Public Arguments: Governing Passions

James Madison in Federalist #10 points out how the experiment in the American republic is different from the utopian thinking encouraged in France. He refers to the “theoretic politicians” and calls the passion for equality “wicked.” He notes that some think that pure democracy rests on equality in property. He disagrees. He holds that factions are the air needed by the fire of liberty and that factions generally form around differences of property. The main business of government, in Madison’s view, is to maintain inequalities of property.

The Founders were quite conscious that our experiment in republican government was not an experiment in democracy or equality in the French sense. Ours was from the very beginning an experiment in liberty and inequality. The British socialist writer Raymond Williams argues that equality of opportunity in this sense means the opportunity to become unequal.

There’s one other bit of confusion that has entered our thinking on equality. That is the Jewish and Christian concept that true religion consists in caring for the widow and the orphan, for the poor and the vulnerable. This conviction has had a tremendous, long-term effect on our political history, such that today nearly all persons—even secular, unbelieving people—hold that the good society is measured by how well it cares for the poor and vulnerable.

“Compassion,” in this sense, entered history with Judaism and Christianity and has much influenced secular liberals. Since the eighteenth century, in any case, there has been a gradual merging of these two visions, compassion and equality (in the egalitarian sense). These are two quite different themes with different origins, but they have been blended into one. Note first the difference: you can imagine a quite unequal society marked by a high level of compassion; some medieval kingdoms were like that. And you can have a relatively egalitarian society in which nobody gives a hoot about anybody else. An intensely materialistic welfare state seems naturally bent in that direction.

The influence of these twin streams, compassion and equality, flows directly into the social democratic vision. Most of the welfare societies today are moved by this vision.

But today, the social democratic welfare states are all broke. They all see they can’t go on this way. Far from helping to cure the diseases and remedy the needs of the poor, they’ve increased the numbers of people seeking these remedies. Give government subsidies to people with disabilities, and pretty soon the number of people you have on disabilities will exceed all expectations and predictions. If these subsidies require the permission of a doctor, doctors will soon feel they can’t but say, Yes, you’re disabled.

Thus, practically everywhere, the welfare state is being questioned on account of the bad moral habits it is inducing at every level of society—not just among the poor, not just among the clients, but among the providers. Thus, two facts—that the welfare states are going broke and that they’re not having the moral effects that they thought they would have—give rise to much restlessness about the foundations of social democratic belief. That is why every major welfare state is wrestling with how to turn in a new direction.

Those who point to “growing inequality” in the United States say that it will rend the social fabric. Is it clear that from the fact that intellectuals are deeply gripped by the social democratic vision of equality that ordinary Americans feel it? Polling data suggest they feel it much less in the United States than in other countries. Polls in other countries say that if presented with a policy by which everybody’s outcome will be better, but some people will have much better outcomes, a very high proportion would say no. In the United States, envy plays a far smaller role. Practically all Americans would agree that if everybody’s better off, it doesn’t matter if some are much better off—they or their children would like to have that chance.

What if envy is not the governing passion of most Americans? What if the fact that some others are getting much wealthier than they are themselves doesn’t bother Americans very much? In the Bible, envy (under the name covetousness) is forbidden seven times in the Ten Commandments. Recall also the story of the Balkan peasant to whom God appeared and said, “I will give you whatever you wish, but under one condition: Whatever you get, your neighbor will get twice of.” Instantly, the peasant said, “Take out one of my eyes.” If you want to know whether there are societies ruled by envy, there are.

The whole American experiment, by, contrast, has been based on the opposite proposition, that if you provide liberty, and a chance for everybody to better their condition, people won’t be envious of their neighbors. As long as there’s opportunity for all, people will be quite content with unequal outcomes.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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