Some of the sharpest minds of conservative punditry have lately been whetting their knives on the candidacy of . The trend of these arguments is disturbing, because it indicates conservatism may be drifting far from its roots. The ire against McCain contains elements of two of the greatest fallacies of modern political thought: the notion that ideology can replace virtue as the mainstay of a decent regime, and the cynical assumption that virtue is not real but vanity in disguise.
The main current of opposition to McCain faults him for departures from strict free-market ideology. McCain's decisions about tax cuts, campaign finance, and greenhouse gas caps may be prudent or imprudent, and it is important to debate their practical effects on our economy and on our nation's well-being. Nonetheless, if conservatives succeed in marginalizing anyone who does not toe the doctrinaire line of their free market ideology, they will lose an important -- indeed the most central and precious -- aspect of their creed: the faith in the virtue of individuals to make a good society for themselves, rather than the faith in an ideology to make a good society for us.
The modern form of this debate goes back at least as far as Immanuel Kant, who articulated the core of the progressive faith when he argued that "a people of devils" could form a well-governed society, as long as those devils were intelligent -- that is, as long as they believed in the correct ideology. Alexander Hamilton knew better. Hamilton warned that when virtue came to be considered "only a graceful appendage of wealth ... the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard." Hamilton was one of the most ardent believers in the benefits of commerce among the Founding Fathers. And yet he was not an ideologue. He knew that rigorous adherence to any single idea was a recipe for political decline. Hamilton argued that a decent political order requires virtuous statesmen because the activity of politics demands moral intelligence, or what the ancient philosophers called prudence. Even the best-designed republic requires prudent leadership, and Hamilton knew there is no substitute for this virtue.
Conservatives need to defend free markets not as an ideology but as an aspect of policy that serves the purpose of allowing individual excellence to flourish. A defense of free markets as a means to a good society, rather than as an end in itself, has served us well in the past. The struggle against communism, for example, was not only, or even primarily, about free markets. It was about human dignity and the worth of a political order that allows individuals to live decent and virtuous lives. Freedom of enterprise is a part -- but only a part -- of that decent political order. The problem with absolute faith in any ideology, including that of the free market, becomes evident with a glance at the flagship publication of the libertarians, Reason magazine. It is no coincidence that Reason publishes hagiographies of Milton Freedman as well as pleas for drug legalization and appreciations of cartoon pornography: economic libertarianism, elevated to the status of inviolable first principle, leads to moral libertarianism.
The moral vacuity of dogmatic libertarianism is poisonous to public life. By teaching that 'greed is good,' strict free-market ideology holds out the promise that private vices can be public virtues. Recent congressional history has laid bare the fallacy of this argument. Republicans who proclaimed from the stump that greed was good turned out to believe it when they got into office, amassing earmarks and bridges to nowhere by means of their newfound powers. Why should we be surprised? To expect them to do otherwise would be to expect that men sometimes risk their self-interest for the sake of the public good, which our economist friends tell us is impossible. Conservatives who forget that the free market is properly a piece of policy rather than an ideological end-in-itself not only obscure the importance of individual virtue, they undermine it.
Many think that the conservative movement is currently on shaky ground. In a perceived crisis, it is a human temptation is to run to ideologies to save the day. But conservative thought will be impoverished if its advocates close themselves in the "clean and well-lit prison of one idea," as G. K. Chesterton warned. To do so would be to fall prey to the fallacy that theories can govern men. Men must govern men, and men have characters, good or bad, and those characters are decisive for how the country is led. The ideology of the economists leads far too many to sneer at the honest, if imperfect, attempts of a man to be virtuous and to put that virtue in the service of his country. More damaging than any of the particular quarrels with McCain is the evident cynicism of some public intellectuals toward the possibility of virtue in public life.
The mixed motives of even the most earnest public servant are a subject McCain himself examines with probity and insight in his book, Worth the Fighting For. Senator McCain is not perfect, but he has the priceless virtue of believing in virtue. He knows himself to be ambitious, but he also knows that to be honorable he must put his ambition in the service of something greater than himself: his country. Difficult as it is to embody virtue in action or define it in thought, conservatives must have the courage to acknowledge the reality of virtue and its necessary role in public life. Hamilton didn't think that virtue was an attractive ornament; he insisted that it was indispensable to republican government. Free-market ideologues, who pride themselves on their hard-headedness, are insufficiently hard-headed about this stubborn fact.
By Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey