A New Generation of Conservative Thought

The character deficit

By Dr. Grace Vuoto
November 18, 2010

We are currently in the Great Depression of Character. The House ethics panel ruled that senior Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel is guilty of 11 ethics violations. The New York congressman abused his privileges and failed to report his assets. California Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters will also be tried. She is accused of funneling government funds to a bank in which her husband held stocks. Furthermore, a House panel is investigating how half a dozen lawmakers misused government funds in overseas travel.

In 2006, the Democratic Party swept to power in the House and Senate in the wake of the public’s disgust with the rampant corruption in the Republican Party. In 2010, the Republicans gained a whopping 62 seats in the House and recaptured the majority in the wake of the public’s disgust with the rampant corruption in the Democratic Party. The names and faces are changing but the fundamental problem remains: The root cause of the nation’s current political and economic woes is not the budget deficit or any other spending program. Instead, we have a colossal character deficit.

Leaders in key institutions are failing to serve the public. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation recently announced it will conduct 50 criminal investigations of top officials in the banking industry to ascertain their role in the recent financial crisis. Failed banks of varying sizes and in an array of cities will be reviewed. The adage “as safe as money in the bank” no longer applies. According to the FDIC, banks are now just as likely to engage in fraudulent practices that threaten the public good as other industries.

In addition, the worst environmental disaster in American history, the Gulf Oil spill, was the result of faulty leadership. A recent report finds oil giant BP guilty of reckless disregard for the safety of the workers on the well: 11 died when the rig exploded on April 20. The report by the National Academy of Engineering finds industry regulators and others such as Halliburton, that provided the cement for the well and Transocean Ltd., the owner of the rig, to also bear some blame. In other words, up and down the chain of industry leaders and regulators one can find sloppy craftsmanship and grave errors, all leading to one giant explosion.

In essence, our political, financial and capitalist leaders fail to uphold basic standards of honesty and integrity. If the current character problems were relegated to one sector of our society this would be a disaster, to two it would be a catastrophe—but when we are counting three and above, we can declare this a pandemic.

Americans are now in full revolt. They just gave President Barack Obama a “shellacking” and have sent Congress a message: We do not trust our leaders, even after we elect them. The Tea Party patriots now insist that the traditional congressional power of the purse—earmarks—should be banned. This is akin to a patient telling a doctor not to use the stethoscope.

Yet, America’s Founding Fathers are not rolling in their graves, as some might think. Instead, they are smiling slyly saying simply: “We told you so.” Our Founders understood that the first appetite of government is to grow bigger; and the first casualty of big government is the loss of public integrity. As government expands, the few gorge at the trough and the many languish far behind. The will of the people is invariably thwarted; a corrupt ruling class is pitted against a disgruntled underclass. Our Founders told us that any form of big government would lead to cynicism and apathy and this would ultimately devalue our most sacred national currency: civic virtue.

Were they prophetic geniuses? No, they simply read history books and were good students of ancient Greece and Rome. The great lie of the American left since the 1930s is that a discussion of the size of government is merely a matter of honest debate. Instead, our nation was founded on one basic consensus: government must be limited, at all times and places—always. Any significant increase in the size of government is a fundamental rejection of the founding vision.

Does big government cause a decline in public virtue or does a decline in civic virtue lead to big government? The answer is, yes—to both. It does not matter which comes first or after, only that these two are inextricably linked. Our Founders therefore established checks and balances on power—at the federal, state and local levels. They then provided additional layers of insurance by separating the branches of government and asking the judiciary and the press to serve as watchdogs. Even then, they insisted, unless the public is virtuous, all of these restraints on power will not hold for long.

This is American Politics 101, American History 101 and the American Constitution 101. However, the average American fails to grasp this because an expanding central government invariably establishes a propaganda arm—called “education” today. The American education system has been so thoroughly co-opted to serve the Mammoth state that many Americans are sufficiently bamboozled to believe that what our Founding Fathers said and did is still open to interpretation and debate—endless debate, that is.

The result is that we now have a president that does not share any recognizable American values—our Star Trek President. We cannot recognize him as ours and hence have just punished him; but perhaps the harsher reality is we cannot recognize ourselves.

Consider how far we have come from the first George that created the republic to the George of the 21st century. George Washington assumed the presidency, knowing that its power was potentially corrosive: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” By the time George W. Bush assumed office in 2001, ostensibly a conservative, he said: “I call my philosophy and approach compassionate conservatism. It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results. And with this hopeful approach, we will make a real difference in people's lives."

While the first George feared government, the 21st-century George embraced it as a useful tool. Then the Star Trek President said “and please do multiply that by a trillion, here and a billion there.” Hence, by now we have forgotten another George in our history—the third George in this drama, literally called George III. He was a monarch who liked big intrusive government at the expense of the liberties of the people. He was overthrown by men who vowed that a new republic would be created—one in which government would remain small and the people would be free.

At the end of America’s War for Independence, Benjamin Franklin was asked: “Well, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.” In other words, maintaining liberty begins with keeping government small and the people virtuous. Once government grows, the people lose their virtue and the republic inevitably degenerates into a corrupt oligarchy. The Founding Fathers would not be surprised that there is a Charlie Rangel in our midst today: they would be shocked, however, that few Americans know that they told us— if we did not heed their warnings—that it would be so.

-Dr. Grace Vuoto is the Executive Director of the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.