By the time I came along, the New Deal had been enacted. But you came along beforehand. Of course, you were a boy, but if you look back, can you, looking over the course of your life, can you sense changes— I guess what I’m asking is, did the expansion of government habituate us to an ever-expanding government, or was there some change, was there some loss of republican virtue, that made possible the expansion of government. Which came first?
The question tantalizes, but the answer necessarily disappoints. The conservative narrative—the thumbnail version, anyway—wants to answer that question in the affirmative: Yes! Big Government sapped our drive, our initiative, our republican virtue! But as Buckley quickly observes in his response, it takes a careful examination of history to answer the question. These kinds of big, tectonic shifts—both in the people’s expectations of government and of themselves—occur slowly over time in response to innumerable conditions. So of course we do not have the same relationship with government, society, and the rest as the founding generation did. Republican virtue may or may not be lost, but it is certainly changed, and we might begin by evaluating those changes—some good, some bad, some indifferent. Certainly not all those changes are because of the size of government. Indeed, it was the Great Depression, widely perceived to be a failing of an under-regulated economy, that triggered that growth. And it was the industrial revolution beforehand, that began concentrating economic activity—and thus every other kind of activity—around cities and factories and banking. Coming to an answer of when, precisely, something like “republican virtue” was lost is as elusive as answering whether the chicken came before the egg.
Still, the idea behind the question is important for conservatives because they believe the American experiment absolutely depends on republican virtue. The presence of that virtue characterized the success of the ancient republics, and its absence characterized their decline. “In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security,” wrote Edward Gibbon. “They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all – security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”
It was believed that republican virtue was alive again by the time of the Founding. The people rededicated themselves to it during the Civil War. But then, the narrative goes, sometime between then and now, it went missing or into hiding. Much conservative scholarship concerns the history of ideas between Reconstruction and the New Deal, circling in on when and how, precisely, America arguably changed its mind about the founding philosophy (as conservatives understand it) and adopted a more relativistic, History-based worldview that finds the answer to so many questions of moral and civic duty in government and in powerful leaders. My interest lies here as well.
But what if these conservatives succeeded? Would it matter? That is, even if conservative thinkers succeeded in demonstrating that progressivism does indeed represent a new paradigm of thought—that it is not the American mind of the founders but something quite different—would it make a difference? Do non-conservatives reject the premise that this republican virtue esteemed by conservatives existed, or that it had such salubrious effects as conservatives suppose? Do progressives believe they now have an answer to Gibbon? In this, I am reminded of Michael Tomasky’s attempt in 2010, writing confidently but uncritically that
there is something deep within liberalism, from its earliest beginnings, that prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty. . . . [W]here that collective urge crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals—I mean liberals who know something about liberalism—get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.
Or take Jonathan Chait’s rendition: “For us [liberals], everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody’s education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody’s blue jeans? No. And so on.” As a candidate to replace the founding philosophy, the modern liberal thesis leaves something to be desired.
You may disagree, however. And that’s my question: Do modern progressives much care whether their political philosophy can claim lineage to the founding or its conception of “republican virtue”? Or is that link, though perhaps desirable politically, inconsequential to the legitimacy of the liberal/progressive project?