The relationship between virtue and institutions has been debated for many years, even centuries, by political thinkers, not to mention even clergy. For Christians this is a particularly important issue. To what extent can we rely on the arrangement of political and legal institutions to “check ambition” and prevent mischievous abuse of power? Do we need virtue no matter what kind of institutions we have? Or can we rely on our institutions (for example checks and balances, separation of powers, etc.) to put the brakes on sinful men , and then not be concerned about whether they are virtuous or not?
I came across this very appropriate quote from James Madison in The Federalist, that gets to the core of the problem. I thought it was worth quoting:
It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed? (Federalist, no. 62)
Does this sound eerily familiar? It should. We have elected our own representatives. We have limited power by arranging offices to have checks on each. We hold elections periodically. In the bigger picture we have a constitution that is supposed to protect us from abuse of power. But Madison says that if the laws are so complex and so massive that no one can read them—or gives up, as even many in Congress have—then no checks will stop the abuse once they are in effect. Moreover, if Congress changes laws so frequently that citizens can’t keep up with changes, then again, we suffer with potential and real abuse from those we elected. Congressional statutes become ever longer, ever more complex, ever more incomprehensible, even more vague, and thus ever more possible to manipulate.
Christians have always been concerned about ethics and virtue, but often only personal ethics. And that is of course essential. But we also must realize how important virtue is in government. It is the same thing at a political level. We should want individuals to be as virtuous as possible, even while recognizing that not all will be virtuous. In the long run, given Madison’s warning, even if we had the best institutions ever devised in place, eventually our government would fail. One cannot build any civilization on institutional arrangements alone. And I would argue that specifically Christian virtue is the best foundation.
Let us urge virtue in our political leaders. Let us vote for virtuous leaders, other things being equal (I do not argue that one ought to vote for a leader who is personally fastidious but publically advocates laws that harm people—that would be a bit like Maximillian Robespierre during the French Revolution). But we ought to be concerned that we not emphasize only institutional limits while ignoring ethical limits.