Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The Virtue of the Small Business Owner

Res Publica

August 2016

by James Coyne

“A Republic, if you can keep it.” This was Ben Franklin’s response to a woman following the Constitutional Convention when asked what type of government the Framers had given the people.To keep a republic,two types of people are necessary: citizens and statesmen. It requires an active citizenry willing to do what is necessary for the perpetuation of free institutions and it requires statesmen, who have the ability to move the nation in times of great need. Neither class of individual has the luxury of relaxation; preserving freedom requires vigilance and care. They must do what the political community needs in order to insure its perpetuation.

Statesmen must have a concept of the whole. They must know the good and pursue it in light of the particulars. For this, leisure is necessary. Leisure is something both serious and pleasant. It allows men the time to reflect upon larger questions. Central to the statesman’s mission is an answer to the question, “What is just?” What would Abraham Lincoln have been had he never the opportunity to reflect upon the words of the Bible or Shakespeare? The statesman is a rare mix of prudence, courage, and political skill. He emerges rarely and cannot always be relied upon for the preservation of the nation. In times of great need, prior to America, men were always governed by “accident and force.” Good government, to the extent that it existed, was a result of the few statesmen who “accidentally” emerged throughout history. As James Madison tells us in Federalist No. 10, “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” For the perpetuation of Republican institutions, therefore, Americans do not rely upon statesmen; they rely upon citizens.

Citizens constitute the bedrock of the republic. They are responsible for maintaining republican institutions and acting as safeguards against infringements by an overbearing government. Love of freedom and the willingness to do what is necessary to preserve and perpetuate that freedom forms the basis of republican virtue.

Republican virtue is necessary for maintaining self-government. It requires a people willing and capable of governing themselves – of doing what is necessary to maintain themselves, their families, and their communities. As such, there is no more important an individual in a republic than the citizen. Citizenship implies obligation; the good citizen must do what is required of him by the community in which he resides. Jefferson envisioned a great society that would be directed by husbandmen, or farmers, who were self-sufficient and did not need to rely on foreign markets or the labors of others to sustain themselves. He saw these men as the ideal republicans because they could exist independent of each other; their fidelity to the land extended into fidelity to their community and their desire to rule themselves caused them to take part in the government of local affairs.

As citizens lose an attachment to the land and as government power becomes centralized, citizens begin to neglect their duties to their political community.The growth of the administrative state has compressed the ability for citizens to take part in local affairs. It has created a desire to remove from the political sphere all that government has deemed “not political.” Citizens grow callous towards what is necessary to maintain good republican government as social responsibility is removed as an obligation incumbent upon them, as citizens, and placed into the duty of the “collective good.” They retreat into themselves; they do not take an active interest in the community because they feel like they have no duty to do so.

The last refuge that republican virtue has retreated into is the small business owner. It is among this class alone that the desire for freedom and the willingness to do what is necessary to preserve it remains. The small business owner, like the husbandmen that Jefferson desired, is connected to the community because his roots are there. His business depends upon the community it is in and his success depends, in part, upon himself. He does not have the luxury of falling back upon a corporate office to pay for his vacations or sick days.If he wants to be successful, he must work. He desires to operate without the chains of government regulation because it is an implicit judgment that he is unable to decide for himself what is best for his business and his customers. His motives may not necessarily be pure. He needs the community for his business and community involvement serves as a means to his end of success and ability to operate. Oftentimes, he is not simply responsible for himself, but for his workers too. Through this, he learns to take care of others. He is drawn out of himself by his obligations to his workers and his customers.

The necessity of relying upon himself habituates him toward a love of freedom and makes him scornful of overbearing government. He understands what it means to operate without the security of a safety net He undertakes great risk, for the sake of self government. Many people no longer value self-government because they believe the benefits of mild despotism outweigh the dangers from which freedom is wrought.The small business owner, in contrast, embraces the danger because he values the freedom that governing oneself encompasses.

“As a nation of freemen,” Lincoln famously observed,“we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” The republican experiment, beginning in 1787, has sought to answer the question of whether men can govern themselves by “reflection and choice” or if men were destined to rely on “accident and force”for their governing institutions.In a government of the people, by the people, for the people, that government can only fail when the people cease to care and fail to govern themselves. If we emulate the virtues of the small business owner of America, however,we have the opportunity to preserve the experiment and to perpetuate its success.