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7/2/2009
A WORD ABOUT PUBLIC VIRTUE
CATEGORY: Ethics

That public virtue, which among the ancients was denominated patriotism, is derived from a strong sense of our own interest in the preservation and prosperity of the free government of which we are members. Edward Gibbon:

Much has been written about Governor Mark Sanford’s extramarital affair and I won’t add to it here except to say that his transgression against his marriage got me to thinking about public and private virtue.

The world has changed since America’s founding and the idea that we couldn’t be free without a civic minded citizenry that embraced public virtues and held their leaders to standards of public behavior that insured they were acting in the interests of the people and not selfishly. Back then, modesty, simplicity, probity, prudence, and self-abnegation were pre-requisites for political office. The model of a good republican was George Washington whose impossible adherence to these and other virtues made him an object of near worship to the generation who fought the revolution and wrote the Constitution.

But Washington was hardly perfect, although he tried to be while keeping one eye on history and the other on his “reputation.” He tended his public virtue as a gardener lovingly tends beloved roses, taking extreme, almost obsessive care that his public actions reflected the carefully crafted public image he had worked so hard to create. (This obsessiveness led him to destroy much of his personal correspondence with his wife before his death lest history find him a hypocrite.)

It would be grossly unfair to compare today’s politicians with Washington. But the public virtues he nurtured are as important to the idea of maintaining a republican government today as they were then.

Where have they gone?

It is not a modern phenomenon, this loss of public virtue in our political leaders. The degrading of public morals has been a long, slow, slide rather than a precipitous fall. But today, very few public servants actually “serve” the public, preferring to dust off their public virtues every two, four, or six years and parade them before the people around election time, as if the true nature of their cynical misappropriation of the public trust never happened.

We have seen greed, avarice, a lust for power and influence beyond reason, and the greatest sin of all - enriching oneself at the expense of the people - become more and more common. Congress votes itself more perks, more ways to separate themselves from their constituents until we get Barbara Boxer sternly informing a general testifying before her committee to address her by her “title” - senator - and not “ma’am” as the general was referring to her. The fact that a public servant would even consider the idea that she had been given a title says much about the attitude of our political leaders toward public virtue and civic-mindedness.

Sanford did not transgress against any public virtues by playing around on his wife. But how much separation is there really between public and private morality? Heather McDonald doesn’t think there is much of a connection at all:

For I otherwise don’t believe that there is a close connection between public and private virtue. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was an execrable father and husband but a transformative mayor, who understood as a gut matter some fundamental principles about the public realm and the responsibilities of citizens towards each other. Not all our Founding Fathers were paragons of fidelity. Bill Clinton’s ability to nudge the Democratic agenda towards a modest repudiation of the welfare state was untouched by his irrelevant womanizing. Sanford’s initial stance on the stimulus package was a valuable one, and it is amusing to see the media left seize on his marital transgressions to discredit it yet again.

[...]

Sanford did make his private life a matter of public concern, however, by his self-involved failure to secure the chain of command during his disappearance.

I would disagree with McDonald on the basis of private virtue — keeping sacred one’s promise to be faithful - as being reflective of and relevant to a politician’s basic trustworthiness. Clinton’s private peccadilloes directly led to his public transgression of lying to a grand jury. Whether that was impeachable is still being debated. But he was disbarred because of it and suffered the ignominy of having the House vote out articles of impeachment.

As far as Giuliani, right or wrong, he lost votes because of his messy personal life. Voters made the connection between public and private virtue even if McDonald doesn’t believe they should. And I suspect voters in South Carolina are making that same connection today.

If a politician swindles his business partner in the private sector, should we ignore that because of the public virtues he touts during his election campaign? People will draw their own conclusions and vote accordingly.

I would argue that not only has private virtue been undermined by our materialistic, hedonistic society but that public virtue has suffered the same fate. The cynicism is incredible. Nobody believes politicians act in the public interest anymore and why should they? They don’t. They don’t even pretend anymore. William Jefferson’s $90,000 in a freezer and Duke Cunningham’s written list of amounts it would take to buy his earmark are symptomatic of an attitude on the part of our politicians that is rending the fabric of our republic and destroying the idea of free, representative government.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

We get the government we deserve. And not demanding our politicians adhere to simple, republican virtues in their public life may have already ruined the dreams of the Founders beyond repair.

By: Rick Moran at 11:08 am
10 Responses to “A WORD ABOUT PUBLIC VIRTUE”
  1. 1
    irish19 Said:
    12:00 pm 

    Very well said.

  2. 2
    Maggie's Farm Trackbacked With:
    4:09 pm 

    Hypocrisy and Hypocrisy…

    VDH struggles mightily to identify some theme to make sense out of the ways moral flaws and hypocrisies are played out in the politics of today.
    While I admire his effort and his examples, I think he mostly misses a simple point, the one Lyn…

  3. 3
    funny man Said:
    5:17 pm 

    I’m really not sure people had better virtues back in the days. Kings usually had many wives, girlfriends, concubines. Armies pillaged, burned, raped. Robber barons tried to impose monopolies on countries. In my opinion, there will always be the struggle between corrupt, selfish people and honest, virtuous folks (now nobody is really a 100%). If the balance tilts a bit more to the latter we are in pretty good shape.

  4. 4
    Commie Stooge Said:
    6:40 pm 

    I’m currently reading the biography “Capone: The Man and the Era” by Laurence Bergreen; and if you think Chicago politics are corrupt now; well this book about the roaring 20s shows that corruption is nothing new.

    Yes, it would be nice if our politicians would be examples of upstanding virtue.

    However; they merely reflect society at large. They are just imitating their Corporate Masters; who have forced their “winner take all” mentality on the rest of society.

    Back when I worked in Corp America I learned the promotion depended not on qualification or experience but on friendship or nepotism.

    Many times I watched as managers did questionable things; but got away with their decisions because of their positions.

  5. 5
    Eric Florack Said:
    9:27 pm 

    I would disagree with McDonald on the basis of private virtue — keeping sacred one’s promise to be faithful - as being reflective of and relevant to a politician’s basic trustworthiness.

    Quite so, and I’ll tell you this, Rick: It seems to me that this is where we get ourselves into trouble when we try to separate the personal from the political.

    First of all, I have always held that the political is the reflection of the personal. Politics is not a game unto itself, it is ideally a tool by which we implement our most personal values. On that basis, then, is it logical not to question how someone is going to be operating in the political world in terms of trustworthiness and so on, when one turns their back on their most personal promises and values? Put another way, how am I going to trust a bill Clinton to keep his word to me, when he can’t even keep his word to himself and his wife and his God, Vis’ a vie’ his marriage vows, and Lewinsky et al?

    Now, I’m quite sure I’m going to be told and no uncertain terms by some of the left, that these problems would seemingly include Newt Gingrich for example. John McCain. And that’s quite right. It does. You mention Giuliani, Rick, so let’s include him on that list as well.

    Is such a transgression a showstopper, particularly years down the road after the fact? Should it kill off someone’s political chances going forward for all time? Perhaps not. But it doesn’t make sense to me to exclude such considerations altogether, particularly when the event is a recent one.

    There’s another level of this, as well. Time was, when someone getting elected to a higher office meant that he was among the best our country had to offer itself. In terms of respect, for the person elected was an honorable person. Certainly this was true in this country’s early days. Not so much, anymore, I’m afraid.

    Someone above, mentions that this is a mere reflection of the society as it has developed. That certainly can be argued. But in our acknowledgment of increasing levels of depravity in our society does that mean that we must make increased allowances for it in those we elect? Or should we be in fact more diligent in our choices of those we elect to high office?

    At the risk of throwing a conversation off the rails entirely, I will close by suggesting that most of our problems in government today and for the last 60 or 70 years are so can be directly attributable to our lack of diligence about who we give the power of government to.

  6. 6
    Scott Said:
    10:25 pm 

    And not demanding our politicians we adhere to simple, republican virtues in their our public life may have already ruined the dreams of the Founders beyond repair.

    I fixed it for you.

    Seriously, who would ask a man to do what they won’t do?

  7. 7
    Scott Said:
    10:27 pm 

    I forgot you disallow basic html formatting — strike out “our politicians” and replace with “we” and strikeout “their,” and replace with “our.”

    Never mind anyway, it doesn’t matter.

  8. 8
    mike farmer Said:
    6:05 am 

    One way to make their lack of virtue less harmful to the public is by limiting their power. That was one of the main reasons for a limited government. I fear the belief that we need better representatives to handle the power we have given government, will always lead to diappointment.

  9. 9
    mannning Said:
    12:17 pm 

    The vetting process is terribly faulty for our politicians at every level. If you can speak well, look pretty, dress well, and have money to burn, you are odds on to win something. If you have friends in high places, you can win big. If you have an issue or two that pleases the electorate, so much the better, particularly if they involve payouts to the public of some sort. Virtues? Well, these virtues seem to be all that are required.

    If you tear the lid off of some of these practitioners of politics, the smell of rotting goop will overpower you. That is why they seek guides from the professional ranks of seers–to provide them with cover and polishing for their private and public sins, past and present.

    We need more tearers-of-lids at an earlier point in the soddy careers of many politicians. Plus, we need a surer mechanism for shedding those who have outstayed their welcome or have committed egregious sins at citizen’s expense. Quite a few names come to mind, but I will refrain from calling them out here. Perhaps term limits will help.

    Virtue is happiness! — Socrates

  10. 10
    DoorHold Said:
    12:59 pm 

    Ah, for the good ol’ days, when a President’s dalliances were the stuff of legend rather than the rallying point for a resignation. Camelot … sigh.

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