America's two principal political parties are pulling the country toward new extremes of ideological confrontation. Each party has abandoned, in its own way, the foundational beliefs of our republic.
The unnecessary polarization was vividly demonstrated this month in the firestorm over Mitt Romney's secretly filmed remarks about the "47 percent." Harshness and exaggeration turned Romney's perfectly valid complaint about America's entitlement mentality into a gaffe that foreclosed useful discussion.
America was founded on adherence to the moral sense, a capacity within each citizen to assume responsibility for the common good, to put aside selfishness, to reach good decisions through reason and compromise. America was to be a "City Upon a Hill"; Americans were to be stewards of destiny.
Today, to the contrary, Democrats carry the banner of an entitlement ideology derived from French thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau, as I noted in my earlier commentary "Nanny state: The origin and evolution of the 'New Left' " (July 29). Meanwhile, Republicans have come to venerate social Darwinism, Englishman Herbert Spencer's egocentric sociology of the late 19th century, which I described in "Survival of the fittest: The evolution of an idea" (May 27).
Both the Rousseauist call for entitlements and social Darwinism pursue selfishness to an extreme. The first demands that government do much for us, while the other demands that we do little for our government.
Neither Rousseau's entitlements nor Spencer's egoism is contained in our Declaration of Independence or our federal Constitution. The political ideas of both Rousseau and Spencer were late arrivals to American culture, bringing ideological rigidities to our shores that are at odds with core American values and political practices.
Thanks to the baby boomers, who, out of passionate self-regard, adopted one or the other of these foreign approaches, these two ideologies have taken over our political system, have crippled our best ways of making decisions, and have brought us to a systemic gridlock where we are incapable of providing for our future success, both at home and in the world.
If America is to survive, we must recover our moral senses.
American republicanism grew out of English politics; it was an extension of Puritan commonwealth commitments and Whig checks and balances. The core republican ideal was virtue -- the moral power of citizens who were to be trusted to govern themselves and to permit all to share in the enjoyment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This ideal, in the hands of those who signed the Declaration of Independence and drafted the Constitution, combined Calvinism with Cicero. America was founded on the thinking of John Locke and others in the Scottish Enlightenment like Francis Hutchison, Adam Smith, and philosopher Thomas Reid, and lawyers and Whigs like William Blackstone and Edmund Burke.
From John Calvin came not his harsh notion that only some of us are chosen by God to be winners in life, but his more general admonition that each of us is born a minister of God to do his work on Earth through faith, hope, charity, hard work, honesty and responsibility. Calvin's theology of personal redemption through a life of dedication easily became an American civil religion advocating stewardship of power and wealth for a good greater than our own enjoyment. This was an enlightened Calvinism, which Scottish moral philosopher Thomas Reid called "self-interest understood upon the whole."
Calvin's biblical emphasis on the individual capacity to discern right and to follow it was secularized by Reid. In that form it was incorporated in the political institutions of the new American republic. Reid also proposed that some truths were "self-evident," a moral concept used to justify our becoming an independent nation. Reid's catchphrase "common sense" was used by Thomas Paine to title his essay on the necessity of American independence.
Reid's student John Witherspoon, president of Princeton and ancestor of Reese, was a teacher of James Madison. In all, nine Princeton graduates participated in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. A tenth framer, James Wilson, was also under Reid's intellectual influence.
Cicero spent his life defending the res publica of the Roman people -- their "public thing," their common good. From Cicero came parallel notions of Roman virtue, secular arguments passed down from Stoic moral philosophers. Cicero's speeches against tyranny and abuse of power were as well-known to Whig thinkers as the Bible. His book on ethical duties -- De Officiis -- was foundational for those who advocated constitutionalism.
These ideals of Calvin and Cicero were blended first in the Declaration of Independence and again in the Constitution, with its checks and balances designed to protect individual rights.
The thoroughgoing pessimism of Calvin about the effects of sinful human nature, which demanded assumption of duty and obligation, was offset by Cicero's more optimistic faith in human reason.
This compromise was well-expressed by Madison in Federalist Paper No. 55: "As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence."
But as advocated in the Federalist Papers supporting the proposed Constitution, individual rights were not inconsistent with civic duties. The virtuous person used his or her rights with a moral sense as part of a community. There was to be a constant, dynamic equilibrium of compromise and adjustment between individual desire and duty to others.
In his inaugural address, George Washington put this vital point as follows: "[T]here is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity ..."
The pursuit of individual happiness is by Washington conjoined to virtue and duty. To pay taxes is not to unacceptably sacrifice our rights as persons just as, on other occasions, to defend our rights is not to sacrifice the common good.
American politics was designed to seek alignment between duty and advantage. It should reflect a moral sense that we have individual human dignity to be respected by others but that we also have responsibilities to others. We may not demand too much of them, as we are first and foremost each responsible for our own lives and for what happens to us. But at the same time, in taking care of ourselves, we may not turn our backs on the community and its needs.
This is a middle way of mindful behavior that demands flexibility and collaboration at every turn. It leaves no room for narrow-minded and strident ideologies.
Whatever is at an extreme is not virtue. Extremism can never achieve balance among contending forces, can never find a sustainable future, can never lead to public happiness. This is akin to the natural laws of physics.
If we were to apply this moral sense to our politics of 2012, what would be the result?
First we would reject both the entitlement state and social Darwinism.
Second, we would expect each American to be virtuous and responsible for themselves and for our common good. Good character should be a central objective of family dynamics and public education. Excellence, not comfort, would be the standard of the American life well lived.
Third, we would accept the role of government and taxation as legitimate. Government is to provide the public goods that will make the res publica prosper and which will not reliably be provided by a free market.
Fourth, the deficit-prone programs we call entitlements -- primarily health care and retirement stipends -- would become a blended effort of personal responsibility and public subsidy.
A healthy population is a public good, deserving public finance. But personal health care is simultaneously a personal responsibility, not an entitlement. Taking better care of your own health will reduce costs to the community. Funding of health care should be shifted from employers to individuals to encourage higher standards of personal well-being, with salaries being adjusted upwards. Since the insurance principle of sharing risks will lower costs for individuals, insurance markets for health care should be supported by government. Subsidies for those without income or wealth would be a community responsibility.
For retirement income, a blended system of personal savings and intergenerational subsidies would be sufficient, with increased emphasis on savings and with subsidies limited to sustainable demands on the economy.
Fifth, reliance on the moral sense would call for more tolerant communal approaches to personal sexuality and religious liberty. No one size can fit all. But, where the moral sense might prove imperfect when such personal shortcomings would create high risks of harm to others (possession of some guns, driving under the influence, even late-term abortions, etc.), communal needs would justify regulation of personal conduct.
Sixth, the economy, especially the financial sector, would be incentivized to reward individual entrepreneurial achievement. This would require an end to cronyism and special privileges in the tax code or regulations and the breakup of "too big to fail" financial institutions.
Since trading and speculation in financial instruments contributes little to our society's creation of wealth, only moving money between winners and losers as gambling does, such activity could be highly regulated out of regard for fairness in income distribution among individuals and to reduce the risk of credit market collapses.
Seventh, in foreign policy the United States would be a dynamic participant in global affairs, looking to protect and promote the moral sense through constitutional democracies and free markets and to provide checks against concentrations of power abroad that would abuse broadly accepted norms of right and fairness.
Promotion of the moral sense should permit the formation of a broad majority coalition, which can, once again, provide our nation with good governance.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.