Acton Institute Powerblog

PBR: Only as Good as the People

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What’s wrong with populism? Nothing, necessarily. But, to hazard a tautology, populism is only as good as the people. I think this territory was covered pretty well by Alexis de Tocqueville, whose view was in turn covered pretty well by Sam Gregg in his commentary of a couple weeks ago:

“The American Republic,” Tocqueville wrote, “will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

As Sam notes, Tocqueville cited the importance of religion as a bulwark against the drift to despotism. I don’t think it’s any accident that there is a public policy lean toward socialism at the same time as a perceptible weakening of religious adherence. The relationship is complicated (plenty of liberty-loving agnostics; plenty of Christian socialists), but at the level of generalization, religion (Christianity in particular) fosters centers of authority and action that are independent of the state and resistant to tyranny. It encourages virtue and concern for the common good. In short, it promotes those traits that might drive populist sentiment and action in helpful rather than harmful directions.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of


  • Stuart McKelvie

    I believe the evidence is fairly clear that both Houses of Congress and the Executive Branch have discovered and are practicing this. It is also quite clear that Freedom of Religion (and Freedom of Speech) are rapidly becoming outlawed. How does one stem the tide and turn our country rightside up?

  • Neal Lang

    FDR brought Tammany Hall with him to Washington (not too unlike Obama bringing with him Chicago’s Daly Political Machine), and with came dependence on the Federal by both “the People,” and State and Local governments. But who could hate Santa Clause, especially when he explains that it all “free.”

    “relationship is complicated (plenty of liberty-loving agnostics;”

    As Alexis de Tocqueville and George Washington implied in his Farewell Address – “Liberty without Virtue and Morality is merely License!”

    “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” George Washington, 1796

  • Roger McKinney

    I couldn’t agree more. The real history of capitalism begins with Scholastic writings on the just price which led to their endorsing free markets and private property. Protestants implemented those principles in the Dutch Republic by creating the institutions to sustain property, thereby creating capitalism. Free markets are nothing but the instantiation of property rights.

    A vibrant Christianity is absolutely necessary for capitalism because only it can provide a moral argument for property and restrain envy and covetousness which are the driving forces of socialism. Support for capitalism has waned with the decline of orthodox Christianity.