Guest Post: What Happened To Virtue?

Submitted by James E. Miller of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada,

In the midst of the Great Depression, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon famously advised President Hoover to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate” instead of propping each industry up with tax dollars.  This liquidation doctrine would “purge the rottenness out of the system” and make certain that “people will work harder” and “live a more moral life.”  Contrary to popular belief, Hoover did not take Mellon’s advice and went forth with his own version of the New Deal that gave relief to farmers and supported wage rates in certain industries.  These efforts, which were exacerbated under the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, effectively prevented the market from clearing.  The boom of the late 1920s that was driven by the Federal Reserve’s monetary inflation was not allowed to bust.  Instead of liquidating the debt and allowing the economy to reach a sound footing, both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations attempted to manage it back to health.  The result was the longest period of unemployment ever recorded in American history.

Today, Mellon’s advice is still spurned by most of the economic profession.  The media establishment, not to be outdone, is also on the side of intervention.  Government is looked to as a savior while markets are seen as inadequate in providing for a satisfactory standard of living.  With their incessant need to fix what isn’t broke, the political class is praised for their courage to take the reins of society and direct it toward a meaningful and just way of life.  Liberty is seen as barbaric in comparison to state-sanctioned redistribution.  Fighters of war are looked to as glorious warriors who make a great sacrifice to their countrymen.  Public office itself is seen as an occupation of the righteous who give up the opportunity for profit.  Most notably, spending is regarded as the necessary elixir of economic growth.

The old fashioned ideas of hard work and self-reliance are made out to be anachronistic.  It is no longer a virtue to succeed.  What is now honorable is men with guns and badges taking from some and giving to others.

In this context, it must be asked where did the ideas of virtue originally come from and what role do they play in humanity.

Virtue is typically defined as an attribute that is regarded as good in a moral sense.  Donating one’s income to the less fortunate is normally seen as a virtue.  A propensity to steal is usually looked upon as a ruinous vice rather than a worthy trait.

In the modern era, it would seem as if classic virtues (basic ideas of right and wrong) have lost their appeal.  In their place has been a concentrated effort to promote those actions once thought of as deserving of moral condemnation.  To this writer, such a course of action is socially destructive will end up severing the cooperative ties that mankind has established within itself.  Market economies are based on the ideals of self-ownership and mutual effort.  It is only through reciprocity that material progress can be made to lighten the burden on human existence.   State interference creates distortions in favor of one party over another.

St. Thomas Aquinas famously defined the cardinal virtues of human life as being prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude.  These virtues are revealed in nature and make up the foundations of natural law.  To Aquinas, humanity naturally strives to achieve ends through the use of reason.  Because of innate imperfection, these qualities aren’t always adhered to but are necessary for facilitating a rising standard of living.  Without temperance, the present is indulged to rather than the future.  In the absence of justice the incentive to carry forward with life is handicapped through uncertainty over whether collaboration with others will be successful.  And without fortitude to face certain obstacles, lofty goals will not be pursued.  The guiding force for all actions is prudence which enables men the capacity to decide whether an action will result in ends being achieved.  These virtues, it is held, stem from nature and are discoverable through reason alone; a spiritual authority is not needed for their confirmation.

Logically and practically, it is obvious that persistent rashness and thoughtlessness are not sustainable lifestyles in a world defined by scarcity.  To achieve that which is desired, man must act in way to best ensure his demand can be met.  Behaving discreetly and with respect toward others is often the best avenue for achieving happiness in the long run.  Government, with its slew of welfare benefits, attempts to supersede this truth by creating dependency.  In return for votes, politicians and bureaucrats instill a sense of infantilism while posing as givers of charity.  Combined with economic regulation which aids politically-favored firms and stifles the free action of entrepreneurs, the state creates conflict amongst society since it operates solely on funds plundered from the greater public.  As a monopoly of force, the state becomes a target for all those attempting to circumvent the laws of nature.

With central banking the concept of saving more than you consume is dismissed as a relic of the past and the era where planners didn’t have the economy in their firm grasp.  Through Keynesian economic policies, short time preferences are rewarded while looking toward the future is punished.  Retirees living on fixed income struggle to make ends meet in favor of debt accrual.  The state invariably uses easy access to the printing press to fund its activities.  Resources that could be used for productive efforts are siphoned off in favor of political interests.  More egregious is that fact that central banking itself is a client of the banking system and guarantees an unlimited supply of dollars should bad investment decisions come to fruition.  The rest of the public must pay with using depreciated currency.  Because of the allowance of fractional reserve banking, credit is created out of thin air.  In other words, titles of property are effectively created to a good which doesn’t necessary exist.  Modern banking isn’t just a cartel that operates at the expense of everyone else; it enjoys a government privilege that would otherwise not exist under a free market.  Yet many commentators have nothing but praise for central banking and its ability to manage the business cycle.

In the same vein, the conduct of war is applauded even as it extinguishes precious life from the planet.  President Obama personally makes the call for the extrajudicial killing of people without any evidence of their wrongdoing.  Women, children, and other innocents often meet the same fate just by being in the vicinity of a drone strike.  In a new study from the Stanford Law School and New York University’s School of Law, it was revealed that the number of “high-level targets killed as a percentage of total causalities” from the drone program is only 2%.  The study also accuses the administration of downplaying the number of civilians killed by strikes.

It’s unfathomable how someone could even begin to ponder over supporting a man who places the order for indiscriminate bombings that often result in the death of innocent bystanders.  But Obama still remains fairly popular to the American electorate.  He is seen as tough on terror while ordering for the assassination of targets in complete secrecy and from the comfort of another continent.  His policies are painted as being admirable when they are cowardly.  In the name of ensuring peace he creates chaos.  The media stands all too ready to lap it up and parrot the message.  These callous murders should bring despair to anyone who values their own life but seldom does.  Death has unfortunately become all too routine.

In his personal memoirs, the great anti-state thinker Albert Jay Nock once opined

All I ever asked of life was the freedom to think and say exactly what I pleased, when I pleased, and as I pleased.

I agree whole heartedly with Nock’s sentiment.  Not only do I seek the freedom to speak without the overarching menace of a faceless big brother but to do as I please as long as I bring no harm to others.  The “live and let live” existence is the only type that falls closest in line with the natural virtues laid out by Aquinas centuries ago.  Refraining from violence is not just an ethical choice, it allows for the productive capacity of men to blossom.  And without hard work and the putting off of immediate gratification, less becomes available for the future.

In the age of state welfare pandering, corporate subsidization, and Orwellian monitoring, a longing for true liberty remains totally unconventional.  To many, it is downright radical to take charge of one’s life and wish only to be left in peace.  How we have reached this point is demonstrative of how pervasive the state has become.

There isn’t a shred of decency in how governments or central banks operate.  Their functions run antithetical to the basic virtues of mankind.  If we as a species are to use our reason and free will to better our live, the institutionalized violence the state embodies must be rejected.