The National Prospect

"The National Prospect," a symposium, Commentary Magazine, November 1995, 85-86.


Lack of virtue is dimming our national prospect. This is a simpler statement than the one posed for the symposium, which lists possible causes of moral decline rather than calling it by name. We Americans would rather not use that name. We are all of us liberals of one sort or another because we put liberty ahead of virtue, and we do that not because we believe the two are incompatible but, on the contrary, because we want both. We think that virtue comes with liberty when liberty is the main goal, and we doubt that liberty will come along unbidden when government aims at virtue.

Those known as liberals today, however, do not share this classic liberalism, which can be found in Locke, Kant, Mill, and the American Founders as well as in the minds of ordinary Americans. Liberals today have succumbed to moral nihilism, and they say that virtue does not exist except as self-esteem, self-bestowed and confirmed by an indulgent society. Above all, liberals fear to be judgmental (except of those who dare to pass judgment). But virtue depends on praise and blame, on passing judgment. To deny virtue is to diminish it by removing standards of excellence from view, and we end up settling for less, or when that is too boring, heading for mischief. A free society that forgets virtue suffers from mediocrity and criminality, and that is America’s condition now. Or it would be, if our liberals were still dominant.

In fact, liberals are tired, dispirited, defeated, and done for. But the mess they have left remains to be dealt with, and a new liberalism closer to original liberalism but now called conservatism needs to be put in place.