Politics & Policy

Moral Individuals Make for Limited Government: John Adams’s Conservative Message

Beneath news headlines and politics focused on ephemeral issues, the great questions of political life in American society continue to roil. Perhaps the most important is the relationship between the citizen and the state.

As conservatives look at a rapidly changing society, they may well ask, How connected are the qualities of the citizenry and the nature of their government? Should a less moral citizenry, for example, be governed by a more powerful government? Conservatives argue that the two should be separate, since the natural rights of man, regardless of his character, demand limits on government. Yet, in the actual conditions of society, the connection between the two is more direct, leading us to justify the nature of our government in light of the quality of the citizenry.

In seeking to keep the two elements separate, conservatives run afoul of what often seems to be common sense, making their prescriptions seem both coldhearted and irrelevant to the reality of a complex society. Explicitly linking the two, however, as did Founding Father John Adams, may help make the conservative argument resonate more effectively.

This question is insightfully treated in Richard Samuelson’s article “John Adams vs. Edmund Burke,” in the always excellent Claremont Review of Books. Samuelson argues that Adams’s opposition to radicalism was based in his understanding of the nature of man, and was not a Burkean defense of tradition per se. This philosophical position animated Adams’s belief that government should be limited.

To buttress the point, Samuelson quotes from Article XVIII of Adams’s Massachusetts Constitution, written in 1780. The relevant passage reads: “A constant adherence to those [principles] of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty and to maintain a free government.”

As Samuelson argues, the Article encapsulates Adams’s belief that a “free government could only exist among a virtuous citizenry.” On the contrary, “if [the citizenry] would only respond to force, the government would have to be more intrusive.”

Conservatives rightfully distinguish themselves from progressives by a focus on the individual’s liberty and right to largely unfettered enterprise. By comparison, as Yuval Levin puts it in his outstanding essay “The Roots of a Reforming Conservatism,” the Left believes that “a greater reliance on government [is] unavoidable, because the only alternative is a radical and simple-minded individualism.” A belief in technocratic expertise as opposed to the often-chaotic workings of the market rounds out the progressive approach to organizing society.

Yet perhaps too often, conservatives separate Adams’s insight into two distinct issues of concern: what is often labeled “social conservatism,” a cultural focus on the character of the individual, and the power of government, usually indicted for its size and oppressive quality. Doing so may lead conservatives to remain focused on the ideology of progressives — the desire to increase the scope and power of government — but with less appreciation for how the logic of the progressive vision is explained by the character of the citizenry. Adams, clearly, saw how the two were intimately related.

The small part of the Massachusetts Constitution quoted by Samuelson partakes of both anthropological and sociological elements, to borrow Levin’s taxonomy of the roots of conservatism. The anthropological part is the focus on the moral qualities of the citizenry. The sociological element is the nature of the government, either intrusive or free, to use Adams’s terminology. Levin notes rightly how the moral qualities of the citizenry naturally give rise to the nature of the government. He ends his discussion by introducing an epistemological element, the belief in rational design and government institutions.

In order to counter, at least in part, the progressive message about society and the need for more government, conservatives should consider that the moral failings of significant parts of contemporary American society can make the progressive argument compelling. Some of what progressives advocate makes sense when viewed from Levin’s anthropological angle — that is, when people act in certain ways, it seems logical to desire more government intervention to correct their transgressions.

Consider “moderation,” listed by Adams as a virtue. Urban rioting over alleged police abuses helps to justify the creeping militarization of police nationwide and federal government investigations of local governance. The nihilistic destruction of private property by urban rioters over alleged injustices through which they have suffered no direct personal injury exposes the breakdown of family and community structures. Their actions encourage a militarization that has been sought by municipalities seeking to enhance their own power, even in a period when crime rates hover near historic lows, and makes easier the Justice Department’s expanded presence at the local level. Meanwhile, the chaos of a Baltimore or a Ferguson lends credence to the call for curfews, the National Guard, and other elements of state and local power. Who does not want a phalanx of armored police on their street when flames threaten to engulf one’s property?

Conservatives should consider more explicitly linking their understanding of morality with their mission to restrict the scope of government.

Similarly, Adams’s argument implies that a lack of “industry” — i.e. labor — will necessitate more government intervention in the economy, to create opportunity, no matter how inefficiently, as well as to provide for those unable to secure a livelihood for themselves. With the U.S. labor-participation rate at its lowest since the late 1970s — by some estimates, at least 20 million working-age Americans are not participating in the labor force — the progressive argument that more government assistance and jobs programs are needed makes sense to many, even though one-third of U.S. households are already on some type of means-tested government assistance. Principled opposition to massive government social spending is excoriated as cruel, if not racially motivated, while the argument that any type of work is ennobling and socially responsible is lost in the cacophony.

Finally, Adams’s invocation of “frugality” reminds us that it was profligate spending on housing and other personal debt that tipped the country into the 2008 recession, providing an entrée for both the Bush and Obama administrations to massively increase stimulus spending, the public debt, and government intervention in the economy. The lack of frugality on the part of GM, AIG, and other companies affected by the recession threatened to overwhelm the economy, or so the government claimed, thereby justifying even more intervention in the form of massive bailouts.

All this, and more, has helped solidify the intrusive nature of government in our day, justifying both a government less free for its citizens and a less-free society. The overturning of the Founders’ constitutional framework may have begun in the 1910s, with Woodrow Wilson; or in 1942, with Wickard v. Filburn, which extended the Commerce Clause to almost all economic activity; or through FDR’s New Deal. It is reasonable to suspect that, as government hedges to individual freedom grew and hardened, our collective and individual character changed such that we became both more accepting of and more dependent on such restrictions.

The citizenry in some way is thus trapped by history. But while the macro level may be out of his hands, the individual can still determine his own behavior. Even given governmental intrusion, the sphere of individual morality — how he conducts himself as a still-largely-independent actor — is not fated to be reduced or enervated. If he exercises his freedoms, respects the law, and is gainfully employed, he collectively reduces the need for an intrusive government, as Adams understood. In acting otherwise, he invites his own fetters.

Conservatives should consider more explicitly linking their understanding of morality with their mission to restrict the scope of government. We should embrace a position that celebrates American individualism but demands of it moral responsibility and explains how that ultimately forms the larger free society in which live.

From that, a further argument can be made against the progressive assertion that government must encroach ever more on a putatively dangerous individualism. It would be a great victory if this were taught in our public schools. In any case, we should emphasize it in the conservative vocabulary in media and culture, and encourage our churches and synagogues to adopt the position.

By appealing to individual dignity and responsibility, and by explaining how collectively those qualities determine to some degree how much freedom we enjoy, conservatives can move closer to achieving two of their most cherished goals. And by warning of the consequences of a failure in morality, we can appeal to the deep spark of freedom that still burns in the breasts of millions of our fellow citizens.

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