Virtue: A Democratic Problem

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 16, 2010

Those who have ever taken a political science course which was not merely an exercise in advocacy may remember considering the strengths and weaknesses of various forms of government. Monarchy had its corruption in tyranny, oligarchy in plutocracy, and democracy in mob rule. For many centuries, most Catholic political theorists suggested that monarchy was the best form of government, because it mirrored the way God runs the universe. More recently, Catholic thinkers have suggested that democracy is most in keeping with human dignity, as it tends to foster the participation of each person in the political process.

I suspect that a great many thinkers simply find it easier to see the virtues of the form of government their cultures take for granted. For example, monarchists have often pointed to the fact that kings are trained from youth in the art of ruling (including, ideally, an emphasis on duty and responsibility), whereas democratic politicians receive virtually no preparation at all. More neutral observers have suggested that monarchical governments have a tendency to oscillate between the extremes of good and bad (or even evil) rulers, whereas democracy is by nature doomed to mediocrity.

Thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of the many governmental variations is a useful exercise, but perhaps only because it teaches us not to put our trust in forms. Whatever your preferences, I can drive home this point by identifying two obvious features of how modern democracies tend to function which are right now creating significant obstacles to solving contemporary problems. One of these features is vaguely ideological in nature; the other is distressingly pragmatic.

The ideological issue is that democratic theory carries with it an enormous assumption, the assumption that if you have the vote, then you have significant political control. Moreover, there tends to be a democratic mythology that wherever people have the right to vote, they must necessarily enjoy something the Western tradition prizes very highly, namely liberty. But the reality of the operations of democracy among massive populations in modern bureaucratic states (which tend to lack effective intermediary institutions) is that the governing classes gain greater and greater power while the significant choices available to citizens—choices that really make a difference—tend to become fewer and fewer. The illusion of liberty tends to retard the realization of this trend. We are carefully taught that we are free; yet in many areas we remain almost powerless.

The more pragmatic issue is that as virtue declines in any given culture, it becomes increasingly difficult to direct government toward the common good. I will not argue here about the horrible impact the decline of sexual morality has had on national laws, judicial decisions and executive policies in the West. Instead, let’s look at a problem far easier for everyone to spot: The immense difficulty of mounting effective economic leadership in a period of declining wealth. A single question is sufficient to make the point: Can any politician be reelected if he tells the truth about the need to live within our means at every level, personal and governmental, and if he proposes policies which match the available resources?

The specific case of France at present would be wonderfully amusing if it did not strike so close to home. The French government announced a few weeks ago that mounting deficits and an aging population required that citizens will have to keep working until they are 62. The retirement age had been 60. The French already get enormous paid vacations and are prohibited by law from working more than 35 hours per week. Nonetheless, Jean-Luc Mélanchon, head of the Left Party, reacted by saying “today is a day of sadness and anger”, and France’s labor unions immediately began planning for general strikes.

We may be tempted to laugh, but a similar unwillingness to face reality currently afflicts all Western democracies, and is especially obvious in a sluggish economy. In the United States, for example, those in power try to convince us they can save the economy by running up larger and larger deficits and putting the country’s international fiscal credibility at risk. But then politicians who tell the truth almost always lose. And given the mob-like tendency of millions of voters to approve whatever does not immediately threaten their own selfish benefits (whether economic or sexual!), the number of viable choices placed before the electorate generally falls just short of one.

The bottom line is that a form of government which enfranchises all citizens and remains ostensibly open to debate does little to guarantee constructive politics. It takes virtue in those who wield power at every level to do that, including the virtue necessary to understand and pursue the common good. What we are beginning to learn now, I think, is that, despite all the rhetoric, the mythology of democracy is no substitute for virtue. It remains to be seen whether we all need to go broke before enough people will recognize this truth.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Defender - Aug. 08, 2010 6:54 PM ET USA

    Archbishop Sheen wrote that democracy's survival "depends upon an electorate imbued with morality which God and religion alone can give." He also noted that religion can live without democracy, but democracy cannot live without religion.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 20, 2010 9:41 AM ET USA

    Sorry Gil125, I was being serious. While I agree with Jeff's conclusion - that virtue is required to make a republic operate properly - I don't agree with his presumption that virtue is widely lacking in the current Western governmental systems and/or that the individual voter is marginalized by a bureaucratic elite. I realize that I am a minority voice among my fellow CatholicCulture readers, but I'm willing to express the opinion and take the heat for it.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jul. 17, 2010 5:06 PM ET USA

    Thanks to mjarman7759049 for his very clever comment. When I realized (on second reading) that he (or she) was being ironic if not downright sarcastic I got my best laugh of the day so far.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 17, 2010 2:56 PM ET USA

    An excellent and substantive composition on governance. Ideology and forms of government are necessary to express our principles as a nation, as in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. However, what matters most in carrying out those principles and to abide by them is virtue and may I add goodwill for the leaders to have and the populace to demand as well.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jul. 17, 2010 2:30 PM ET USA

    de Tocqueville predicted that this democracy would last until the people discovered that they could vote themselves money out of the public treasury. It has lasted somewhat longer than that moment, but the process of self-desctuction, beginning at the latest under the New Deal, is certainly accelerating.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 17, 2010 12:06 PM ET USA

    A well-written essay. My father survived the Great Depression and WWII. I can only imagine his reaction to the precipitous decline of the past decade. Before he died, he told me that he did not envy my generation. He anticipated a tough future. This was from a veteran of the bloodiest 82 years in human history. Along with the decline in virtue, we have a marked intellectual decline- it seems that too many leaders simply cannot think. All indications suggest that dad was on to something.

  • Posted by: jbryant_132832 - Jul. 17, 2010 8:49 AM ET USA

    Two virtues most lacking in US politics are prudence and courage. The reality is that people in the US have to work so hard and yet seem to fall behind is because of our debt backed monetary system that has been woefully mismanaged by the Fed. Pols are forever talking about "root causes", yet they are either ignorant or complicit in the usurious system we operate in. It is INSANE for the US to borrow money at interest from a PRIVATE bank when it can issue its own debt free money. Until that is fixed we are merely hacking at the leaves.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 16, 2010 4:08 PM ET USA

    I think Jeff is brilliant and have agreed with him any number of times. He is absolutely wrong here. We live in the Kingdom of God, in a saved world where the Holy Spirit is robustly active. The majority of politicians in the US regardless of affiliation have more good in them than evil. ANY individual can have an impact on an issue through careful preparation and active and unflagging petitioning of their elected representatives. To argue elsewise is to be fooled by the Enemy.