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The Constitution’s Design for Creating Civic Virtue: Part II

This is the second part of a three-part summary of a speech that I gave last weekend at the 2015 National Lawyers Convention of the Federalist Society. The first part focuses on how commerce encourages civic virtue. The second continues by discussing how limited government aids civic culture and how the Constitution helps assure that religion will be helpful rather than harmful to that culture:

Besides encouraging a commercial society, the Constitution also sharply limits government. The federal government is limited by the enumerated powers. The states’ capacity to create large, intrusive, anti-commercial government is circumscribed by the right of citizens to exit. To take just a purely hypothetical example, if my home state of Illinois exacts large taxes in favor of small groups like public sector unions, many of its citizens will leave.

Limited government creates the space and indeed the need for the kind of private associations that Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated.  Varying in size and mission, these associations may concern self-improvement, mutual aid, or social welfare. As the Nobel Prize-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom showed, these associations can help people develop bonds of social trust and maintain long-term relations of reciprocal goodwill, which can also help sustain a free society.

Civic associations also promote a necessary outward judgment about bad behavior that helps others exercise self-restraint. One of the worst aspects of the welfare state has been its crowding out of private welfare associations that distinguish between those that are needy through no fault of their own and those whose behavior needs to change.

Civic associations need not be religious. To be sure, they can be. And it is essential that the Constitution protect the freedom of religious institutions to compete with secular groups in their ability to nurture virtue.   But it is the Constitution that assures religion will be an aid to civil society rather than religion that assures that Constitution will perform that function.  It is only religious freedom, not raw religious sentiment, which guarantees that religion will operate in the public interest.

After all, how religion affects the public order depends on the nature of the religion. Not any religion will do.  The pantheism that is behind much of the radical environmental movement will not help either. And there are others too, like Scientology and even some Christian cults, that will be counterproductive.  Religious freedom moderates religious extremism and intolerance as religions must compete for adherents. Yet such competition also rewards religions that demand some discipline from their believers.

And history has shown that religion tend to tyranny when given monopoly power.  Here again the Constitution’s establishment clause, not religion itself, is responsible for requiring religious associations to compete without the aid of coercive state power.

Limited government also helps preserve the family, another force for civic virtue. The family is among other things a social insurance program that is a competitor to big government. But unlike government, the family instills discipline on all sorts of matters from finance to self-restraint.   But as Charles Murray showed, departing from limited government through federal welfare programs weakens family and the virtues it brings to the social order.

In short, the Constitution, if followed, creates a culture that is conducive to generating a morality of self-restraint, judgmentalism and trust in associations with others that sustains ordered liberty and the Constitution itself. It does so by harnessing elements of human nature, like self-interest and reciprocal altruism. Indeed, perhaps the Constitution’s greatest innovation was the use of governmental structure to turn man as he is into a being capable of self-government.

Reader Discussion

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on November 21, 2015 at 14:31:48 pm

Great comments. Your blog is fantastic. Some additional thoughts. http://blackstoneinitiative.com/2013/07/08/returning-to-a-trinitarian-government/.

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David Linton

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.