Can the Wicked Govern Well? With Examples Classic and Contemporary

I have been considering an article on this subject for some time. Finally, and not for the first time, it took an article from the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) to get me going. British politician Rory Stewart wrote an essay in the 20 August TLS called “Take off the mask.” Drawing on what he terms the “moral corrosion” of his own life in politics, Stewart defends against Machiavellianism an earlier humanist tradition that stressed the importance of virtue in those who govern. In doing so, he cites a recent book, Virtue Politics by historian James Hankins (reviewed in the 20 February TLS). This tradition of Renaissance humanism chronicled by Hankins begins with Petrarch, and it was opposed to the ideas of those who thought that better laws were the answer to the lawlessness and violence of the 14th century. Citing the Roman example, Petrarch and the others who followed him argued that the key to better governance and relations was not to be found in law, but in the character of those governing. Modern political scientists also generally have returned to a focus not on virtue but on “Constitutional structures.” In fact, this is in the American tradition, as Stewart points out.  Since James Madison’s Federalist Papers it has been assumed that a separation of powers could make up for the personal deficiencies of those in authority.

            Among kings, the poster-child for the unvirtuous but generally successful ruler may be the English Henry VIII. Henry was a bad man in many ways. He was a manipulative bully who catered greedily and ruthlessly to his own appetites. He also strengthened and enriched the English nation as perhaps no other monarch before him. He laid the keel of the Royal Navy and sent English ships to explore the globe. I would argue that Henry is something of a special case. He was, first of all, born and educated to rule from the beginning, undergoing a preparation for the monarchical role he would eventually fill that few can equal. He also began fairly well, as courtier, athlete, and scholar. Later, perhaps, falling victim to the “moral corrosion” of the life political. If someone begins as, say, an amoral, unlearned, outer-borough real estate salesman, that person has far less distance to travel before hitting rock bottom, maybe especially given a family history of criminal megalomania.        

Reading Stewart’s article reminded me sometimes of Anthony King’s book Command, on which I have posted in this blog. From King’s book, I came to conclude that human factors, like character and community, count even more than the structures and organization of military command. I think the same rule applies to government. To answer my titular question, the wicked cannot govern well. In fact, it probably requires more than the absence of wickedness to resist to tendency of a career in politics to erode one’s ability to reason ethically and critically, to overcome the political tendency to think in slogans, to tell people what they want to hear instead of what is so. The low opinion of humanity implicit in the Machiavellian view that now seems predominant may seem knowing and even inevitable, but it ignores the truth that people can be motivated by high ideals like justice.  The state and the individual are best served if we seek both a belief in the potential for virtue in ourselves and our fellows and in the importance of virtue, the “ordinary virtues” espoused by Michael Ignatieff and others: truth-telling, civility towards others, courage combined with humility. Without these, no political system can save us.  

One of the pitfalls of political life discussed by Stewart is the desire to remain in power no matter the cost in injustice and unprincipled behavior. In America, this is on display now most of all in the efforts to suppress voting rights. These who are beginning to realize that the national demographics and polling are increasingly against them have resorted to extraordinary measures to ensure that only some American citizens can vote. From this flows attendant evils: the neglect of climate change, the suppression of effective practices to protect people against COVID-19, the privileging of the rights of corporations and the wealthy against those of the majority of citizens.

Americans have sometimes acted as if they could do as they pleased, as long as they stayed within the law, or even as long as they evaded prosecution. Such licentious behavior has even been regarded as in a way virtuous, in that it has been seen as an exercise of liberty, of inalienable or God-given right. This is a kind of moral relativism, and if the nation has even been able to afford this kind of thinking and behavior, we not longer can. The times are too challenging. We are ringed around with existential threats and grave moral dangers. It’s time for us to think of what is right, not just what is allowed, and to hold those who govern to a high standard in this regard.                  


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