Senator Chris McDaniel represents Mississppi’s 42nd District (Jones County) in the state legislature. McDaniel has a bachelors degree from William Carey College in Hattiesburg and in 1997 received his Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the Ole Miss School of Law. You can find a full biography at his website. I’ve been following McDaniel’s commentaries, which are an impressive defense of the free society rooted in virtue and a moral framework. He’s a serious thinker and I’ve highlighted his work on the PowerBlog a couple of times. I felt it would be beneficial for our readers to publish an interview with Senator McDaniel. He is worth getting to know and is somebody who echoes so many of the ideas of the Acton Institute.
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Often in society virtue is identified or linked with collectivism, why is a limited government the most moral option?
Collectivism, if truly voluntary, has the potential to result in positive outcomes – for example, faith communities, civic clubs and charities. However, collectivism cannot properly be defined as moral or virtuous if any degree of coercion is involved. This is particularly true when government is mandating collective solutions. Forced collectivism often works as an antisocial instrument, crippling the division of labor, voluntary interchange and even individual creativity.
On the other hand, limited government – or put another way, liberty – allows for the exercise of personal choice, which is an indispensable component of morality. Indeed, how can an action be considered moral if an individual is not allowed to exercise free-will – that is, deliberate choice without duress? Not to belabor the point, but true morality only exists in a sphere in which an individual is free to decide for himself, free of compulsion, if he will sacrifice comfort, convenience or advantage in observance of a moral rule and bear the consequences of his own decision. An individual’s choice cannot be considered moral – at least in the traditional sense – if it is compelled by government. Likewise, the defense and maintenance of freedom itself becomes a very difficult task unless it is grounded in moral certainties.
How does a more secular culture and society threaten our constitutional liberties?
My opinion is the acceptance of an astute understanding shared by the founders, a belief that moral truths exist and are necessary for people to responsibly self-govern their own affairs. I tend to believe that moral limits to human behavior are intertwined into our nature, and not simply accidents of history. I regard these limits as something that must be conserved to protect character from avarice, envy, unhealthy ambition and destruction. Simply put, good people make good citizens; bad people make bad citizens. A culture which cultivates positive moral attributes creates a masterful environment for liberty and self-government.
In his farewell address, President Washington echoed a prevailing theme of his era when he explained, “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 labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.” He believed that morality and liberty were each necessary for the other’s long-term survival, and that both were indispensable to the Republic. He was right, of course. Even in our supposedly modern age, a high moral tone in society is necessary, since liberty and free-markets perform remarkably well when balanced with a voluntary mixture of moral and social capital – trust, diligence and frugality, for example. Such beliefs sow the seeds of personal responsibility, resisting calls for state sponsored uniformity, choosing instead to respect individualism and the treasures that originate with it.
In order to properly maintain a free society with a limited amount of government, citizens must be able to responsibly control themselves. But sadly, as more and more people become unwilling to responsibly self-govern, government has attempted to fill the void, purporting to justify its intrusion as an effort to maintain safety and order. By assuming responsibility for the management of individuals, however, it renders the rest of society less responsible.
And yet, contrary to other political philosophies which embody the might of centralized authority, I do not propose that it should be the mission of government, by force of law, to dictate to others how they must live or to remake authority in an effort to micro-manage every individual’s whims and desires. Noble and lasting virtue is never forced on the people; it is instead born out of respect for liberty.“We have,” as Russell Kirk reminded, “not been appointed the correctors of mankind; but, under God, we may be an example to mankind.”
Mississippi is known as conservative state. What do you consider the greatest challenge today for the liberty minded folks you represent?
Only the people, properly directed and inspired, can restore the republic, including Mississippi. Consequently, the greatest danger facing liberty-minded people is apathy, resulting in their individual abdication of self-government and personal responsibility. The loss of traditional American character – that which prefers independence and liberty over government and centralization of authority – has been devastating to the present cultural and political environment. It is a trend that must be reversed.
You are also a lawyer as well as a state Senator. How has your legal background and originalist interpretation advanced your conservatism?
Constitutionalism and originalism are inseparable philosophies, rooted in liberty. My legal training enables me to successfully communicate and defend both doctrines. Having detailed knowledge of the Constitution and the debates surrounding its adoption provides a firm foundation for my political beliefs, as well as a road map to restore American honor and prosperity.
Name a couple of thinkers or political philosophers in American history who have influenced you and why?
My philosophy of conservatism is steeped in the heritage of Western civilization, representing a consensus of reason operating within tradition. It fights for our capacity for self-government and will never abandon the ideas of the American Revolution, refusing to confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
In light of the above, a few of the political thinkers that have influenced my views include: Thomas Jefferson, Frédéric Bastiat, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Taft, Russell Kirk, Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan. There are other philosophers and leaders, too numerous to list here, of significant importance.