In my opinion, a man is born neutral. I hesitate to say we are born good and thoroughly reject the idea we are born bad. Society and the conditions we are raised in corrupt our innocence for the worst. We adopt a vanity and amour-propre (a sense of self-esteem) among other characteristics that drive our actions to benefit our own self-interests. The limits to this self-interest can be instilled through a proper education. Since everyone’s environment and conditions of growing up are different, everyone’s natural limits to their vain interests are inherently different. A man raised in the streets of Syria, forced to fight in the rebellion of the regime, will see his natural limits are far exceeding those of a young man raised in a quiet countryside. Desensitization of the senses and degradation of our natural innocence harden one’s soul and distance the gap between one’s self and common humanity with others. Everyone has a natural limit to their self-interest and corruption that is set by the experiences one faces in life. Education can manipulate this limit.
Now, the Founders of the United States were political philosophers in their own right. They understood the human condition and the self-interested behavior we all exhibit. In forming a government that was built on the concept of natural right, individualism, liberty and equality, the Founders had to find a way to control the passions of the common man. It is impossible to instill virtue into everyone because that would be a violation of liberty as well as futile due to people not accepting what they don’t want.
Furthermore, the passions cannot be suppressed if liberty is a central theme of the new government. In this, the Founders realized that people will inevitably be corrupted by society. The people will not be great, and they will strive for vain and petty achievement such as commercial gains and monetary pursuits rather than virtue and excellence. Therefore, the United States must have a great government to counteract the passions of the people. The Founders did this by installing institutions to channel the passions of the people to create an effective government. The system of checks and balances promotes competition and oversight between the branches; the separation of powers makes best of the jealousy and the fact that people love what is their own so that no branches may act in another’s capacity; and term lengths make the House of Representatives responsive to the people, and the President and Senate less responsive and more deliberative, respectively. These three mechanisms are only a few examples in our anti-majoritarian constitution, in which peoples’ passions in and out of the government can be channeled for good governance. Stability is brought about by chaos.
Men are not angels, therefore we need government. Thank you, Thomas Jefferson, even though I am more a Hamiltonian. Republics are the best form of government because we need an “elite” population to rule. Those who are educated and possess civic and democratic virtue are elected by the population, while those who only care for themselves can chase commercial interests. As I have said before, capitalism and the commercial, petty interests that ordinary men chase are a type of non-governmental institution. They keep the men who are not born with a certain civic virtue interested in the appetitive things in life, while those with virtue and public interests in their heart are elected.
A thought on a crisis of liberal democracy: I postulate that it is a good sign of the republic to have low civic engagement. I do so on the basis of what I said above, that good governance brings stability. Americans are not politicized; they are solely interested in commercial enterprise. They are not enthusiastic to vote or engage in political activities. This is because the government is doing its job. If the government is maintaining stability and security for its populace, then what have the people to worry about? They will grow complicit with the status quo, even if it means that men and women around the world slave over iPhones and die in foreign wars. With men occupied with business and capital gain, they are not worried about the government and political issues. Americans are fortunate enough to not have to worry and stress over true struggles such as invasion, being conquered by enemies or financial collapse and instability. We worry about what show is on tonight, whether the Wi-Fi is connected or when the next iPhone comes out. The average citizen not being enthusiastically engaged in voting and other voluntary civic engagement projects is a sign of stability and good governance that promotes liberty, people’s liberty to be petty and not virtuous, and their freedom to chase commercial ambitions. Only when the nation is in distress do people involve themselves in public affairs, rightfully so.
This is not a denunciation of democracy, but the pronouncement that when the democratic processes of civic engagement are not utilized to their fullest extent by every citizen is a sign of good governance and stability. Voting access and the ability to engage must always be present so that when trials come about and voices need to be heard, they may be channeled through votes and campaigns rather than fire and lawlessness. In my previous gripes, I have complained of Georgia’s limits on those who can practically run for the state legislature because of this. This ability for a citizen to be civilly engaged is hindered, thus blocking a fair chance for those with civic virtue to run. You will not see many run until trials and tribulations come about to where they feel they must.
Greyson Oswalt-Smith is a political science major at Kennesaw State University. He studies and writes on political philosophy and government.