first check is the biosphere in which it acts and that mankind’s potential for growth–for wealth–ultimately depends upon its climate and soils. That, in a sense, virtuous action must take into account both the laws of Nature’s God and Nature itself; both the flourishing of human society and economy. Without this proper footing, labor’s distribution crumbles and the social order suffers. And though it may take many years until the errors of our destructive systems become self-evident, much of it has begun already.