October 10, 2003


Philadelphia Society Keynote Address (Forrest McDonald, October 3, 2003)

[O]ne cannot leap from the framers' belief in the sanctity of private property to the conclusion that they advocated either capitalism or a free market economy. The very thinkers whom Americans looked to for their ideas about private property placed limitations on the right. John Calvin opined that a man might choose among many callings but was bound by God's law to follow the one that promised the greatest public good. John Locke taught that a man could accumulate property, but only insofar as he could consume it and none went to waste; the rest belonged to the public. Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England famously defined property as “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of this world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe"; but after formulating that definition on the second page of book two of the Commentaries, Blackstone devotes the remaining 518 pages of the volume to qualifying and specifying exceptions to it.

In addition to the many such qualifications that Americans had inherited from the mother country, the states or local governments fixed the prices of bread, regulated rates charged by millers and innkeepers, and interfered in buying, selling, and lending. They routinely set aside private contracts on the basis of the medieval concept that everything had an intrinsic "fair value" and therefore a "just price." A modern market definition of contracts was yet to appear in America.

Overcoming these obstacles to the emergence of a free market order was made difficult by two ideological considerations. The first was the commitment to a republican form of government. Most Patriots had come by their republicanism willy-nilly, as a by-product of the general reaction against the supposed excesses of George III and with neither a historical nor a philosophical understanding of what they were embracing. Between 1776 and 1787, however, increasing numbers of public men took the trouble to learn about the history of republics and to study the writings of theorists of republicanism. Two distinct species of republican ideology arose as a result--one, the more nearly classical, may be described as puritan, and was concentrated in New England; the other, the more modern, may be described as agrarian and was concentrated in the tobacco belt.

The two varieties held a number of attitudes in common, the most crucial being preoccupation with the mortality of republics. The vital, which is to say life-giving, principle of republics was that of public virtue. It is important to understand that these two words are both derived from Latin roots signifying manhood. The public did not comprehend everybody, only independent adult males. Public virtue entailed firmness, courage, endurance, industry, frugal living, strength, and above all unremitting devotion to the weal of the public's corporate self, the community of virtuous men. It was at once individualistic and communal: individualistic in that no member of the public could be dependent on any other and still be reckoned a member of the public; communal in that every man gave himself totally to the good of the public as a whole. (That, by the way, is what the phrase in the Declaration "the pursuit of happiness," meant; one found happiness or fulfillment in service to the public well-being.) If public virtue declined too far, the republic died. Philosophical historians had worked out a regular life cycle, or more properly death cycle, of republics: manhood gave way to effeminacy, republican liberty to licentiousness; licentiousness, in turn, degenerated into anarchy, and anarchy led to tyranny.

As for puritanical republicanism, almost nothing was outside its purview, for every matter that might in any way contribute to strengthening or weakening the virtue of the public was a thing of concern to the public--a res publica-and was subject to regulation by the public. Republican liberty was totalitarian: one was free to do that, and solely that, which was in the interest of the public; the liberty of the individual was subsumed in the freedom or independence of the political community. Lest this seem an overstatement, listen to the words of John Adams, writing to Mercy Warren. Republican government, he informed her, could be supported only "by pure Religion or Austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty." The public passions, he emphasized, "must be Superiour to all private Passions. Men must . . . be happy to sacrifice their private Friendships and dearest Connections, when they stand in Competition with the Rights of Society."

Of course, Adam Smith himself, the great prophet of capitalism, shared the puritan totalitarian view of republican liberty (or whatever you want to call it), which seems to be a necessary prerequisite of a healthy democratic capitalist society. Folk now like to think that both democracy and capitalism are premised on the exaltation of the individual and his unchecked desires, but quite the opposite is true. Both require citizens in whom virtue is cultivated, so that they keep others in mind as they act.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 10, 2003 8:01 PM

Wow,pure gold! Is that a cowboy hat he is wearing in the pic? If so, I suggest he be hired at whatever cost by Washington to tour European lecture halls and give that speech, but only provided he dresses like that. It would drive them stark-raving mad!

Posted by: Peter B at October 11, 2003 8:15 AM