Liberty: a Prerequisite to Virtue

“Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams

Government is essential for the good health of any society – however, as John Adams indicates above, standing alone it is a wholly insufficient institution to the establishment of a free and prosperous community. When the government of a given society forgets this fact, encroaching beyond its natural function then liberty, and, consequently, virtue, is put in imminent danger. This is what differentiates good government from bad government.

So, what is the appropriate role of government? And when does a “good” government exceed or neglect these functions and thus become “bad”?

The role of government is to protect liberty and here is why:

Classical liberalism, better known as libertarianism today, considers the protection and promotion of individual liberty as the sum of good government and the route to a free and prosperous society – and the classical liberals are correct. However, many libertarians and their critics forget one crucial aspect: that liberty, while good in itself, serves largely as a means and not an end in and of itself. Liberty is the means to virtue – and it is virtue that we want to ultimately protect and promote within a society, but that only comes through the protection and promotion of liberty.

Often, we see government attempt to “promote” virtue within a society through the implementation of such benevolence programs as minimum wage laws, unemployment benefits, FEMA and more.  Instead, and in addition to doing a poor job at something free market could do better, these types of programs essentially rob people of the opportunity to be virtuous. Virtue only comes through the free volition of the individual. When a man or woman is coerced by their government to pay taxes to provide benefits to the unemployed or to pay a “just wage” to government union workers above market price then that man or woman is not practicing virtue in any form and is only lessened as an omnipotent government takes their money so that a faceless bureaucracy can hand it out to someone whom they have never even met. The economy of virtue is reduced to a zero sum game.

Thus, liberty (that is, the freedom to exercise free will and choose freely) is the bedrock upon which virtue must stand. Certainly, some people will choose not to share their good fortune in the absence of government coercion. However, this is the price of promoting a right and just society. If we are to enable people to freely choose to be good brothers and sisters to their fellow man then we must also allow them to make the free choice to not be their brother’s keeper.

Instead of lowering the entire citizenry to the level of the most vile scrooge government should serve to raise the bar for society, creating conditions favorable to practicing virtue. Entitlement programs do the opposite by inhibiting and de-incentivising virtue, not just for the recipient, but for the taxpayer as well by depriving him of opportunities to serve his fellow man freely.

Ultimately, virtue is a social experience requiring the cooperation of three distinct sources: the first is God, from whom stems the grace that makes human greatness possible, the next is government, whose role it is to promote and protect liberty, and, finally, is the person in question who, when given the graces that make virtue possible and the liberty that enables it , is responsible for the volition that produces the final product of virtue. Habitual virtue leads to the development of traits like courage, faith, mercy and others, and it is this personal growth that, when added to the actions of all the other members of the community contribute to the growth of society as a whole.

Many people have accused the study of economics as being an unjustly cold and calculating science. As if other sciences like chemistry or physics were not cold and calculating in their explanations of reality. However, the value of sciences, including economics, come from their contribution to society of how the world that we live in works. Thus, economics does not have to be cold and calculating when it informs social justice teaching because economics is a means to the end of social justice.

As Thomas Storck put it, “Economic activity is meant to serve the more important aspects of life, our spiritual, family, social, intellectual and cultural lives.”

Reducing government primarily to the role of protector of the governed and their liberty will surely leave a void but it would be a void that government was never meant to fill in the first place. Nature abhors a vacuum and the vacuum that would inevitably be created by the elimination of, for example, our current vast federal benevolence programs would be filled by private charities, religious organizations and, most notably, the Catholic Church – after all, aiding the less fortunate is Her rightful jurisdiction. One of the greatest steps that can be taken in favor of the economy of virtue is for government to stop marginalizing religious institutions and relinquish its ill-fortuned wards to the rightful heir: the Church.


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