The Virtue of Liberality in American Communal Life

This article attacks the barriers to articulation of a theory of the good and advocates discussion of the substance of a good regime, specifically, a good American regime. Part I of this article addresses in some detail the civic republicans’ revival of interest in the common life. I propose that it is dauntingly difficult, if not impossible, to articulate a satisfying version of a common life without a theory of the good life, an undertaking traditionally associated with authoritarianism and elitism. Rather than abandoning the enterprise, however, I propose to reopen the assumption that the association automatically rules out any undertaking. Toleration of some hierarchical ordering is required in order to open the dialogue over the meaning of a good life. Beginning with this assumption, I next assert that the classical vision of personal and civic virtue offers the best starting place for such a discussion. In addressing the American regime (although admittedly in the context of utopian speculation), I begin with the classical virtue of liberality because it is the virtue most pertinent to the failings of that regime.

The classical virtue of liberality is “the mean with regard to wealth.” Liberality “resides … in the state of character of the giver,” not in the amount of wealth he possesses. The “liberal” man possesses the habitual disposition to exercise moderation with regard to money and property, a moderation amounting almost to indifference. He cares for money and property only to the extent that he may have enough to exercise the active virtue of giving the right amounts “to the right people, at the right time.”

Part I contrasts classical liberality with the modem treatment of distribution of wealth as a matter of right. In Part I, I show how each of the two most influential modem theories – Kantian individualism and utilitarianism – requires the giver to forgo distinctions among recipients and that this neutral viewpoint leads to an impasse between the demand for increasingly heroic behavior and the need for a cutoff to heroism. The escape, I suggest, lies in the judgment and moderation that are aspects of classical virtue. In this case, the virtue of liberality makes it possible to choose among contenders for redistribution, in the interest of a good common life.

Part II is an effort to apply the theoretical insights of Part I to the American regime. In Part II, I address what, I think, most observers of the American scene would agree is the nastiest contemporary American problem: the persistence of the underclass. The problem has two parts: it is a practical danger, and it reflects a failure of virtue, in an Aristotelian sense. Part II contends that this failure of virtue is attributable in substantial part to the treatment of all redistribution of wealth as a subset of modem distributive justice rather than as an independent virtue. As set forth below, American society, for historical, social, and political reasons, fails almost entirely to articulate redistributive claims; the inability to make a claim of right for the underclass then closes the discussion. This failure of rights analysis to alleviate the plight of the underclass reached its high water mark in the Supreme Court decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, rejecting a rights claim for equal funding of public schools. Despite the best efforts of legal academics to squeeze some redistributive claims into the language of the fourteenth amendment, the avenue of constitutional rights claims has remained firmly closed. Further, even setting aside the issues of institutional competence and textual fidelity that always muddy a constitutional claim, the weakness of purely moral rights claims to redistribution has meant largely nonexistent or ineffective legislative solutions. The problem of the American underclass will never be solved unless analysts break the stranglehold of rights analysis on modem political thought and consider the claims of virtue – an analytic frame in which decisions are based at least in part on the moral well-being of the actor and the society, and in which discrimination among claimants is a desirable element of the virtue.

In Part II, I suggest that the preferred application of liberality to the problem of the underclass would be public, federal, and legislative. Public, because the laws help habituate people to virtue and because the virtue of liberality serves the common interest of social peace; federal, because, since the New Deal at least, social welfare has had a primarily federal locus and education to virtue will be undermined if people can easily avoid the laws; legislative, because the revival of the virtue of liberality in a civic republican state should lie with the representative branch, which comes the closest to the direct exercise of virtue by the citizens themselves, and because implementing liberality will require social and political judgments of some sensitivity that can be tempered and refined in the legislative process. Proposals for redistribution are never in short supply; this article concludes by simply reminding the reader of two proposals afloat in the social science community for an impressive length of time: early childhood education and broad-based programs of ideological, behavioral and economic assistance for the estranged adults of the underclass.