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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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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