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American Consumerism -- A Lost Virtue, Part I

Updated on May 21, 2013

Part I -- Liberty and Virtue


One criticism that we hear from both the left and right is that when our founders created the Constitution of 1787, they put in place a government that is fragmented and therefore many times deadlocked. This means that it there is potential for failure to carry out comprehensive public policy programs that would result in fundamental change. In this regard, the founders are accused of creating a culture which is incapable of encouraging virtue. This is many times seen in the government’s involvement or lack thereof in the free market and public policy making. To the far right, there is the concept that the government should never be involved in the free market system. The far left considers government involvement essential to all economic success. Most Americans’ beliefs fall in the middle of these two extremes. In other words, there are times when the government should be involved and times it should not. The question then becomes, to what degree should government be involved in a free market system? The policies put in place by the government should be considered a reflection of compromise between both extremes.

In this paper, I will defend the founders’ choice of the strategy they used, explaining why they chose this course. I will also explain the cultural cost of the commercial republic and finally, argue that while virtue does not necessarily have to be absent in a republic, to a great degree, it has been lost, or more accurately, given up by its leadership – the American consumer.


The creating and adopting of public policy is either stopped or advanced by how things are done in Congress. Bills are written and most times state representatives and even parties may support each other’s agendas in order to gain other benefits for their constituents. Though this would first appear to be “washing each other’s backs,” it can also be considered a form of cooperation in order to actually get things accomplished. Federalism, the separation of powers and checks and balances, demand that there not be one institution that is responsible for making all policy. Each power is given a job description, one job being that it watches over the others, typically through the use of veto power. What is interesting about this concept is that the veto power is not simply allowed at the end of a decision-making process, but at any time during the process. Not only does that prevent an abuse of power, but by its very essence, this blending means just that, blending – they must all take responsibility for each step of a process. Failure or success is shared among all branches of government. The founders considered Federalism to be the most effective way of solving these issues of potential abuse as well as responsibility of action or inaction. It has been a good system thus far.

One purpose of the writing of the Declaration of Independence was to provide the basic principles and beliefs of the founders and the new autonomous country. The Constitution subsequently provided the formal language in how that would occur. Taking Locke and other thinkers into consideration, the founders fashioned both documents to include virtue and freedom. However, Madison’s Federalist 10, an argument for the Constitution, takes virtue out of the hands of religion, which up to that point, was included and taken for granted. Locke promoted liberty over virtue, though he accepted virtue based on religion. The founders combined God and natural right to fuse virtue and liberty in a unique manner.

To understand the intent of the founders, we have to look at both liberty and virtue, which at first glance, do not seem to go hand in hand. Liberty has been interpreted to mean that you live as you want; and virtue would seem to mean that you do not live as you want, rather how you should. So, it seems that a society that believes in liberty would not have any virtue unless virtue was what it wanted. But the simple fact is that liberty and virtue are important and feed off each other for the American government and its people. The founders understood that people who are free will run amok and that there is a need for guidance to restrain them and keep them in some form of virtuous behavior. Virtue is indeed a taught behavior and so has to be accepted and voluntary by the citizen, but there are ways in which a government promotes particular forms of virtue.


In Martin Diamond’s Ethos of the Commercial Republic, he examined the way that politics and ethics are related in America. In this, he suggested that “the American Way of Life” provides a unique ethos to the United States. He wrote that Americans overlook that they think about ethics and politics, yet they do in more universal terms than others around the world. Through the impact of the Declaration of Independence and the Bible, morality has been narrowed down to the most basic of prohibitions, do not murder, do not steal, and do not lie, Commandments from the Bible. In this universal aspect, it must be obliged. Diamond explained that in ancient times, ethics would be considered all those things leading up to the full development of humanness. Because distinct human types are nurtured in each regime, the ethos of those distinct types is manifested. Human character can only be perfected within complex character forming situations, such as the political community. Good laws that promote this form of virtue are what are needed so that man can rise to his ability, individually and collectively. But in America, this form of political community is different. Before, there was a sense of how men ought to be. But what the federal republic developed was a system of recognizing how man actually is. This gives the bare minimal requirements for each to pursue what he considers good and right. There is a private life and a public life and once religion became depoliticized, this led to other such things as education, poetry, arts and family mores, now private and termed economical. Previously these had been under “laws with teeth in them” in order to force everyone to comply and create the best of human character. In ancient times, one was to improve himself by the better development of virtue; while in modern political thought, vice to virtue became the normal standard. The founders had developed a low but solid ethos in which the very minimal would be required by the government for the people. This would lead to their own interpretation and thus, freedom, of what was best for them individually.

Historian, Richard Hofstadter, on the other hand claimed that the founders did not believe in mankind and so they formed a political system aimed at curbing and conforming the popular spirit. Hofstadter believed that the founders had no respect for the concept of human excellence and simply demanded little from the citizens or its government. If this is the case, then the major defect in the American founding would be that men will never be able to change – they will always be self-interested and the founders guarded against this. Hofstadter’s solution was that though there was a perennial defect of virtue, it can be overcome by organic change, through modern science. However, his criticism was contingent upon changing the nature of man, which may not truly be possible.

Diamond responded to Hofstadter and defended American virtues by writing that if the founders had abandoned political virtue (which had obviously been changed from Aristotelian virtue), they still had not abandoned obtaining virtue or excellence in other ways. Using commerce to develop virtue, acquisitiveness is created. The desire for material goods will in essence develop virtue as one strives to obtain them. This is true in both ancient and modern eras. In ancient times, avarice, a passion centered on the things themselves, was the goal. In modernity, avarice was traded in to acquisitiveness, which teaches moderation for passions. Acquiring material goods is not to simply earn it, but to earn it justly. These instrumental virtues are important to the commercial or free market democracy. Bourgeois virtues require that excellence be developed as a means rather than an end.


Please see Part II -- Bourgeoisie virtue and the Consumer.


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