Convivium - Faith in our common life

Convivium Volume 1, No. 2


Liberality, Littles Caesars, & Value Statement 12

by Travis D. Smith

Being nuanced and varied, conservative I wondered why conservatives would choose to thought resists ideological consolidation and defies formulaic sloganeering; and so redefining it is beyond the scope of any single discussion. It may seem that redefining conservatism sounds self-contradictory, but conservatives know that politics must be practised prudently, that inflexible, abstract principles must not be directly imposed on society, and thus some adaptation to circumstances is always warranted if change moving forward in a conservative direction is to meet with any success. Contrary to the accusations of their detractors, conservatives are not essentially nostalgic. The past is not their standard, but they are not averse to taking lessons from it in order to discern what reasonably could be done to make things better in a manner compatible with the whole of human nature. It is progressivism's monolithic, wilful narrative regarding history's inexorable trajectory made manifest through enlightened social and moral evolution to which conservatives object.

My limited purpose in what follows is to comment on one subject in particular that proved a recurring theme at the Manning Centre for Building Democracy's conference this year: generosity. One may dispute whether it is the greatest priority, but I believe that it is a necessary component of any conservative vision for Canada's future that would hope to enjoy good prospects. Generosity, I argue, must be distinguished from Machiavellian liberality, the political-philosophical root of redistributive policies in modern polities.

In preparing these remarks, I reviewed the Manning Centre's 2011 Barometer, and one thing in particular really grabbed my attention as odd. In what is labelled as Value Statement 12, pollsters report they asked respondents whether they agree "we all have a responsibility to look after those less fortunate than ourselves." The "disagree" position is described as "more conservative." When I read this I wondered why conservatives would choose to embrace this caricature of themselves. Other questions in the survey also give the impression that people either regard themselves as wholly responsible for themselves or suppose that government should be responsible for all of us. I wondered why conservatives would accept this false choice.

Surely one can agree that servitude under a leviathan state is unpalatable and that the concept of "collective responsibility" is something of a ruse without embracing radical individualism. It is conceivable that a pervasive State-oriented attitude toward public assistance drives those who are allergic to the slightest whiff of collectivism all the way in the opposite direction, losing sight of the natural goodness and necessity of generosity as a virtue. If I may subvert Karl Marx's observation that wage labour snuffs out creative self-expression, well, resentment against what is felt as excessive mandatory giving may sour people on giving voluntarily. But as Alexis de Tocqueville made clear in the mid-19th century, excessive individualism is a recipe for soft despotism, not freedom. The question is not whether people who need help should have any recourse, but rather what kind of help is best? By way of the State's coercive mechanisms. Or in civil society through voluntary action?

In rejecting the statists' position, why should conservatives adopt the immoralists' point of view as their own, saying something like, "Sorry pal, that's your problem! I'm through being pushed around. From now on I just look out for No. 1, and that means me!" Now, maybe my puzzlement is a result of the way the survey questions were worded. Asking people to "look after" everyone else sounds a little too illiberal. Perhaps it is indicative of the limitations inherent in plotting the actual political positions of real people on one-dimensional scales. But what I just cannot imagine is that conservatives would want to play the part of the big meanies that their opponents like to cast them in.

In order to appreciate the justifications of the welfare State, I suggest revisiting the works of that notorious Renaissance Florentine, Niccolò Machiavelli. In laying the foundations for the reorganization of political life, Machiavelli attempted to redefine each of the virtues, even the concept of virtue itself.

In his handling of liberality, the virtue of giving, Machiavelli noted that princes who are generous actually impoverish themselves. Still, a reputation for liberality can be advantageous. So Machiavelli recommended finding ways to acquire other people's wealth to spend. In so doing, a prince can gain a reputation for being generous without it costing him.

Traditionally, a king's treasury was literally his own wealth, spent in his own name. Contrast that with modern representative government, in which legislators spend from the public purse without incurring personal expense. A candidate vying for office can earn a reputation for being generous and compassionate by pledging to be his or her brothers' and sisters' keeper. Women and men who vote for Machiavellian operators of this sort are then apt to esteem themselves as righteous for being the authors of their favoured candidates' presumptive generosity, even when standing to benefit from their promised favours. Liberals and non-liberals alike may then feel themselves alleviated of the impulse to help others personally and more directly. After all, they have paid their "fair share" of taxes, possibly more, to entrust the government with saving them the trouble. The clients of social services come to prefer indirect public assistance, too, since this arrangement tends to liberate them from the feelings of shame, humiliation and indebtedness that normally serve to stimulate a renewed sense of responsibility. Without developing the habits of giving, people will lack the good judgment that comes with the experience of giving. As befits our contemporary discomfort with being judgmental, people will have difficulty discerning when gifts are wasted or misallocated, or when well-intentioned help actually harms.

It is not incidental that abiding by Machiavelli's recommendations has an effect on the internal character of people. That is half the point, at least as important as the external consequences of heeding his advice. Thomas Hobbes made this explicit when he employed Machiavellian precepts as moral principles in his political science. Hobbes envisioned a society in which every individual would be personally dependent on the State, their eyes and ears fixed on what it tells them to say or do. All forms of private association would be distrusted and discouraged, especially religious organizations that do not follow the script. Personal qualities such as generosity, gratitude, courage, moderation and independent thought would be frowned upon and neglected. Treating people like appetite-satisfying and painaverse beasts, Hobbes argued that people should be permitted regulated licence to do what they please with respect to the lowest pleasures while the free exercise of their higher faculties should be deemed vain and dangerous. By cultivating in people a fear of insecurity and an aversion to risk, they will look to the State to enable, supply, monitor and safeguard their pleasures and cure their pains.

Now, even without raising the question of how successful or efficient government institutions of public assistance are, I do not see why people who obey Machiavelli's orders should get away with claiming the moral high ground. That said, at least they are not altogether bad. Machiavelli himself would be disappointed in modern liberals for being insufficiently Machiavellian. He anticipated that if liberal spending were too lavish, liberals would have no choice but "to be rigorous with taxes." This would make them hateful. And when they eventually have to impose austerity measures, they would only become more hateful still. Machiavelli generally recommends seeming stingy, holding back some of what you could give and imposing extra restrictions and costs on people, so that when these burdens are slightly lightened or more assistance is provided, people are thankful. Leading people to believe that they deserve lots and lots as a matter of entitlement only guarantees their ingratitude. It also proves unsustainable. It is bounty poured from a cup that runneth dry. Just ask the Greeksétoday's Greeks, that is, not Aristotle, who warned that pouring water into leaky casks is injudicious.

Certain ambitious people, Machiavelli recognizes, do benefit from a reputation for great liberality, namely those who are on the road to becoming princes, like Caesar. Within a representative system of government such as we now enjoy, our candidates for political office are always in the position of trying to become or remain little Caesars. The system as a whole is, therefore, decidedly tilted in the direction of an ongoing overuse of Machiavellian liberality. Accordingly, instead of expecting the public sector to come to the aid of civil society whenever it falls short, it is commonplace now for people to think that the State should and can accomplish pretty much anything we desire, and what remains of civil society may be allowed to provide temporary stop-gaps or bonus top-ups, subject, of course, to State sanction and preferably reliant on State sponsorship.

The defence of generosity I would make, against Machiavellian liberality, is not, strictly speaking Aristotelian. Aristotle would not defend generosity or any of the virtues simply on account of their being useful and pleasurable. (Although he would affirm that generosity is both, at least to the generous person, whereas the stingy person predictably finds generosity painful and denies its utility.) Virtues are rightly praised because they are noble. They are essential to human flourishing, to living well this oneand-only life that each one of us is given. But that is too lofty for us democrats. It is enough for us to recognize that generosity remains necessary among human beings because we are not self-sufficient creatures.

Related to that point, I want to briefly contrast Machiavellian liberality with Christian charity before recommending greater generosity for lesser reasons. Some churches in the Westéprincipally those whose clergy have largely converted to Marxism and postmodernisméconflate love with social justice. It is as if they believe that approving of higher tax rates (especially on others) and championing greater social spending constitute works of love. I do not mean here to go into how placing one's trust in the secular State is to sleep with the enemy. I mean, sure, Scripture does say to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but not because Caesar is so very awesome at what he doeséby my recollection, the agents of Caesar are usually portrayed as villains in the old bookébut rather because money is not the one thing needful. To be sure, almsgiving is a Christian imperative.

Still, it remains unclear to me how it is rightly called charitable, on Christian grounds, to advocate for policies the upshot of which is to multiply covetousness, breed resentment, make an idol of an earthly sovereign, and focus man's attention on the bread of this world alone. These effects amount to serious stumbling blocks, I'd say. Progressivist believers who hope to fix the world through social and economic policy in effect aim at proving Scripture wrong when it says of the poor that we will always have them with usémainly because they cannot condone its corollary, that we will always have the rich with us, too.

In a democratic setting, admitting the fact that poverty is ineradicable should summon forth a prudent defence of greater generosity. The poor and otherwise less fortunate will always need some help, and often they will ask for it. Where help is not readily available to them, they may well demand it. In a society such as ours, that means using democratic mechanisms and sentiments to their perceived advantage, and it may be reckoned that leaders will always arise claiming to represent them.

Aristotle says that wishful thinking has no proper place in political deliberation, and it is certainly romantic to believe in the possibility of the rational State that will successfully engineer egalitarian justice for all forever and ever through ambitious policies and powerful national institutions without reference to people's character. It is, however, no less romantic to suppose that people who have hitherto not learned to take good care of themselves and others will spontaneously prove capable of doing so should drastic measures to cut taxes and spending be imposed rapidly in conformity withstrict principles.It is one thing for conservatives to affirm as a matterof ideological certitude that it is better if peopletake responsibility for themselves and others aroundthem without immediate and constant recourse tothe State.

The repeated assertion of this conviction, however, even when accompanied by sophisticatedeconomic calculations, is insufficient. It will notconvince those smitten with the assurances andperceived benefits of massive public spending andexpansive social programs to stop clamouring fortheméparticularly when they pride themselves fortheir moral superiority in supporting them.Naturally, men and women with jobs and familiesare at a tactical disadvantage when compared tostudent activists, community organizers, massprotestors and their ilk, all of whom tend to enjoy fewer real responsibilities and who, therefore, havemore time to commit and less to lose by lobbying for the greater entanglement of state institutions inevery social relation and situation.

It neverthelessfalls to conservatives to take the lead in setting theright example by working, as individuals, as supportersof charitable organizations, and as membersof religious groups, voluntary associations andlocal communities, redoubling their efforts if needbe and motivating others to join in, too, so thatmore people might be persuaded of their claim thatpeople in need of help are better served by effortsmade within civil society than through the bureaucratic behemoth.

The long-term problem is fundamentally ethical,not economical or institutional. Moral regeneration is more crucial to ameliorating the situation than is the manipulation of financial motivations. On thepolicy front then, a higher tax credit for charitablegiving would not be a bad start, but it is no panacea.Government can be instructed to find ways to disincentivize dependence on centralized power,but it goes against its nature to follow through.

To express further the need for government toreincentivize personal and interpersonal responsibilityis somewhat imprecise, since it paradoxicallyretains government as the principal active agent.

I guess one could say that government should find ways to de-disincentivize generosity and interpersonal responsibility, but "de-disincentivize" is an ugly-sounding term that doesn't make for a good bumper sticker.

I have often thought that it would make a good drinking game, while watching the evening news, to take a shot every time a broadcast journalist editorializes a story by musing, "Is the federal government doing enough to solve this problem?" I imagine that the CBC would be made more tolerable thereby. Ultimately, conservatives do not help their own cause when they focus their attention primarily on centres of political power no less than their rivals. When JFK told people to ask what they can do for their country rather than what their country can do for them, he overlooked the more basic human question, which is to ask what you and your fellow citizens can do for each other without getting the country involved in our every affair. You know the environmentalist slogan "act locally, think globally"? Well, I submit that we should "act locally and think locally." There is, I confess, less glamour and glory to be won by taking that standpoint, and our geographically vast nation, globalized marketplace and technological powers and mindset all conspire to stymie it.

The results of the Manning Centre's survey reveal that the younger generation is even more enamoured with audacious, transformative change at the national or international level intending to bring about equality of results. This finding is somewhat disheartening. Maybe it is only a sign of youthful inexperience and exuberance. I suspect that a lot of it derives from the nonsensical notion of being "citizens of the world" to which they have been inculcated. (The concept is technically self-contradictory, and what is more, Christians and all free peoples understand that the idea of global governance is an abominable one.) With their imaginations trained on the global plane, it is no wonder that younger Canadians either feel the only option is "systemic change"éa lovely euphemism, thatéor feel helpless about the ability of one person to do any good. They underestimate how much power ordinary people have in shaping their own lives and having a positive impact on the lives of others. They should set aside world-changing fantasies and content themselves with the more modest mission of being life-changing. Meaningful ethical change is mundane, cumulative and built on real experiences gained by acting personally in concert with others. Conservatives must continue demonstrating what ordinary people can realistically accomplish together for each other without the need for federal and provincial logos emblazoned on everything.

When the virtue of generosity is not learned, people will instead exhibit its deficiency or excess, stinginess and wastefulnesséboth of which abound in our private lives and public spending. Aristotle observed that stinginess comes more easily to people than wastefulness. He goes so far as to declare stinginess incurable. We must hope that he is wrong about that. There are reasons to be hopeful. The cultural reserves have been suppressed, but they are not entirely depleted. Returning to the Manning Centre's Barometer and Value Statement 12, while the graph claims that not tending to the less fortunate is more conservative, when you inspect the report's statistical summaries you discover that only one in five people who self-identify as conservative actually say they hold this supposedly "more conservative" opinion. That said, unless and until civil society is defibrillated and revitalized and this stated willingness to be generous is realized and recognized, I suspect that a Conservative Party may still win elections, but it will have difficulty gaining and maintaining momentum for governing in a discernibly conservative fashion. Broader support for that endeavour will be won only when more people's experience confirms that it would genuinely make their own lives and the lives of those around them better.

In the meantime, it would not hurt if the virtue of magnificence made its resurgence, too. That eventuality would provide the best defence against the accusation that commercial society yields oligarchy. As Plato anticipated, the transition from democracy to tyranny is signalled when inequalities are no longer accepted as the invariable consequence of liberty, auspiciously redounding to society's broader benefit, and become perceived instead as inherently unjust and outright oppressive, and when the wealthy no longer merely appear oligarchical from the perspective of the discontented unfortunate but instead react to changing opinions by behaving like actual oligarchs.


 

About Travis D. Smith

Travis D. Smith is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal.