Jeanne Kirkpatrick: Government & Us

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Here's a wonderful essay by the late U.S. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick that is supremely relevant to our times, and yet I can't find it online. Someone sent a scan of it to me. It was written in the 1970s some time, for the Georgetown University Yearbook. Cutting and pasting here. 

Government & Us by Jeanne Kirkpatrick

I was asked to address two questions in this essay: What should citizens expect from government, and especially, how moral should citizens expect their government to be? These are, of course, perennial concerns of political philosophy. In more stable times people think they know the answers to these questions, and professors are not asked to address them in college yearbooks. But in an age like ours — when the authority and legitimacy of government are challenged and common understandings concerning the right and duties of rulers and citizens questioned — the concerns of political philosophy become the private dilemmas of ordinary citizens, who must find their way among competing claims, clashing interpretations and conflicting demands to a reasonable understanding of their relationship to government. In the comments that follow, I shall not deal with the relation of citizens and governments in the abstract, but with our relations to our government.

Because the purpose of the nation’s founders was to limit government’s power and protect liberty, it makes sense to approach the first question negatively, asking what we should not expect from government. High among these are virtue and happiness. It is not the obligation or even the right of government to prescribe our goals, to provide meaning to our lives to guarantee us self fulfillment.  These are our own responsibility. Government should not try to make us happy but to provide a framework in which we may pursue happiness. The whole American tradition — in religion, politics, science, art, and everyday life — is based on the conviction that societies are more creative, religions more believable, civilizations more interesting and persons more fully developed when individuals are left free to develop their interest and talents, express their views and visions. An unfortunate verbal convention has developed according to which the liberty to order our own lives, seek our own goals, express ourselves, organize ourselves is called “negative” liberty, and freedom from arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, execution and other manifestations of tyranny is called “negative” freedom — as if these had no positive value. We should note, however, that that the people who regard these individual liberties as trivial also frequently believe that ordinary people are not really to be trusted with managing their own lives and need to be directed toward the achievement of some “high” or more “worthy” goal selected by others.  In truth, the most important demand we should make of government is that it leave us free to choose our jobs, raise our children, cultivate our friendships, write our books, seek our salvation, criticize our government, and vote it out of offices when that seems desirable.

These freedoms are prerequisite to democracy, which is, of course, the political system that protects liberty by insisting that government seek the consent of ordinary people before it makes laws binding on them.  The second most important demand we should make on government is that it serve the common purposes of the society as these are expressed through the institutions of popular rule. As liberty is a prerequisite to democracy, law is a prerequisite to liberty. It is respect for law that we must ultimately rely upon to limit the power of government and provide the framework of order needed to enjoy both freedom and democracy.

There is no more important demand citizens of a democracy can and should make on their leaders than that these latter use power only in times, places and manners prescribed by law and the Constitution. The events we call ‘Watergate” constituted a “constitutional crisis” because they involved a refusal by high public officials to be bound by legal restraints on government’s power.  The “crisis” was resolved when the supremacy of law was reaffirmed and the offenders submitted to prescribed legal processes. Watergate was an offense against the public morality because the officials involved failed to honor official obligations.


This brings me to the final point: how moral should we expect our government to be? There is a tendency for contemporary Americans to judge the moral quality of government by the personal morality and motives of its high officials, and to assume that when good men with good motives and good personal habits lead a government, good government results.  But this is not necessarily the case.  There are important differences between moral governments and moral individuals. Private morality depends on such personal virtues as honesty, generosity, reliability, industry, fortitude. Public morality concerns the polity and depends on institutional relationships and policies which protect and enhance democracy, freedom, accountability, order, justice. A responsible person, for example, is one who can be counted on to honor his obligations, but a responsible government is one in which rulers are held accountable through periodic competitive elections for their use of public office.  It is true that the moral quality of rulers sets the tone for the political class and seeps downward into the political culture and it is also not unreasonable to suppose the values and predispositions present in leaders’ private lives affect their behavior in office as well as out.  But a passion for the cultivation of personal virtue has never been the distinguishing characteristic of political men, and it is unreasonable to expect that political leaders will be paragons of personal virtue as well as persons of high political skill.  Politicians are at least as prone as others to ordinary hypocrisy and venality and their personal moral failings should be treated in about the same way as the comparable failings of others in the society.  There is no good reason, for example, to judge a Congressman who is unfaithful to his wife more [or less] harshly than a private citizen guilty of the same offense — providing that the Congressman has not used the powers of office to expedite his pursuit of pleasure.  But if we may not expect our leaders to be more virtuous than the rest of us, we should demand that they be more scrupulous, and more meticulous than anyone in their observance of the law, because they have unique obligations to uphold and enforce it.  Most governments in the world testify that the happy condition in which rulers are subject to law is not easily come by or widely enjoyed.


Once liberty, democracy and law are secure we can discuss and debate the nature of the good life and move toward its achievement, leaving it to successive majorities to determine how best to protect the public tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure equality of opportunity and minimum economic wellbeing to all.  These can be dealt with if not finally solved providing that those very positive substantive demands on government — for liberty, popular rule and law — are successfully made and enforced.