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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Virtue and Public Life

Peter Wehner writes of a recently-republished address by Irving Kristol:

His essay goes on to reflect on the ideas of “republican virtues,” which asks of people a certain public-spiritedness, which is a form of self-control, which is itself an exercise in self-government. Kristol goes on to write about the main point that emerged from the American democratic experience. “People do not have respect for institutions which, instead of making demands upon them, are completely subservient to their whims,” Kristol wrote. “In short, a people will not respect a polity that has so low an opinion of them that it thinks it absurd to insist that people become better than they are. Not simply more democratic; not simply more free; not simply more affluent; but, in some clear sense, better.”

This conception of republican virtue has been largely lost in modern times. And while a peaceful populist uprising can be a very good thing from time to time, there is something deeply wise and true in Kristol’s warning. There is a “democratic dogma” that insists our institutions should in every instance conform themselves to the whims and will of the people — a belief the Founders themselves rejected in both their writings and in their form for government (they were horrified by the notion of a “direct democracy” rather than a representative one, believing government should mediate, not mirror, popular views).