Thomas Jefferson 1821 by Thomas Sully by U.S. Senate Art Gallery-Public Domain
A Collective Sigh
By Richard Girard
"Men are to be guided only by their self-interests. Good government is a good balancing of these; and, except a keen eye and appetite for self-interest, requires no virtue in any quarter. To both parties it is emphatically a machine: to the discontented, a 'taxing-machine'; to the contented, a 'machine for securing property.' Its duties and its faults are not those of a father, but of an active parish-constable."
Thomas Carlyle; Signs of the Times, 1829; first published in Edinburgh Review, No. 98.
"Good government is the outcome of private virtue."
John Jay Chapman; Practical Agitation, chapter 2, 1898.
I start this article with these two strong and seemingly contrary statements. Carlyle states that good government is the balancing of self-interest, requiring "no virtue in any quarter." Chapman contradicts this statement, stating outright that "Good government is the outcome of private virtue." Both of these statements cannot be correct.
Or can they?
The great physicist Niels Bohr once stated (and I'll paraphrase here) that while the opposite of a trivial truth is a falsehood, the opposite of a "great truth" is another "great truth." At that moment, Dr. Bohr was speaking of the seeming contradictions that existed in physics in the study of relativistic and quantum mechanics. However, there are times when his statement is equally true when studying mankind and its institutions.
On the surface, Carlyle's statement seems to be the essential conservative world view: that government is at best a necessary evil, whose sole good is ensuring the security of property rights, but every penny for that security is a cause for contention; every request for money to better ensure the safety of their property is met with cries of "taxes are theft," as if an agreement to a service for a set amount, entitles them to improved service at that same amount for all time.
Carlyle recognized this fault, pointing out in the same essay, "For the 'superior morality,' of which we hear so much, we too would desire to be thankful: at the same time, it were but blindness to deny that this 'superior morality' is properly rather an 'inferior criminality,' produced not by greater love of Virtue, but by greater perfection of Police; and of that far subtler and stronger Police, called Public Opinion." The sense of entitlement that so often accompanies great wealth is nothing new in the world.
In that statement, Carlyle intones the death knell for the justification of Ayn Rand's Objectivism, and every other form of anarcho-capitalist libertarianism, as well as the unmitigated greed of Wall Street financiers that has evolved over the last eighty years.
In my experience, too many libertarians take the basic ideas for their system of political/economic thought, and--without any awareness of the consequences--they unwittingly take those ideas to their logical, but amoral conclusions. They do this without realizing that their new system is not only impractical, but that it is as completely unworkable as any Marxist pipe dream.
It is for this reason that Robert Locke (in his article in the March 14, 2005 issue of The American Conservative) was correct when he called libertarianism "The Marxism of the Right." (See also Mike Huben's " A Non-Libertarian FAQ ," for more on this subject.)
Many libertarians like to use Thomas Paine's quote from chapter 1 of Common Sense (1776), "Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one." The most extreme among them use this as the justification for decreasing government to a size where, in Grover Norquist's famous phrase, "it can be drowned in a bathtub."