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Shain – Self-Interest Versus Virtue: Conservatism and America’s Divided Inheritance

Professor Barry Shain
Colgate University

Self-Interest Versus Virtue:
Conservatism and America’s Divided Inheritance
The Philadelphia Society Regional Meeting
Williamsburg, Virginia, October 4, 2003

Good morning. It is a
pleasure to be here with you, and I am delighted that Bill invited me to appear
on this panel with such distinguished colleagues.
My talk this morning, necessarily, will be at most an outline of the
argument that I wish to advance concerning America’s republican inheritance.
Indeed, on Bill’s urging, my talk will condense the central elements of
three papers I have recently written and so please bear with me if my remarks
are not as detailed as you might like. I
might add, as well, that it is my hope in my remarks to challenge
neo-conservative historiography (and in passing their Napoleonic foreign
policy). With that said and the
clock running, let me begin.

Americans, like most people, have a history containing multiple streams
of competing political standards of value.
All traditions, in truth, demand a measure of choice and some selection
criteria by which one stream rather than another is preferred.
In particular, Americans have inherited from the years
surrounding their country’s separation from Britain, two contrasting visions of
republican government. One vision,
that most readily associated with American ideals held from the time of the
first plantations in the seventeenth century and advanced as the goals of the
War of Independence, held Americans to be particularly virtuous and, thus,
especially capable of democratic self-government.
The second vision, one embraced largely in an atmosphere of
disappointment in the decade following the end of America’s first war of
independence, is best associated with the ideals of self-interest as the
recognized engine of political and social life, and with centralized patterns of
governmental control modeled on America’s British Imperial inheritance.
These are the two visions of "republican" government that, I
suggest, Americans have inherited and that, as conservatives, we are asked to
choose between. That is, we must
choose between the longer-lived vision of virtue and local self-government that
remains resident in localistic and Christian based politics today, and the
shorter-lived vision of self-interest and elite governmental imposition favored
by America’s liberal elites.

If, however, American conservatives choose to defend the older and richer
tradition of virtue and local self-government, then, they find themselves
awkwardly standing in opposition to the most articulate political voices of the
Founding generation. In particular,
they must oppose the precocious liberalism of James Madison.
In effect, honest conservatives cannot have it both ways,
they can defend the values of virtue and local self-government, or they can
defend the liberalism of the most articulate of the nationalistic Founding
Fathers. They cannot honestly do

American conservatives, however, wish like all men to have their cake and
to eat it too. This means that they
would like to defend their American conserva≠tism as well as admiring those who
prominently opposed such norms and worked vigorously to create alternate
ones. But, to avoid such an obvious
contradiction, well-regarded scholars in the conservative world, in particular
the current generation of Straussians, have attempted to persuade their
conservative reader that all good things can stand together: that one can
celebrate both virtue and local self-government, and idealize intransigent
liberal ideologues like Madison. I
wish to persuade you, however, that to be honest and intellectually coherent, no
such choice exists and, instead, one must choose either to celebrate America’s
most enduring values, that of our Reformed Protestant and Revolutionary
forefathers, or that of our Founding liberal elite, most strikingly Madison.

For the sake of the argument to follow, let me assume that most here
agree that America’s history from 1630 to 1770 is one that shared little with
contempo≠rary liberal norms. Americans,
we might consider, (1) initially valued corporate rights more than individual
ones, (2) democratic values more than liberal ones, and (3) local religious
uniformity rather than individual freedom of religion.
I hope as well that most will accept that the alternate vision advanced
at the end of the eighteenth century held that the Revolution’s goals had been
errant. That is, the most advanced
segment of American thought, after the War for Independence, believed that
Americans were (1) not virtuous and (2) they were not truly capable of
local self-government

With this changed and progressive perspective in mind, political thinkers
like Madison were forced to envision a different form of government: that did
not have access either to distinct estates or an established monarchy, that
appeared local and popular, but in reality was guided by centralized elites in
the fashion sought by London in the 1760s.
That is, he had to reinvent the British Imperial government with a new
Rousseauean populous rhetoric, but without certain of its essential features.
It is this vision of government developed by Madison around the years he
co-authored The Federalist that serves as the alternative to the previous
century of American values. As
Madison, following Hume, so powerfully argues in The Federalist, a well
designed government can be built on a foundation of self-interest rather than
virtue, and centralized elite oversight rather than local majoritarianism.
In effect, Madison proposed rejoining the values that Montesquieu and
wary Antifederalists associated readily with monarchy: these are the embrace of
(1) self-interested passions and (2) the Imperial system of control that Britain
developed in eighteenth-century British North America.
Indeed, it was exactly this system of centralized oversight exercised
through a Privy Counsel armed with the capacity to review and veto all local
legislation that Madison so ardently hoped to re-create in America.

Madison, thus, when speaking to his core audience of disappointed
national elite had little use for appeals to virtue.
To have written otherwise would have been to draw foolishly on utopian
ideals. Madison, however, was a man
of some political skill and he knew that such an unadulterated Humean, indeed
Mandevillean, vision of politics would alienate more Americans than it could
ever attract. Thus, Madison was
forced to defend virtue in his written work and speeches.
But, a careful reader today, just as careful readers then,
could tell that these recommenda≠tions were anything but essential to his
political thought. This is evident
when one examines whether Madison’s references to virtue were used to describe
political structures that responded to the critical questions that he believed
any successful plan of government must answer.
And they did not.

To understand accurately Madison’s political teachings, then, one must
uncover what Madison proposed as solutions to the critical problems of govern≠ment:
(1) how to control the governed and prevent them from acting tyrannously against
minorities, and (2) how to control the government so that no one branch would
impose its will on another. In
confronting a work with contradictory claims, one must develop some such
analytic to allow one to discriminate between essential and unessential remarks
(though this is so rarely done). And
Madison’s answers to these questions provide just such a key that will allow us
to uncover his authentic political teachings.
By proposing that the means by which the new American government would
control these twin pathologies of popular government exploited self-interest and
found little or no role for virtue, Madison made clear which discourse, that of
self-interest or that of virtue, was essential.

The first of these problems was majority faction.
To address this, Madison famously argued in The Federalist that
the American system would be designed so that factions would be set against
themselves so that none would be able to affect their will against deviant
minorities or individuals. Madison
argued that by extending the size of the polity and including within it numerous
distinct economic and religious differences, and having these interests
represented in a national representative legislative body, interest would offset
interest. Strikingly, in the system
as he defended it, there is no appeal to virtue in the people or any hope that
the proper inculcation of it could prevent majoritarian tyranny.
All that is expected of the people is that they honestly represent their
self-interest when choosing representatives.
Thus, in proposing a solution to the first of the most intransigent
problems of popular government, Madison turned to well engineered political
institutional mechanisms in a properly designed system that left no role for
popular virtue.

Even if it is widely recognized that his theory of an extended republic
rests on a foundation of properly managed self-interest, it is nonetheless often
ignored that his depiction of it in The Federalist was only part of a
plan that demanded that moral matters be subject to centralized oversight.
Without this, as Madison realized, his goals of protecting minorities
from majoritarian intrusion would be impossi≠ble.
Thus, his most famous exposition in Federalist 10 of the solution
to the first problem of popular government not only makes no room for popular
virtue, but was meaningless until 1925. Only
then when the Supreme Court in "Gitlow vs. New York" reversed its
earlier 1833 ruling in "Barron vs. Baltimore" would his vision take on
life. It is little wonder, then,
that the Supreme Court failed to cite this Federalist essay even once
until the 1970s.

Indeed, his vision of self-interestedness and elite dominance would only
be imposed on the entire country in the glow of the Incorporation Doctrine and
its hyperbolic development under the Warren Court (surely Warren went further
than even Madison would have gone). Curiously,
though, it is only with something like the Warren Court that Madison’s political
vision finally found a vehicle to put in place the essential features of his
plan of government in which a centralized elite would be able to suspend morally
intrusive laws of local majorities, if you will of "moral majorities."
Still, in spite of this and that almost no one understood or showed any
interest in his argument in number 10 until Beard did in the beginning of the
twentieth century, it is Madison’s theory of the extended republic that is read
by students today as characteristic of eighteenth-century thought and as
providing a foundational logic to the Constitution.
Such an understanding, though, is historically without any credibility
and represents instead the hopes of those who wish to import into the eighteenth
century liberal values more appropriately associated with the twentieth.
This kind of dishonesty true conservatives must resist.

But to return to the two problems of popular government that Madison
believes a defensible theory of government must solve, and that provide the key
to discriminating between his authentic and unauthentic theories of government,
we must also briefly consider his solution to the second problem, that of
governmental tyranny. Here too,
Madison proposes that virtue would be little needed.
In fact, again, he offers a vision of government that will take as its
basic engine the seeking after honor. Although
this was more noble than that passion most readily associated with people —
avarice — still it is a selfish passion and, thus, at a considerable remove
from true virtue, be it Christian or republican.

Interestingly, what led Madison to embrace this mechanistic solution was
that he found himself forced to find a solution to the problem of governmental
tyranny that rested on neither of the heretofore time honored solutions: (1) the
monarchical one that made use of distinct estates standing in opposition to each
other, or (2) the republican one that depended on the inculcation of virtue.
The basic ingredients of the first, established classes, did not exist in
America and, according to Madison, the widespread inculcation of virtue through
some form of education had never been successful.
Madison, thus, manfully accepted that he had to propose a novel mechanism
for preventing governmental tyranny that relied on neither estates nor virtue.
Importantly following Hume, he did offer one and defended it
brilliantly in Federalist 47-51. He
proposed that the only acceptable plan of government was one that created
institutional structures so that each individual’s self-interest would be tied
to the structural needs of that branch of government which he occupied.
Thus, each individual’s self-interest, tied as it was to his branch,
would stand vigilant in opposition to the usurping aspirations of other men in
other branches. Madison, thus,
again proposed a mechanism that made use of self-interest rather than virtue in
his discussion of how the second of the twin pathologies that regularly affect
popular governments would be controlled.

In short, in regard both to those to be governed and those who would
govern, Madison’s vision of government depended on the proper channeling of
passion, be it for wealth in the people, or honor in those who would govern.
According to Madison and those whose progressive values he reflected, the
inculcation of virtue was too unreliable a foundation upon which to rest the new
nation’s governance. In fact,
according to the logic of Madison’s plan for controlling the people through
elite imposition, local moral majorities were to be prevented from inculcating
morali≠ty. Indeed, it was exactly
such actions that Madison hoped to control through extending the size of the
republic and national control over moral police.
At every structural level of his plan of government, be it the control
over the people or one branch of government over another, it was self-interest
that was to be in control, not the virtue of Christian or pagan apologists.

Thus, Americans have inherited two visions of republican government and
conservatives do have a choice. We
can celebrate and give voice to the most long-lived, one might suggest most
authentic, American vision of republican self-government guided by a morally
demanding vision of human flourishing, or we can follow neo-conservatives and
defend the precocious liberalism of Madison and its denigration of the corporate
commitment to human virtue. We have
a choice: embrace local self-government and moral education as central to a
well-lived human life, or choose Madisonian liberalism and its twentieth-century
incarnation in something similar to the Warren Court and its embrace of
centralization and individualism. Conservatives
must understand Madison’s vision for the liberal one that it is and, if they are
truly conservative, painfully turn away from it and turn back to the long-lived
vision of American republican government that is Christian and localist.
One must choose, if you will, between adhering to American conservative
ideals or idealizing those who stood against them, and have done much to
undermine them. The choice is

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