Attempting to forcibly make people virtuous would make society itself less virtuous in three important ways. First, individuals would lose the opportunity to exercise virtue. They would not face the same set of temptations and be forced to choose between good and evil. In some sense, of course, this approach might be seen as making their lives better, or at least easier. But they would not be more virtuous, and society would suffer as a result. In this dilemma we see the paradox of Christianity: a God of love creates man and provides a means for his redemption, but allows him to choose to do evil.
Second, to vest government with primary responsibility for promoting virtue shortchanges other institutions, like the family and church, sapping their vitality. Private social institutions find it easier to lean on the power of coercion than to lead by example, to persuade, and to solve problems. This phenomenon helps explain the expansion of the welfare state, as government has increasingly taken over the role of providing charity, ensuring health care, and meeting other human needs.
Moreover, the law is better at driving immorality underground than at eliminating it. Prostitution moves from the bordello to the street corner. As a result, moral problems seem less acute and people become less uncomfortable. Private institutions may therefore work less diligently to promote virtue through the most effective means – education, exhortation, and evangelism.
Third, making government a moral enforcer encourages abuse by majorities or influential minorities that gain power. If one thing is certain in life, it is that man is sinful. This is, of course, one of the central tenets of Judaism and Christianity: the notion of original sin.
Yet the effect of sin is magnified by the exercise of coercive power. As Lord Acton famously observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Its possessors can, of course, do good, but history demonstrates that they are far more likely to do harm, even if they start with the best of intentions. And surely centuries of experience with tyrannies ranging from absolutist monarchy to totalitarian dictatorship demonstrate that many of those who seek to wield political power have far different ends in mind. They do so even in the United States, despite the common claim that the government is the people.
Moreover, as America’s traditional Judeo-Christian consensus crumbles, we are more likely to see government actively attacking traditional understandings of virtue. Indeed, the state already increasingly promotes alternative moral views. This is evident in schools for which sex education has become relativist indoctrination. Such abuses are possible only if government is given the authority to coercively mold souls in order to “promote virtue.” Despite the best intentions of advocates of statecraft as soulcraft, government is more likely to end up enshrining notions of virtue very different from those intended by the advocates of traditional morality. All told, an unfree society is not likely to be a virtuous one.
Society vs. the State
And that is why Robert Sirico is correct in arguing that it is “essential to maintain a distinction between society and the State, between voluntary institutions and coercive ones, and between authority and power.” In the end, people need to be more willing to tolerate the quirks and failings, even serious lapses in virtue, of their neighbors, so long as such actions have only limited effect on others. People should exhort and criticize – even ostracize, where appropriate – but leave the punishment of most sins to God.
Governments punish both marriage and thrift through their welfare and tax policies. The state’s control over education has inhibited the teaching of moral values. Moreover, schools fail to equip students for employment in an advanced industrial economy, while other government agencies impose licensing and regulatory restrictions that impede job creation. Drug prohibition has created a profitable illicit market that appeals to people with few alternative economic options. Simply protecting liberty by eliminating state interference with private choices in these areas would ultimately encourage the spread of virtue.
Nevertheless freedom is not enough. While liberty is the highest political goal, it is not life’s highest objective. For a Christian, for instance, the greatest commandments are to love God and one’s neighbors. Helping people get in a right relationship with God is more important than reordering the political system. For those of a more secular orientation, becoming a good, virtuous person remains a more fundamental life goal.
Freedom, Values, and Society
Nevertheless, building a better society that protects justice and meets material needs is a worthy goal, and one most likely to be achieved within a free society. While a liberal (in the classical sense) economic and political system is thus the best one available, it will operate most effectively if nestled in a virtuous social environment. “Markets and the entrepreneurs who enable the market to function,” observes Sirico, require “a certain moral context in which to exist and function smoothly.” People who are honest, work hard, exercise self-control, treat others with dignity, help the disadvantaged, and respect the rights of others require less outside regulation. A society made up of such persons will have fewer of the problems that require government intervention, such as murder, theft, and fraud, and fewer of the problems that invite state restrictions on individual liberty, such as poverty, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity.
Forming a moral social environment requires sustained effort. Although government is a poor means for molding character, collective action is required. In many cases, the market process itself will encourage virtuous behavior. As Sirico writes, “The free market, too, functions as a moral tutor, by fostering rule-keeping, honesty, respect for others, and bravery, as any entrepreneur knows.”
Voluntary cooperation is possible in other ways. For instance, bringing social pressure against businessmen in the marketplace – the purveyors of gangster rap, for instance – is one mechanism by which a free society can encourage virtue. Exhibiting a willingness to condemn and ostracize, to favor a good family man over the executive who engages in adultery is another tactic.
The left has long wanted to use state power to remake the individual and society. That experiment has filled this century with misery and death. Now many on the right hope to use government in a similar fashion, if for more worthy ends. The outcome may end up having less horrific consequences, but it will almost certainly fail in its goal of making us into a better, more virtuous people.
Those who believe in both a free and virtuous society face serious challenges. But neither cause will be helped by playing one against the other. In the end, liberty and morality need each other.