In Steven Hayward’s terrific new book, Patriotism is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments that Redefined American Conservatism, he chronicles the bitter feud that existed between two great and brilliant scholars of American history and politics. This was a feud of ideas, not so much a personal one. That made it interesting. Hayward says that Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa usually reached the same conclusion but got there by different routes. For example, on Berns’ and Jaffa’s concepts of virtue in government and its people, Hayward says this:
“Jaffa and Berns can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Berns was widely concerned about the philosophical ground of virtue in the individual, which he thought was the necessary foundation of a decent regime. Jaffa was concerned about the philosophical ground of the regime, which he thought was the necessary foundation for individual virtue. For all of their sometimes bitter differences, their work complements each other’s because of the reciprocal problem of regime and citizen.”
I would usually favor the ideological route taken by Jaffa, but I have to go with Berns on this one. Government does not and apparently cannot turn scondrels into virtuous men. Government is the perfect enabler of scoundrels. Rather, it is usually virtuous people who are needed to turn a corrupt government in a new direction.
The murderous regimes of the 20th Century prove the point. The Japan that raped Nanking and murdered Chinese peasants for sport is a perfect example. The same Japanese warlords started a war with the United States in 1941 because it was in the way of their effort to dominate Asia for its oil and other resources. The Batan Death March was an example of their mindless cruelty. After the war the Samurai culture of Japan was replaced by a consensus culture and today Japan has a decent if often incompetent government.
Simlar transition from barbarous and wicked government took place in Germany, not because its government made its people virtuous but because a virtuous people made their government virtuous, or at least decent. East Germany was populated by Germans not so different than those of West Germany, yet that government became one of the most brutal dictatorships on the planet.
It almost seems that a government of crooks and gangsters is more the norm than decent and virtuous government. Contemporary examples include Venezuela where socialist policies have created mass starvation, Cuba is an island prison camp, and North Korea holds its millions in the iron grip of a fat ice-cream gorging maniac hell bent on nuclear destruction.
Puerto Rico is bankrupt today because of the incompetent and unvirtuous people who have been in charge there for the last 50 years. There are plenty of corrupt governments in the world that at least aren’t yet bankrupting or killing their own people, but cannot be called virtuous in any respect.
A virtuous government depends on virtuous people running the show. Once in a while some strong leader comes along who has great virtue and for a while government can begin to seem virtuous. The people quickly tire of such a person who seems more virtuous than they themselves are so they either assassinate him or throw him out of office. Then they bring the crooks and gangsters back in to restore corruption.