Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Different activities, different virtues

The recent remarks of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, asserting that none of the major party candidates for President or Vice President could run a major corporation, prompt me to set forth some thoughts I regard as fundamental to a true conservative understanding of the world.

One of the hallmarks of conservatism according to Russell Kirk is its respect for the particular. Sadly too many so-called conservatives at the turn of the 21st century fail to embrace the respect of the particular. Just as those on the left seem to think that all human activities can and should be reduced to a collection of social service programs, too many on the right seem to think that all human activity can be reduced to commerce. Hence, the offense taken by many erstwhile conservatives not only at the Obama campaign's out-of-context use of Fiorina's remarks as applied to McCain and Palin, but at the remarks themselves.

Among the particularities for which conservatives should have a visceral respect, and should lead our society to respect, are the different virtues necessary for different realms of human activities.

The virtues needed in a head of state, what Aristotle called 'the ruling virtues', are not the same as the virtues needed to run a profit-making commercial enterprise, and both are in turn different from the virtues needed to be a holy priest, and all these are distinct from the virtues needed to be a successful academician (which in turn, to some degree vary from field to field), and these differ from those needed in a general, a physician, an actor, and on and on.

Ronald Reagan was a B-movie actor, and quite frankly had only a minimally adequate share of the virtues needed in an actor (as he, in one of his charming self-deprecating jokes, put it "I was never an actor, and I've got 38 movies to prove it."). I do not think that Reagan would have made a good priest, a good professor, or a good corporate CEO. He did, however, have a lion's share of the ruling virtues, which, directed rightly, allowed him to lead the West to victory in the Cold War and remove enough of the government impediments to commerce through taxation and regulation to allow the market to launch the longest economic expansion of the 20th century.

This is one reason why not merely generic executive experience, but executive experience in government, ideally in a position where 'the buck stops', is an important consideration in selecting a President. Curiously, among the major party candidates, only the GOP Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, has this kind of experience. For all the sneers directed her way, her brief tenure as Governor of Alaska has shown that she, like Reagan, has a fair share of the ruling virtues: she could not have accomplished a major clean-up of government largely against interests within her own party, moved measures through a legislature with bipartisan support, and negotiated against entrenched commercial interests without a good dose of the same virtues Reagan exhibited.

A President with the virtues needed to be a corporate CEO, but lacking the ruling virtues, will either be a miserable failure, or will try to remake government in the image of commerce, a project which would prove as baleful as did the remaking of the mortgage industry in the image of a social project under the stewardship of erstwhile Clinton administration figures now clustered in Obama's economic team.

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