The American Founders knew that one of the greatest bulwarks of our character as a self-governing people is our limited government. Limited government is necessary to protect liberty and what we today call civil society... But they also knew, following political thinkers back to Plato and Aristotle, that law played a key role in the formation of character, as it shaped the habits and mores of citizens.
At the end of the American Revolution, James Madison wrote for Congress an Address to the States that concludes with a warning that still rings true:
... If justice, good faith, honor, gratitude and all the other qualities which ennoble the character of a nation and fulfill the ends of government be the fruits of our establishments, the cause of liberty will acquire a dignity and lustre, which it has never yet enjoyed, and an example will be set, which cannot but have the most favourable influence on the rights of Mankind. If on the other side, our governments should be unfortunately blotted with the reverse of these cardinal virtues, the great cause which we have engaged to vindicate, will be dishonored and betrayed; the last and fairest experiment in favor of the rights of human nature will be turned against them; and their patrons and friends exposed to be insulted and silenced by the votaries of tyranny and usurpation.
The simple lesson is that there was no radical distinction--as there is today--between private morality and public character...Moral character--understood as the ability to restrain the passions and maintain good habits--is necessary for the preservation of free government...the governing of one's own passions necessarily precedes free government.
At the same time, civil society requires free government (by which I mean the political process by which equal citizens rule and are ruled in turn) because it not only allows and encourages but also provides the stage for and spotlights the fully developed moral character. It is in the nature of man to be political, which is to say that the rational and communicative nature of man requires relationships with others--from families and friendships to active participation in the political community--for the perfection of the human virtues.
What does this have to do with the question of character? The shift from a constitutional system of limited government to an administrative system for the sake of progressive social policy also entails a shift from an emphasis on the moral character of individual citizens to the evolving ideals of the social community. In the old system, character was needed to moderate the passions of human nature and dampen their influence, thereby allowing for deliberate self-government and the thriving of civil society.
But with the new system, there is little concern with moral character and little worry about emancipating the passions.
This is for two reasons. First, progressive liberalism is built upon the philosophy of moral relativism and thus rejects distinctions between good and bad; the moral virtues--those habits and perfections that implied a distinction between virtue and vice, right and wrong--are relegated to the realm of private opinion and personal values. And second, the problems caused by "bad character" are to be solved--or more precisely overcome--by more democracy, more progress, and more government.
The progressive argument in favor of replacing the old order (including the old morality) with a liberal state oriented toward social progress has been overwhelmingly successful...The current system encourages habits and forms a character incompatible with republican government by feeding entitlements rather than checking the narrowest passions of self-interest.
More important is the effect the new view has had on our understanding of moral character. According to the new version, an unbreachable wall separates private character (which is personal, and value-laden) and public character (which is political, and socially oriented). And there are new value-neutral virtues, such as toleration, empathy, and sincerity.
Read the complete article on the Heritage Foundation website.