I recently began a book by Princeton University professor Robert George entitled Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism. The book is provocatively titled, to be sure, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. I have only completed a few chapters, but already I have found much to ponder on the subjects of civility and social health, broadly speaking. I plan to share some of those insights in the weeks ahead and hope that they might provide food for thought for readers, whether left, right or center.
My reading this morning came from a chapter called “The Limits of Constitutional Limits.” It concerns the question of how we, as members of a liberal democratic regime, can ensure that our rulers are themselves ruled—that is, that they exercise their power within certain, carefully defined limits: “rules they do not themselves make and cannot easily or purely on their initiative revise or repeal.”
Although George is a scholar of jurisprudence (and, incidentally, holds the same chair at Princeton that was held by Woodrow Wilson), and is therefore familiar with the various constitutional limits on power, he argues that these limits, taken alone, cannot prevent the state’s encroachment on civil liberties. We need something more. The people themselves must get involved, particularly through their participation in the institutions of civil society—namely, non-government organizations like the family, the church, private organizations and educational bodies that “provide a buffer between the individual and the state.”
“These institutions,” George writes, “sustain a culture in which political institutions do what they are established to do, do it well, and don’t do what they are not authorized to do.” Civil society does this by “inculcating knowledge and virtue” in its members and by providing “health, education, and welfare functions” that would otherwise fall to the state.
George’s point about virtue is especially interesting. He quotes John Adams, who said that “our Constitution is made for a moral and religious people” and “is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” George seeks to explain what, to our ears, may strike us as Adams’ perplexing and even shocking statement. We need virtue, George says:
“Because a people lacking in virtue could be counted on to trade liberty for protection, for financial or personal security, for comfort, for being looked after, for being taken care of, for having their problems solved quickly. There will always be people occupying or standing for public office who will be happy to offer the deal—an expansion of their power in return for what they can offer by virtue of that expansion.”
Hence the need for a virtuous citizenry, working together in various civil (that is, non-governmental, buffering) societies, to ensure that constitutionally-mandated limits to power remain in force. (Note: for those interested in a more in-depth exploration of the relationship between freedom and virtue, I highly recommend Os Guinness’s book A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future.)
This raises a problem, however. On the one hand, we the people must work together to prevent governmental overreach; we must be potters, as it were, shaping aberrations in the “clay” of our state back into their original mold. Yet, on the other hand, we ourselves are susceptible to being shaped by that same state, such that we become ill-suited for our task of reform.
George raises this point powerfully in a discussion about the nature of public discourse. He notes a 2008 incident involving Jeremy Waldron, an Oxford University legal and political philosopher, who returned to his home country of New Zealand to chide its parliament on the state of its discourse.
“Waldron,” George writes, “concluded by pointing to the possibility that the deficiencies of parliamentary debate may be at least partially compensated for by a higher quality of public debate, which could prompt the reforms necessary to begin restoring the integrity of parliamentary debate. But he warned that things could also go the other way. The corruption of parliamentary debate could ‘infect the political culture at large,’ driving public debate down to the condition of parliamentary debate.”
If that happens, then our public forums become places where, in Waldron’s words, “Debate is closed down…where the greatest victory is drowning out your opponent with the noise that you can bring to bear. And then the premium is on name-calling, on who can bawl the loudest, who can most readily trivialize an opponent’s position, who can succeed in embarrassing or shaping or if need be blackmailing into silence anyone who holds a different view.”
George calls this description chilling. I agree. It is also eerily familiar. Suffice it to say that our public discourse has by and large actualized the above description. Yet we needn’t continue.
We, who are reeling from the current state of political and civil discourse, can recognize the problem and refuse to participate in it. We can commit—in our families and religious organizations, classrooms and town halls, online and off—to practicing respectful, principled disagreement, the kind that brings clarity to controversy and clears a path toward reconciliation. In so doing, we can reclaim the kind of public discourse needed for us to work together to promote the health and, yes, even the liberty of our society.