Review: ‘The Republic of Virtue’

Scene at the signing of the Constitution

Wikimedia Commons

BY: Charles Fain Lehman

America, writes George Mason law professor F.H. Buckley, is rife with corruption. His analysis finds the United States notably more corrupt than similar parliamentary countries. This is quite to the contrary of the framers’ original design of the constitution, which, Buckley argues, was meant to check British corruption. How their vision worked, where it went wrong, and how we could update it for the 21st century is the focus of Buckley’s latest book, The Republic of Virtue: How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do About It.

The founders, Buckley writes, were deeply preoccupied with what they saw as the endemic corruption of the British system. The Constitution was intended to create an “anticorruption covenant,” a system of checks on bribery or similar behavior. Republic of Virtue is at its strongest in Buckley’s careful, thorough analysis of the constitution’s text and Madison’s notes on the convention to show how the founders debated what design would encourage responsible stewardship of government.

The anticorruption covenant, however, does not appear to have worked. Instead, Buckley argues, a “pay-for-play network” suffuses our politics, creating an economy of power in which special interests trade contributions for political favors. The most publicly prominent abusers of this system are, of course, the Clinton family. The results of the 2016 election, and the concurrent populist surges for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) and President Donald Trump are, in Buckley’s view, directly attributable to the American people being fed up with Clinton corruption.

Buckley thinks that addressing modern corruption requires some small but impactful shifts in state and federal law. He worries about corruption in state courts, like a particularly egregious example of bribery that sunk several careers and sent Judge Dickie Scruggs to prison. This, Buckley argues, can be corrected with a simple shift in how jurisdiction is handled, so that plaintiffs with concerns about state courts can move their suit to the federal level, creating a “race to the top” effect.

Corruption of the Clinton-flavored pay-to-play variety is a campaign finance matter, and Buckley has solutions there too. He calls for anonymizing all political contributions (to make it harder for politicians to know who is bankrolling them), contribution laws to bar certain donors (namely lobbyists) from giving at all, and a rule to block lobbyists and congressmen both from using the public-/private-sector revolving door.

Notably, Buckley is a proponent of structural, law-based reform without relying upon the tropes of leftist agitators like Zephyr Teachout who decry the threat of “dark money” and oppose Citizens United. In fact, Buckley thinks more unfettered spending is often better, especially given that “campaign finance restrictions … have done little or nothing to diminish corruption or its appearance.”

This agenda is well-assembled and well-argued. It might be called a conservative answer to the concerns of both the anti-Citizens left but also, more importantly, Americans who see real problems with the status quo of campaign corruption.

What is most interesting about Republic of Virtue, however, is not what is said, but what is unsaid. The reader is left with the impression that the book—though clearly deeply engaged with its field—may have worked just as well as a series of scholarly papers. This would explain why it feels as though some components are missing from the story.

For example, It is not obvious what Buckley thinks went wrong in the intervening centuries between the Constitutional Convention and present day. He alludes to certain causes: the reducing of communicative distance between people and the rise of mass media. And he does discuss corruption up through Andrew Jackson.

But there are large gaps that fail to explain how, exactly, we started with the Constitution and ended up with a system that needs a more finely tuned set of standards for lobbyists. Also conspicuously absent: criticism of Trump’s own brushes with corruption allegations.

Each of these lacunae is determined by the bigger absence from Republic of Virtue, which is to say: virtue. ROV uses the term purely negatively, as simply the absence of corruption. Buckley proposes Americans see the world on a “corruption-virtue axis,” Buckley writes, but spends far more time defining corruption than its nominal opposite.

The founders disagreed some about what virtue was, exactly, but they agreed that a free people required a strong moral character. When Benjamin Franklin quipped that the framers had created “a republic, if you can keep it,” he meant that the new country was contingent on the responsibility and uprightness of the people. When Lincoln discussed “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” it was upon the people’s fidelity to those institutions, the disinterested concern for the common good which characterizes republican virtue, that America ultimately relied.

As a scholar of the founding, Buckley doubtless knows this. But without addressing the broader cultural pathologies that harm the production of Republican virtue, his solutions seem to at best chip at the edges of the problem. This explains why they end up feeling overly legalistic and constrained.

The missing history, also, may be partially explained by ROV being a legal, as opposed to cultural, history. And the absence of Trump from the narrative makes sense when we get that his personal failings are not abuses of the pay-for-play system, even if they do seem deleterious to American virtue.

Maybe this is asking too much of Buckley. He has set out to write a text on banning corruption from a legal perspective, and he has done an admirable job doing that, in a way that should speak to conservatives as well as liberals. But the thoughtful reader should not consider these solutions a “silver bullet,” as Buckley characterizes one of his proposals. Effective correction for corruption requires virtue as a product of culture, not merely law.