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Thursday, April 11, 2024

Civic Virtue

Brooks, Arthur C. "America's Crisis of Civic Virtue." Journal of Democracy 35, no. 2 (2024): 23-39.
Civic virtue is the set of personal qualities associated with a civil or political order. It is a shared set of behavioral norms and basic moral rules that make the order's functioning possible. Tocqueville believed that this undergirded the American experiment with democracy and free enterprise, which could not be guaranteed by laws and coercion, but  only by voluntary adherence to virtuous behaviors such as honesty and civility.9

Some of the Founders doubted whether ordinary Americans possessed sufficient civic virtue for democratic self-government. In January 1776, six months before independence was declared, John Adams wrote fretfully to Mercy Otis Warren that "there is So much Rascallity, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition, such a Rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to support a Republic."10 In 1788, James Madison agreed that a lack of civic virtue would doom the republic: "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea."11 He believed, however, that ordinary Americans were sufficiently wise and virtuous to use the democratic system to choose good leaders, for immediately after uttering these words, he added: "If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend upon their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them."

Civic virtue promotes trust within a society; then we can be confident that outward honesty and civility will be reciprocated by others. This trust is akin to what Robert Putnam famously called "social capital" in this journal in 1995.12 Social capital comes in two forms: bonding and bridging. The former creates solidarity and trust between people who are alike based on a shared identity (the in-group), but not with those who do not share this identity (the out-group). While bonding social capital can create a strong sense of belonging, it does not necessarily foster public trust due to its tendency to foster an "us-versus-them" mentality. By contrast, bridging social capital acts like a glue that holds differing groups together, thus breaking down barriers and fostering trust between people who are not alike.

As political theorist Kevin Vallier notes, trust through bridging social capital takes several forms—social, legal, and political. Social trust refers to the confidence we have that our fellow citizens will generally not take advantage of us.13 This refers to friends and family, of course, but also to strangers in the marketplace. Legal trust refers to institutions such as law enforcement and the courts. Political trust is placed in government officials, elected and nonelected, who are assumed not to use their special access to power to enrich themselves and their friends, or to disadvantage their enemies.

Francis Fukuyama argues that the trust instantiated in social capital (especially bridging capital), mediated by civic virtue, makes voluntary exchange and democratic governance possible.14 When people trust others—even strangers—to be fundamentally honest and civil, they feel more free to carry out economic transactions with reasonable confidence, and can take part in elections with similar confidence that the voting will not be rigged.

This, scholars have found, can initiate a virtuous cycle in which trust in others' virtue stimulates market exchange and democracy, which in turn raise trust. This cycle then raises societal well-being overall. Research by Sonja Zmerli and Ken Newton shows that when markets are backed by property rights, and when social norms encourage mutually beneficial exchanges among strangers, general trust grows.15 In addition, well-functioning markets make corruption less attractive by opening a path to wealth that is more lucrative, and less risky, than efforts to get rich by abusing public office.

The idea that trust promotes capitalism, which in turn further raises trust, is supported by empirical evidence. Analyzing data gathered from eighty countries during the years 1990 through 2020, economist Johan Graafland finds that: 1) civic virtues of honesty and civility reinforce free markets and vice-versa; 2) trust lies behind civic virtues, the rule of law, and thus democracy; 3) civic virtues are positively related to citizens' feelings of life satisfaction; and 4) the rule of law increases well-being by means of trust and civic virtues.16