Patrick Henry in the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1851,
speaking against the Stamp Act
One of my students in her final exam essay wrote, "Why should I trust my government if my government doesn't trust me?" She wrote these words in the context of reflecting on the political problem, viz., "How do you enable to government to restrain the governed while at the same time obliging it to restrain itself?"
Her question is at the heart of the liberal-conservative debate in America today, and the line of that very practical philosophical dispute is showing up in some surprising places of late. On January 19, 2010, the citizens of Massachusetts have the opportunity not only to fill the Senate seat recently vacated by Ted Kennedy, but also to pass a judgment on the political vision our present government is aggressively pursuing, often in opposition to the clear consensus of the American people. People's attention is focused on the current plans for health care reform, for combating what is supposed to be global warming, and for reviving the economy. Behind these plans, however, are fundamental questions concerning big government and self-government.
Liberals see people as fundamentally needy on the one hand and unworthy of being trusted to provide for one another and themselves on the other. Thus, privatizing Social Security would be a disaster. People would lose all their money in the stock market. Only the government can be trusted to steward people's retirement funds wisely. (Of course, they don't steward these funds at all. They spend them, and trust that they can pay us out of the contributions from our children and grandchildren, a formula for bankruptcy when the baby boomers move fully into retirement.)
And people certainly cannot be trusted to provide for their aged parents, so all the elderly must become wards of the state. This, of course, schools people in the view that their parents are, in the end, none of their concern. Liberals take the same view of children. Get them as early as possible into the public school system. If you want to homeschool your children, (a) you must be crazy and thus incompetent, and (b) the education you provide must be strictly regulated by the local public school authorities, regardless of how bad a job they themselves are doing educating children.
By contrast, conservatives trust people to manage their own affairs according to their own lights and preferences. This may not be wise for every people in the world, but it is certainly fitting for a free people such as we.
In short, a free citizen must be virtuous. For this reason, Aristotle identifies aristocracy (rule by the virtuous few, i.e. the genuinely virtuous) as the best regime. The citizens under that regime rule and are ruled in turn with a view to the common good, or at least the common interest, not seeking their selfish advantage. In other words, the more self-government there is, the more good government there will be. The more virtue there is among a people, the more they will be governed by what Thomas Jefferson called the natural aristoi.
Thus, conservatives are concerned for public morality because they are concerned about people's capacity for liberty, i.e. self-government, both individually and corporately. Liberals, on the other hand, understand liberty as self-indulgence and post-modern autonomy, the freedom to construct one's own moral universe and live accordingly, provided that one does not "harm" anyone else (that provision being a completely groundless restriction within a post-modern frame of reference).
Conservatives are concerned to support personal virtue among the people (yes, it requires support, largely from religion, especially Christianity), so that they can live with the dignity of free people in a free republic. Liberals are happy to see people indulging themselves in any way they please while the government manages and provides for them in as many spheres of life as possible. Thus, American conservatism tends toward republican liberty, while progressive liberalism tends toward, well, benevolent totalitarianism, which in the end, because human nature is what it is, becomes simply totalitarianism.
Thus, the government of a free people can trust the people to govern their own affairs while it attends largely to what in principle they cannot do on their own. This is not to be confused with libertarianism, because it recognizes the need for virtue in the citizenry, and also that public virtue requires appropriate (not oppressive) public support and protection. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that Christians should pray for their governments so that those governments would fulfill their divine calling as government--no less and no more--"that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (I Tim. 2:2). What Paul means by a peaceful and quiet life is the liberty to govern one's own affairs, and to take a hand in the affairs of one's community, including taking care of the poor. This requires godliness, and is a life of human dignity. Good government provides for this liberty.
When government does not trust the people it governs, the people they distrust are either a slavish people or a free people. If they are slavish, the government indeed should not trust them, but should nonetheless take steps to cultivate better character in them so that they can live more as free people. This is statesmanship. Government that simply continues in that distrust and uses it as an opportunity to grow itself is just a form of mastery, and, as such, is not a government at all.
If the people it distrusts is a free people, then, as my student said, that people has no reason at all to trust their government. That government views them as slavish and will attempt by a thousand measures to reduce them to servile dependence. The Declaration of Independence describes this as "a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism."
Some people are called to die for liberty. Some are called only to vote.