My co-editor Dan Schmidt reminds us of the importance of civic education for the preservation of the Republic in his recent note on Andrew Michta’s piece in The American Interest, and this summer’s issue of Philanthropy includes Adam Kissel’s helpful and inspiring list of philanthropic projects designed to advance that education. But I would add this caveat.

To argue, as did Ronald Reagan, that American freedom is so fragile and tentative as to be “never more than one generation from extinction” is, in fact, to undersell the strength and durability of the system the Founders designed to secure that freedom. The American constitutional order was constructed to work precisely in the absence of widespread civic virtue or knowledge, grounded instead in certain human passions and interests that are durable, dependable, and most important, harnessable to the cause of freedom. 

The Founders established a vast, national commercial system that would rely upon and summon to energetic endeavor the economic self-interest of its citizens, and—as the Federalist Papers bluntly argued—it would depend on the personal ambitions of officeholders to preserve the prerogatives of their offices within the separation of powers. Self-interest and ambition, not civic virtue, were to be essential foundations of the American political order.

To be sure, it would be nice to have an educated and virtuous political class and citizenry, and projects to bring that about cannot be a waste of time or money. But our system was meant to work without that degree of virtue. That probably explains why the Republic has survived in spite of prolonged periods when very few studied or appreciated the genuine principles of the Founding. That was the situation, for instance, among our intellectual elites for most of the 20th century, the Constitution having been widely condemned as a plutocratic plot to protect wealth against the rampaging proletariat.

Government as an unreliable moral tutor

Peter Wehner’s recent interview with George Will in The Atlantic gets to the issue of civic virtue or the absence thereof. Wehner notes that he was deeply influenced by Will’s 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft, in which Will refused to be content with the notion that “moral balance and national cohesiveness will be supplied by the government’s doing little more than encouraging the free operation of ‘opposite and rival interests,’” as Wehner describes it. Indeed, Will argued at the time, America had been “ill-founded” because “there was not enough attention to what he termed the ‘sociology of virtue.’ Government needed to take greater role in shaping the moral character of its citizens.”

Perhaps to the virtue-oriented Wehner’s disappointment, Will had come to a very different conclusion by the time he published The Conservative Sensibility this year. Not only is contemporary government an unreliable moral tutor, but more to the point, as Will tells Wehner, the Founders “understood that when a political regime establishes, through laws and courts and customs and other matters, a particular political economy, it is establishing, it is choosing the kind of people that would live under that regime.” Will argues in The Conservative Sensibility that, as Wehner encapsulates it, “capitalism doesn’t just make us better off; it makes us better by enforcing such virtues as thrift, industriousness, and the deferral of gratification.”

In other words, the Founders knew—and George Will came to appreciate—that a system based on self-interest and ambition, properly channeled by laws and the economy, will more or less automatically produce modest human qualities that are nonetheless enough to sustain a free and prosperous regime.

The Founders and foundations

Neither Will nor I would argue that civic education is therefore not important, and I’m sure he would applaud, as do I, the list of projects enumerated by Kissel. 

Indeed, the rediscovery and appreciation of the Founders’ deep wisdom when it comes to grounding a free political order in self-interest and ambition is one of the proudest claims of contemporary conservative philanthropy. It helps explain why conservative philanthropy is perceived to be so effective in spite of its minuscule financial base, compared to that of progressive philanthropy. 

Conservative foundations operate with full knowledge and appreciation of the underlying institutional terrain established by the Founders, and are careful to choose projects in full accord with it. Progressives, by contrast, typically ignore or despise that system, and soon find themselves pursuing utopian projects, based on hopelessly elevated views of human potential, that grind themselves to pieces against the reality of our constitutional order.

As a consequence, conservative philanthropy appears to be successful far in excess of its actual financial resources, while a vastly larger progressive philanthropy meets frustration in spite of its massive advantage in outlays. The constitutional order, even when it isn’t fully understood by our citizens, quietly does the heavy lifting for conservatism.