In one of his academic papers, David Brat (he of the primary victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor), referred to government having “a monopoly on violence.” Journalists for the New York Daily News, Politico and the Wall Street Journal treated this as a statement of extremism rather than a straightforward reference to political philosophy.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing at Forbes, used that to call for a renewal of real liberal education.
In particular, two of the most fundamental requirements of citizenship were virtue and a liberal education.
The expression “liberal education” is quite important. Today, when we think “liberal education”, we think “Would you like fries with that?” But as the common root with the word liberty suggests, liberal education is an education that helps make us free. Only by first understanding not only the empirical scaffolding of our Universe–a.k.a. science–but also its conceptual scaffolding, a.k.a. the ideas, concepts and history which shape the world we live in, can we ever hope to be free, that is to say to be able to make informed, conscious decisions.
Similarly, the great men (and, sorry, they were mostly men) who bequeathed us this wonderful order understood that a regime of majority rule cannot long withstand the test of time without having a citizenship that takes seriously the notion of virtue. The virtues, to Aristotle and others, are not so much about being a goody-two-shoes, but rather about the lifelong effort to reach self-mastery through confronting our passions (today, perhaps, we would say: our addictions) and properly ordering our will towards that which is good. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see how growth in virtue is itself a form of liberal education.
Without an awareness of these things, a bunch of very smart people who built our world and know the instruction manual have been warning us, we consign ourselves to doom.
Which brings me back full circle, which is that when a bunch of people, whose job is to write about politics, who presumably have nice-sounding educations, who have editors, don’t know one of the very basics of the political thought that gave us the world we live in, the hour is very late indeed.
This matches my own leanings pretty well. I believe that one should have a liberal education before undertaking the responsibility to vote. Voting shouldn’t be a lark, a popularity contest, an opportunity for cheap point scoring, or for “gotcha!” campaigns. Voting should be a civic responsibility, taken only after prolonged consideration of the best way to promote the general welfare.
In the past, I’ve suggested voter tests as a way to determine which people actually take this responsibility seriously. Given our nation’s history of racism and oppression, that’s not a good idea. But I do wish that people would take the responsibility seriously enough to prevent themselves from voting, if they lack the requisite knowledge and tempermament.
The low-information voters that should most refrain from voting are the voters least likely to abstain out of principle. A true liberal education would give voters those principles, but then they wouldn’t be low information voters in the first place. If you’re wondering why our election campaigns attract only the worst candidates, look no further than the unqualified, illiberal voters that populate the political left, right, and center.