Understanding liberty as a product of a society’s evolutionary process means studying human behavior over time. In this reading, liberty emerges because humans, having lived together for ages, learn a great deal about collective life. A society recognizes rights because evidence formed over generations demonstrates what contributes to security, what people need to flourish, and what happens when some people possess disproportionate power. Said another way, liberty exists primarily because of experience, not because of abstract philosophical reasoning.
Experience is also the only way we can answer the all-important question, “What becomes of longstanding communities made up of free people?” Here, the concept of “institutions of freedom” becomes key. After generations of living together, free people develop habits, customs, rules, and entities that are only possible because of liberty, that make the most of liberty, that protect liberty, and that ameliorate the inevitable downsides of liberty. We are surrounded by such institutions, even if we seldom recognize them as such: families, towns, parishes, schools, community associations, volunteerism, faith, restraint, charity, civility, democracy, markets, courts, and much more.
Experience reveals some universal aspects of liberty (e.g., the necessity of a right to self-protection), but it also demonstrates that different people in different places in different times will identify or prioritize different freedoms and develop different institutions. For instance, India recognizes the right of minorities to operate schools; Canada has explicit mobility and language rights. We might say that the concept of liberty dominant in a particular location is both reflected and promoted by that location’s particular institutions. So, English liberty is sustained by Parliament and the common law, while Swiss liberty is sustained by its federal system and elements of direct democracy.
What has experience taught us about the link between American liberty and American institutions? There are several obvious answers. The 10th Amendment, which flows from our formation from independent colonies, preserves the dual sovereignty of states and the national government, which is key to America’s brand of freedom. The Equal Protection Clause, which flows from our shameful history of slavery, enshrines America’s egalitarianism. Similarly, the nature of our revolution led to unusual protections for speech and religion, which then fostered a culture teeming with expression and religious communities; our spirit of local self-determination sparked our development of countless voluntary associations, school districts, and municipalities, which preserve freedom by distributing authority and citizen loyalty.
These institutions are still celebrated, although perhaps less enthusiastically than in the past. But one essential American institution of freedom has largely been forgotten, and its decay threatens our liberty: public service.
Though enormous energy has been expended recently on the debate over liberalism and America’s founding, those responsible for creating our nation mostly used the term “republic” to describe their political goals. “Republic” or “republican” appears 161 times in the eighty-five Federalist Papers. The first of those essays notes that the collection will discuss “the conformity of the proposed constitution to the true principles of republican government”. Federalist 39 is titled “The Conformity of the Plan to Republican Principles.”
For the framers, the term republic certainly implied popular rule and limited, though not emaciated, government. But, dating back to ancient times, the term also included strong notions of duty. Citizens are expected to advance the common good, avoid self-dealing and nepotism, and elevate the public interest over private gain. In addition to self-control in personal matters, republican duty involves dedicating personal time and talents to governing.
It is notable how many of the key figures in ancient republicanism served in public office. Think of Cato, Cicero, Euripides, Marcus Aurelius, Ovid, Pericles, Plutarch, Seneca, Sophocles, Tacitus, Thucydides, Xenophon. Indeed, Cicero described freedom as “participation in power.” Key political writers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment (when republicanism was revived and modified) also served: Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Locke, and Burke. Even after the term “liberal” had become more popular in the 19th Century, figures like Tocqueville and Mill served in public capacities in addition to writing their books.
It should come as no surprise, then, that virtually all our framers had extensive experience in public service. There simply was no distinction between those who led discussions of important issues and those who worked on them in official capacities. If you wanted to do the former, you were expected to do the latter. Every signer of the Declaration of Independence and every participant of the Constitutional Convention served in a major governing role before or after the revolution (most served in both eras). As in earlier republican times, even those made famous by writing and speaking served in governing capacities: all three authors of the Federalist Papers, all five writers thought by historians to have authored the “Anti-Federalist Papers,” pamphleteer James Otis, author of the “Farmers’ Letters” John Dickinson. Even Thomas Paine worked for the Pennsylvania legislature and Congress.
We should understand public service in the context of America’s particular brand of liberty. Our framers understood they were creating a special kind of republic that had to reflect the lessons from previous republics while matching the character of their new nation. Free and equal citizens would self-rule via governmental bodies arrayed across different levels and branches. This would respect the nation’s expanse, diversity, egalitarianism, and commitment to decentralization. The framers not only modeled republican behavior through their own service across towns, states, and the federal government, they also wrote a federal constitution and state constitutions that created more opportunities for public service than any contemporary nation. This included minimal qualifications for public offices and the guarantee of state-level republican forms of government.
The public-service mentality became an invaluable institution of freedom. Citizens were expected to serve, which continuously focused public attention on the needs of the community. Public servants would work in democratic settings, which would shape them by fostering knowledge of and commitment to a particular community; tolerance of difference; the recognition of and adherence to civic norms; a focus on specific problems and pragmatic solutions; a healthy suspicion of the encroachment of other governments; and so on.
The public-service mentality promoted civic virtue: producing civil, accommodating, practically wise, non-ideological, public-interested, service-oriented citizens. And the practice of virtue promoted further appreciation for the public-service mentality.
How things have changed. We have lost the understanding that those leading public discussions have a duty to serve and that their views should be grounded in experience. It is growing harder and harder to find cable-news personalities, talk-radio figures, major columnists, prominent pundits, or editorial-board members who have engaged in meaningful governmental service. Instead, ideas about the day’s most important issues are shaped by critics and analysts who enter the public square via activism, campaigns, journalism, academia, and/or social media.
It is difficult to overstate the negative consequence of this shift. Those in the driver’s seat have not been shaped by governing institutions, they’re less familiar with governing systems, they’ve not been responsible for solutions, they’ve not been accountable for mistakes. It should come as no surprise, then, that today’s discourse focuses on the most radioactive issues, that participants behave imprudently, that practical proposals are in short supply, and that the nation has grown polarized. The second-order effects have arguably been even worse. With a toxic public square, most Americans think elected officials are motivated by personalnot public interests, less than a third of young people see running for office as honorable, those with no or negligible governing experience ascend to high political office, and so many public officials behave like punditsinstead of governing leaders.
I find the roots of the commentariat—those who publicly discuss, but don’t take part in, governing—in the Progressive-Era sensibility that governing should be seen as a science not as a practice. Concerned by America’s rapid diversification, the spoils system, and machine politics and enamored by the efficiency of modern management techniques, many Progressive leaders believed the “best men” of society, those with smarts and standing, could dispassionately and competently lead in government. This brand of progressivism naturally gave rise to technocracy—governing via aptitude and administrative chops.
Since technocracy still involved public service (“-cracy” comes from the Greek for “govern or rule by”), we can easily miss what this Progressive shift presaged for republican duty: We were now growing a class of elites who could claim governing expertise absent governing experience. In time, developments like the expansion and increased complexity of the state, the lure of economic planning, FDR’s recruitment of a “brain trust,” and the Kennedy-Johnson era’s hiring of the “best and brightest” solidified a place in public affairs for experience-free governing “experts.” For sure, technocracy wasn’t very democratic (its leaders would come from a managerial elite), but at least its connection to service still nodded toward republicanism.
Over time, however, the dedication to public service slowly evaporated, leaving only the residue of experience-free “expertise.” Clearly, we should have seen this coming. If one could be a governing expert prior to governing, then, logically, one could build an entire career as a governing expert without ever having governed. For many, that was a welcome development: Why bother with the burdens of governing—compromise, judiciousness, momentous decisions, public accountability, long hours, low government pay—when you could have a platform and influence absent responsibility?
And so, unsurprisingly, we saw the rise of “public intellectuals” and “thought leaders”: a class of educated, articulate, government-interested individuals. Though they had prominence and opinions to spare, they generally lacked skills, experience, and personal commitment related to serving in official capacities—so neither techne (practical ability in public service) nor -cracy (governing). Indeed, it is striking that our past major public intellectuals seldom had any governing experience (e.g. James Baldwin, Randolph Bourne, Noam Chomsky, John Dewey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Mary McCarthy, H.L Mencken, Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling). Today, you will be hard-pressed to find among the most prominent cultural and political writers and speakers many who have served in meaningful public roles. Though op-ed-writing academics, podcast-hosting populists, and talk-show-appearing pundits might object to being lumped in with one another, they are the same in this critical respect: They present as governing experts, often making a living doing so, even though betray no awareness of a duty to serve.
Theodore Roosevelt (ironically a leader of the Progressive Era) presciently identified and condemned this movement at its start. In a speech titled “The Duties of American Citizenship,” Roosevelt criticized the well-educated, influential figure who never served; “Above all things he must not, merely because he is intelligent, or a college professor well read in political literature, try to discuss our institutions when he has had no practical knowledge of how they are worked.” In a 1910 speech titled, “Citizenship in a Republic,” he scorned those seeking influence but failing to serve, saying, “there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life” and even less room “for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day.”
Unfortunately, the trend only accelerated, and those with no practical knowledge gained more and more influence. Occasionally, a seasoned leader would quietly object. For instance, in the early 1960s, then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson marveled to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn about the brilliance of President Kennedy’s team. According to historian David Halberstam, Rayburn replied that they might be intelligent, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
Today, it seems that the link between governing experience and governing expertise has been severed and that the understanding that those who want to lead political and policy discussions have a duty to serve has been lost. We have become so acclimated to governing-related op-eds, essays, podcasts, and cable-news appearances by those who’ve never governed that it seems anachronistic that those who prominently wrote and spoke about governing years ago assumed their civic obligation to serve.
Rebuilding the Institutions
One of the most damaging aspects of our recent fixation on liberalism is our neglect of republicanism. That tradition, which was front and center in the minds of our founders, gave us a way to talk about duty. Those who formed our nation were students of history; they understood that freedom and self-rule required a great deal from citizens. The concept of civic responsibility isn’t unrelated to liberalism, but it is a distant cousin. If our thinking about liberty begins and ends with personal autonomy, we will naturally see liberty in relation to state power. We will assess societies based on whether government action vis-à-vis the individual is sufficiently constrained.
By recognizing the importance of the community, republicanism sees liberty and duty to society as connected: The free citizen must work for the common good, the free citizen must put public benefit above private gain, the free citizen must serve. In this way, republicanism may be the clearest manifestation of the evolutionary understanding of liberty. As societies came to recognize the necessity of liberty, they simultaneously recognized potential downsides, including selfishness, atomization, and relativism. Republicanism coupled individual freedom with responsibility toward others. We then might consider republican virtue to be a key institution of freedom: it evolved with liberty, it is made possible by liberty, and it enables liberty to sustain.
Therefore, we might consider the service component of republican virtue to be the model institution of American freedom. In a highly diverse, continental nation that prizes individualism, it forms individuals into citizens, enables our working toward a common good, strengthens the patchwork nature of our governing bodies, and forces us to focus on practical problems and solutions instead of theory. This explains why, as our commitment to service has deteriorated, our faith in institutions has collapsed, our polarization has skyrocketed, power has centralized, abstract debates have predominated, and workable solutions to the nation’s problems have disappeared.
To solve this problem, we need to think in terms of three strategies: education, incentives, and modeling. First, we must once again consciously form young people into service-minded citizens. Our framers believed that self-government was impossible absent civic virtue, and today we must realize that civic virtue must be cultivated. Educational content standards and curricula related to American history and civics should emphasize the role of republicanism in our founding and national character. Students must understand their duties as citizens not just their rights. We must recognize that if the classroom lionizes demonstrations, petitions, and protests at the expense of service then young people will come to believe that citizenship is exhibition and talk. If students are taught that our governing institutions are inhrently unjust and undeserving of preservation, we villainize institutional participation. We must recommit to developing public servants, not just public activists.
Second, current incentive structures make it easy, even obvious, to choose a career in political commentary instead of public service: You can make a comfortable living and become famous and influential without the bother of public responsibility. Whether you are a new professional or have an established career in, say, academia or journalism, you can find many outlets for your personal punditry: columns, newsletters, podcasts, social media, cable-news hits, talk-radio spots, etc. We need our other institutions of freedom—such as media corporations, think tanks, publishers, universities—to stop paving this pathway into experience-free governing “expertise.” Producers for radio and television programs should limit the role of “analysts” and “strategists” to those who’ve served. When a reporter wants to become a political and policy columnist, editors should say, “Go serve first.” When an academic wants to become a government-influencing public intellectual, the university should say, “Go serve first.” Positions at policy-focused foundations and advocacy organizations, think tanks, and public policy schools should be weighted toward those who’ve served. If a citizen’s education and conscience don’t tell him to prioritize service ahead of commentary, the job market must do so.
Lastly, we need today’s influential commentators to recognize their personal duty to serve. We need them to model behavior for others. Even if it is for only a few years, they should give up the keyboard, camera, and microphone for inside-the-system roles. Yes, it might be more fun, more lucrative, and more comfortable to analyze, advise, and criticize from afar, but the nation and its communities need and ask more of you. For all of the flaws of Progressive-Era “best man”-ism and 20th century technocracy, at least such figures served. If today’s youth are taught about service, if the government-related workplace begins prioritizing service, and if today’s prominent commentators commit to service, we can rebuild America’s particular form of republican liberty.
Andy Smarick is a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute.