Piety, Benevolence, Self-Government, and Free Institutions

In response to: The Institutions of American Liberty

The Rev. Timothy Dwight (President of Yale, 1795-1817, leading Congregational and Federalist thinker, enemy of Thomas Jefferson), wrote about the three great good works: piety, benevolence, and self-government. Self-government meant the well ordering of one’s life so he could live as a free and responsible human being. If a person was well self-governed, he would be able to live a pious life and a benevolent life. But self-government was difficult to obtain without piety and the support of free institutions upon which private benevolence also depended. So the three good works were closely intertwined and were supported by the institutions of family, church, and education. Dwight was so certain of the need for institutional ballast for self-government that he supported compulsory church membership for the inhabitants of Connecticut. That Dwight’s vision worked for quite awhile may be shown that the people of Connecticut proudly knew their state as “The Land of Steady Habits.”

This, I take it, is close to the vision of American liberty, as outlined by Ted McAllister in his lead essay. Indeed this was a conservative vision worked out over time in practical ways, liberty and individualism, not theoretical Liberty as a cause to be followed. One might even call it Tocquevillean. And yet, it was deeply based in Christian, Protestant, and Congregational theology, so this was not simply a historically derived set of institutions that practice showed contributed to the common good. Dwight, and our founding fathers, in general, knew that the way to righteousness was straight and narrow, while the road to sin was wide and deep. So, I would say there were founding principles as well as founding institutions.

As time passed we learned more about both these principles and the institutions so they could be described, discussed, deployed, and improved. Reason then could be applied to tradition and institutions, within limits could be modified by learning. For me this process brings us to Frank Meyer and fusionism. Liberty depends on virtue; virtue must be chosen not coerced. And we know more than before what constitutes virtue in a civil setting. Quoting selectively from In Defense of Freedom, Frank Meyer writes of a third way:

The history of the West has been the history of that third way, a way which has held in shimmering tension the authority of truth and the freedom of men. It has done so…by recognizing the absolute authority of truth in the intellectual and spiritual realm, while at the same time remaining aware of the contingency of institutions in the social realm ….It has distinguished…between the fundamental truths that constitute the structure of man’s being as a creature with a supernatural destiny, living in the natural world, and man-made certitudes, where authority can only be tyranny because truth is uncertain.

Truth has meaning only for persons; beauty illumines the consciousness only of persons; virtue can be pursued only by persons.

This point relates to Hayek’s famous “footnote”: “Why I am not a Conservative”. In his The Constitution of Liberty we read, “. . . I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it—or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism . . . . to think in terms of ‘our’ industry or resource is just a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest.” (From my perspective, President Obama in his 2014 State of the Union Address had no difficulty with this small step.)

But as McAllister argues, contemporary progressives have no such inhibitions. They glory in new, scientifically tested and managed programs to provide jobs, training, support for families, child and medical care, housing, and many other “good” measures. They are pleased not to acknowledge the modest achievements of improvement through, paraphrasing Hamilton on the Constitution, “reflection and choice,” because for all practical purposes they think there are no limits to the effectiveness of scientific organization of human life. Under their “orderly, provident, and gentle” rule, the American liberty of the founders, first becomes Liberty itself, and then, as Tocqueville argued, a new sort of tyranny.

Now, as McAllister tells us, and I agree, the institutions that once supported America liberty have decayed and their purposes diverted to new channels, and so he raises the eternal question: What is to be done? Let me briefly pursue this issue through two different threads.

First, early on Americans began to view the institutions of American liberty in different ways. Take public schooling. As McAllister notes, local schools were designed to protect and preserve local but diverse cultures. However, by the 1840s many educators turned their attentions to using the schools to teach a generic, non denominational Protestantism in order to assure that Irish and German Catholic children became “good” Americans. With the rise of professional teacher training university programs, the schools became laboratories of whatever educational theory dominated university curricula. Now, according to McAllister, they are no longer public schools, but government schools dominated by a “liberationist ideology” that reflects the curricula of the modern university. But I would say there has always been a narrow ideology of one sort or another behind American schooling which was designed to protect one culture against various competing cultures, as, indeed schools and churches did even in Dwight’s day in a relatively homogenous society.

Second, in a similar way the family and church and work have become less secure supports for American liberty. As we have learned from Charles Murray, among others, there is little poverty in two parent families where the parents have graduated from high school, gotten jobs, then married, and then had children . But if these steps are taken in a different order, too often the result is a single parent household in which escape from poverty is difficult. When I was a kid this would have been an obvious and unremarkable statement. Now it is a contentious and contested claim. Returning to an older way of looking at local and subsidiary institutions for the support of American liberty will take some new kind of thinking.

Recently, several public intellectuals and thoughtful political figures have argued that if American liberty is to be rejuvenated we must begin to restore, defend, and protect the institutions of liberty against the progressive reformers, and to do that successfully we must find a way to challenge the welfare state. However, this requires a different sort of assault on poverty, one that attacks the impoverished culture more than simply supplying material support to the poor while trapping them in their impoverished state. Arthur Brooks in a long article in the February 2014 issue of Commentary makes one such effort, and a good one at that. I have seen others. But I am not yet convinced that we can devise methods and programs consistent with liberty that will bring the sweeping changes needed. How on earth can we encourage marriage before children when Americans no long agree on what is a family or marriage, and where famous and successful women argue that children can do just fine in homes without a father?

Can we conceive of consciously developed programs to restore those institutions necessary for American liberty to continue to thrive? Imagine, if one can, the horrors likely to be associated with programs to promote marriage, or child birth within wedlock only. Can local successes and experiments, of which there are many, be scaled up to bring about extensive national change? Can aspects of the old welfare state be blended with this new approach? I am skeptical. The State will resist and the people will be obdurate. Any national government program will soon bog down in expensive and controversial bureaucratic regulation. Interest group rent seeking competition will ensure that corruption will emerge.

The late Richard Cornuelle, a friend of Frank Meyer, used to argue that the task of the friends of liberty was not to oppose government, but to out compete it by establishing institutions that performed those public functions better than did the State that claimed them for its own. His version of the Third Way was the Independent Sector. Throughout his life Cornuelle worked to promote such voluntary organizations with a public purpose. His legacy continues today through the Manhattan Institute’s “Richard Cornuelle Award for Social Entrepreneurship”. On this point, Meyer wrote, “When men are free, they will of course form among themselves a multitude of associations to fulfill common purposes when common purposes exist.”

But what if men’s minds are no longer free? At the end of his life, I am not sure how sanguine Cornuelle was about the success of his vision. Perhaps all that we can do is keep alive in scattered remnants the ideal of liberty while striving in our individual lives, and with the help of family, neighbors and friends, to practice the Rev. Dwight’s good works. Perhaps even contemporary Americans, viewing a bleak future ahead, will come to see the costs of any other course of action and we will have a rebirth of American liberty. As Cornuelle’s work shows, the third way, the way of liberty, is not altogether dead among the people at large.