When Mitt Romney blurted out his now notorious 47-percent lament, liberal gaffe-o-meters went ballistic, acting as though he were an American Ebenezer Scrooge who had just shoved Tiny Tim Cratchit into a ditch and then burned down a crutch factory. As several observers have noted, this amorphous statistic includes myriads of worthy beneficiaries indeed, such as veterans, social security recipients, the physically or mentally disabled, the deserving poor, and those utterly unable to take care of themselves in a society where the federal government has assumed tasks that once were the place of families, churches, voluntary organizations, and state or local governments. And the president’s advocates have leapt on this figure, which has since exploded in campaign ads that feature a heartless Romney dismissing nearly half of the American population as too anesthetized by government dependency to take seriously in this election.
However, beneath Romney’s clumsy formulation lies a fear that troubles many who are deeply alarmed by the effects of America’s burgeoning welfare state, and by those whose historical memories extend to sacrifices made by previous generations, from World War II to the country’s origins. It is a matter of America’s declining public virtue, which is indispensable to the maintenance of a republic. Indeed, our Founding Fathers knew that despite their best efforts in constitutional construction, a country without a modicum of public virtue will collapse as surely as all previous republics had in the past.
It is instructive to consider two kinds of virtue that are necessary for the maintenance of the American constitutional order. The first one may be labeled the virtue of sacrifice, which refers to acts with which we are all familiar. It is the firefighter who plunges into an inferno to save those trapped inside; it is the young lieutenant who braves enemy fire, takes the lead, and yells, “follow me!”
In terms of politics, the virtue of sacrifice is equivalent to statesmanship, which refers to acts that transcend one’s personal interest for the sake of the greater good. Thus, George Washington made decisions, such as supporting the Jay Treaty, which generated vicious charges worthy of the young country’s worst traitors; he was declared “senile” and accused of treason. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln insisted that the presidential election of 1864 go forward, regardless of the fact that he was convinced he would lose. No matter, the greater good of all America prevailed in Americans’ decisions, which subsequent generations can only admire with a sense of awe and wonder. Statesmanship is as rare in public life as it is precious.
The virtue of restraint entails suppression of immediate desires, not so much for considerations of a larger good, but rather because thoughtless self-aggrandizement violates a person’s conscience. Thus, decent, virtuous individuals confine their urges with the vise-grip of virtuous restraint, succumbing neither to sentiment nor self-interest, with the knowledge that a short-term surrender to impulses can lead to later regret. In constitutional terms, James Madison justified the existence of the U.S. Senate by asserting in Federalist 63: “when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn … how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens … to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”
However, when the people are bereft of “reason, justice, and truth,” when few possess the virtue of restraint and none the virtue of sacrifice, then decadence occupies the empty moral public space. Decadence is the absence of virtue, it is a moral nullity, it is an ethical vacuum that is filled with the clamor of selfish demands for immediate gratification, absent any consideration for others or for a greater good. Personal decadence borders on criminality; public decadence to a large degree destroys a country.
Thus, businessmen who extort their companies, labor unions whose leaders scream for higher benefits regardless of the public’s ability to pay, mobs who assault the public order with demands to retain unsupportable benefits, and politicians who regularly succumb to entreaties for more and greater entitlements, are all decadent. These things are likely what Mitt Romney had in mind when he awkwardly dismissed nearly half of the country’s citizens as beyond help—in which case he was right in his analysis, but wrong with the percentage, because decadence is hard to pin down with particular statistics.
However, public decadence is something like obscenity, in that it may be difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. In the final analysis, Governor Romney’s instincts are correct, because so much of what passes for the issues of the day—joblessness, politicians apologizing for America, entitlement reform, the unconscionable public debt—can be understood by reference to the fact that too many of our citizens and most of our leaders have forsaken the politics of virtue and instead have succumbed to decadence. And as Mr. Romney and many others understand, an American republic under such circumstances has not long to survive.