Ancient Wisdom, Modern Government

“States are doomed when they are unable to distinguish good men from bad.”—Antisthenes

I was reflecting on one of the many incongruities of modern life. It is the fact that in spite of the pampered schooling that most young people receive, the expectations of adult life (especially in the workplace) are extremely demanding.

It’s notable that in the world of business even liberals are “conservative” when it comes to social norms, especially if they are managers or executives. Even if they are ivory tower ideologues who preach against authority and discipline in the world at large, they often remain stubbornly autocratic within their own microcosm. It may be that progressives are more short-sighted than they care to admit, by imposing standards of conduct on the rest of us (whether out of opportunism or foolishness) that they would not impose on themselves.

Recently there was a case before the National Labor Relations Board in which it ruled that an employee who was complaining about working conditions could not be fired for using grossly personal abusive language to a manager. The reason this sort of thing happens is because leftists have a concept of “good and bad” which is very different from the rest of the society. While pursuing a generalized and nebulous idea of justice, the statist regime tends to produce a large number of individually unjust outcomes.

The ancient philosopher Antisthenes also thought it “strange that we weed out… the unfit in war, but do not excuse evil men from the service of the state.” Chances are that we can never eliminate all bad leaders. Nevertheless, the presence of widely respected cultural standards can act as a brake on had behavior. The “constrained vision” of polity (as Thomas Sowell puts it) believes that government exists not in order to dictate its own agenda but primarily to reinforce pre-political standards of right and wrong—e.g., in the realm of property rights to ensure that individuals guilty of theft and fraud are detected and punished insofar as individuals cannot practically undertake these punitive tasks themselves.

A leftist society, however, removes these checks by eliminating or greatly reducing the ability of people to establish consensus-based standards of conduct in family life, education, business and politics itself, while enforcing clumsy “zero tolerance” policies backed by a ponderous and increasingly oppressive regulatory state. In the long run, as Antisthenes pointed out, such a government cannot endure.

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