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What the Whigs Knew

by Rich Lowry

Our economy and culture would benefit from its remembrance

Eva Moskowitz is a traditional, down-the-line Democrat in almost every respect. She’s a Jewish New Yorker from a family of FDR liberals. “My grandmother would turn over in her grave if she knew I was being interviewed by your publication,” she told me last year.

But Moskowitz is hated by one of the most important bastions of the liberal establishment in New York — the teacher’s union. As a member of the New York City Council, she subjected the union and its absurd work rules to searing public hearings. Defeated for higher office — the union nuked her bid for Manhattan borough president — she took her revenge by starting a chain of charter schools in Harlem that have put the public-school system to shame.

Moskowitz combines a fiery faith in the ability of all children to learn with a traditional — nay, downright retrograde — means of molding them into successful students. The New York Times describes the educational philosophy of her Harlem Success Academy as “a mix of the liberal Bank Street College of Education approach and the traditional Catholic school model.”

“Parents must sign the network’s ‘contract,’ a promise to get children to class on time and in blue-and-orange uniform, guarantee homework, and attend all family events,” New York magazine explains. Children who defy the school’s strict rules must show up for “Saturday Academy” together with their parents. New students get instruction on how to walk appropriately in the school’s “zero noise” hallways and how to engage in active listening — “legs crossed, hands folded, eyes tracking the speaker.”

A nun somewhere is beaming with pride. Moskowitz realizes that learning depends on certain virtues — engagement and responsibility on the part of parents; self-control and respect for rules on the part of children. Her schools are a conveyor belt for those virtues, inculcating them in children and parents alike. Does this make Moskowitz a liberal or a conservative? Arguably it makes her a 19th-century American Whig.

Today, what we tend to know about the Whigs is that they went defunct, so that “going the way of the Whigs” is something to be assiduously avoided. But the Whigs had a profound understanding of the moral underpinnings of a capitalist society that we should recall and revivify.

The Whigs are hard to pin down in terms of contemporary political taxonomy. In very rough shorthand, one might say that they supported the “positive liberal state” (affirmatively working to increase opportunity and promote the public welfare), while the Democrats believed in the “negative liberal state” (leaving people to their own devices). The great historian of the Whigs Daniel Walker Howe objects to this schema, though, because it makes Whigs sound too much like contemporary liberals. “Most deeply separating the Whigs from twentieth-century liberals,” Howe writes in his 1979 book The Political Culture of the American Whigs, “were their moral absolutism, their paternalism, and their concern with imposing discipline.”

Conservatives will rightly recoil from much of the old Whig program: the subsidies for business, the protective tariff, the emphasis on government planning. It’s hard to imagine a less congenial sentiment than that of Whig hero Henry Clay during the Panic of 1837 when he said that people were “entitled to the protecting care of a paternal government.”

The Whigs, though, had a more robustly dynamic vision of capitalism than the Democrats of the time. The Whigs wanted a diversified, modern economy while the Democrats were stuck on a Jeffersonian vision dominated by yeoman farmers. The Whigs celebrated enterprise and economic growth, while the Democrats tended to worry about their unfortunate side effects. And the Whigs had a keener appreciation of what it took for capitalism to thrive. “Whigs correctly perceived,” Howe writes, “that the diversified capitalistic social order they wanted required a population that was literate, ambitious, and disciplined.”

The Whigs were aligned with the religious Right of the day — the makers of that eruption of evangelical Protestantism, the Second Great Awakening — and styled themselves the defenders of middle-class morality. They were the “sober, industrious, thriving” people, in the words of one contemporary observer. Their cultural agenda could be patronizing and restrictive, and put too much faith in the ability of institutions to remake human nature. But at its bottom, Howe writes, the agenda featured “self-denial, self-help, self-control.”

The early Abraham Lincoln was a characteristic Whig in his beliefs, and in his personal story. Abstemious, honest, and devoted to orderliness and the law, he was determined to reach beyond his benighted upbringing on a subsistence farm. “The way for a young man to rise,” he maintained, “is to improve himself every way he can.” Lincoln’s Republicans shed the elitism and condescension of Whiggery and reconciled it with Jacksonian democracy. “They argued,” Howe writes, “that America ought to become a classless society, in which individual initiative and hard work received their just reward when the laborer became a capitalist in his own right.” Lincoln exemplified and promoted this ideal of social mobility.

The enduring insight of the Whigs is that a dynamic capitalist society depends on character, and on character-shaping institutions. Today, preserving such a society is not merely a matter of limiting government and its dampening effect on enterprise, but of fostering individuals who are disciplined, ambitious, and skilled enough to rise within it. The fight against excessive government is only part of the battle.

America has become a less mobile society because so many people have lost touch with the Whiggish virtues, and even more basic ones. Society’s most important character-forming and -reinforcing institution, marriage, is in retreat among everyone outside college graduates. This retreat is why we have a semi-permanent underclass, and it contributes to the struggles of the working class. The dependence on government of able-bodied adults is almost entirely a cultural phenomenon; the economic stagnation of the working class is partly one.

The Left has no interest in hearing this. It champions what can be thought of as a libertine statism — an expansive government that is neutral or hostile toward traditional virtues. It offers dependence on the state to those whose disorderly lives run counter to these virtues and make it difficult to succeed in a capitalist society. It tends to create a society whose dysfunction is a constant call on government.

The opposite of this vision is not libertarianism. It is a limited-government conservatism that is fully cognizant of the moral basis of a robust middle-class society and willing to support it. A conservatism that wants both to reduce dependence on government and to foster social mobility cannot be indifferent to the cultural health of the nation, especially to the health of the institution of marriage that is the seedbed of so many social virtues.

In their book, Creating an Opportunity Society, Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill write of the importance of the basic norms of graduating from high school, working full time (assuming a job is available), and not having children out of wedlock. “Families that adhere to these norms or expectations have a very high probability of entering the middle class,” they write. “Indeed, adhering to all three norms virtually eliminates the possibility of a family living below the poverty line.”

But these norms are eroding among what University of Virginia scholar Bradford Wilcox calls the “solid middle” in his disturbing new study, “When Marriage Disappears.” These are “moderately educated” people who have a high-school degree and perhaps some college, but not a four-year degree. They are 58 percent of the population, and increasingly subject to the inexorable unwinding of the American family. According to Wilcox, 73 percent of the moderately educated were in intact first marriages in the 1970s; now it’s 45 percent. In 1982, 13 percent of their births were out of wedlock; now it’s 44 percent.

This is bad for men, and bad for children. Wilcox notes that marriage encourages habits that make men more productive — they earn more than single men with comparable education and work histories. As for children, those who are in two-parent households are more likely “to graduate from high school, finish college, become gainfully employed, and enjoy a stable family life themselves.” In other words, more likely to honor the norms crucial to thriving in contemporary America.

This puts in perspective the role of limiting government. We could cut the federal government back to 18 percent of GDP — and should — but if marriage were to continue to break down, we’d still end up with a less dynamic and more stratified society. We could continue with the federal government at 25 percent of GDP and if marriage patterns were to revert to those of the 1950s, we’d experience a windfall of social capital — less poverty, more work effort, and more children prepared to succeed. 

Alas, the vitally important issue of marriage is practically taboo in American politics, even among conservative politicians (with a few exceptions). It’s easier to talk exclusively about the size of government, because it doesn’t leave you open to charges of hypocrisy over your own failings, and it doesn’t risk sounding judgmental of people’s personal lives. The breakdown of marriage is also a deeply ingrained social phenomenon with no ready solutions.

What government can do — and it’s inherently marginal — is to tell people that marriage is important. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation suggests a multi-pronged effort, mostly involving already-existing programs: telling kids in high school of the disastrous consequences for their lives of having children out of wedlock; running a public ad campaign — signs on buses and the like — touting marriage as the best tool for fighting poverty; forcing Title X birth-control clinics, where poor and working-class women go for birth control, to provide information about the importance of marriage; reducing the rewards of single parenthood in the welfare system.

Will this move the needle on marriage? We won’t know until we try. We’ve done much more to try to change attitudes and behavior (successfully) regarding matters that are much less momentous, from smoking to recycling. If only the ingredients of middle-class morality — not just marriage, but delayed gratification generally, including thrift — were such a public focus.

Rightly understood, a socially conservative agenda that concerns itself with the health of our culture dovetails with a fiscally conservative agenda that concerns itself with the health of our economy; the work of both serves to preserve and enhance opportunity in America. The quality of a capitalist society depends on its human fiber. That’s what the Whigs knew.

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