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Vol. 17  No. 21 Final Edition
Clovis Free Press
Thursday May 10, 2001
Toward A Free & Virtuous Society

Both freedom and virtue are under serious assault today.
By Doug Bandow, The Acton Institute

     CLOVIS - - There is no quicker means of raising a skeptical eye in some circles than to announce that one believes in both liberty and virtue. Many people who consider freedom the preeminent political objective perceive support for virtue to be an implicit call for restrictive new laws.
     More than a few advocates of virtue treat a vigorous defense of liberty like the promotion of vice. This mutual hostility is evidenced by the growing strains between many economic libertarians and social conservatives, who once submerged their differences in the pursuit of common goals.
     Yet neither liberty nor virtue is likely to survive alone. Both freedom and virtue are under serious assault today. Government takes and spends nearly half of the nation's income. Regulation further extends the power of the state in virtually every area of people's lives.
    Increasing numbers of important, personal decisions are ultimately up to some public functionary somewhere. Virtue, too, seems to be losing ground daily. Evidence of moral decline is manifest throughout American society.
     At this critical time, some supporters of either liberty or virtue are setting the two against each other, treating them as frequent antagonists if not permanent opponents. At the very least, the competing advocates suggest, you cannot maximize both values but instead have to choose which to promote and which to restrict.
     However, it would be a mistake to assume that one must be sacrificed for the other. Rather, freedom and morality are complementary. That is, liberty - the right to exercise choice, free from coercive state regulation - is a necessary precondition for virtue. And virtue is ultimately necessary for the survival of liberty.
     Anyone interested in building a good society should desire to live in a community that cherishes both values. Common sense tells any sane person that a society that is both free and virtuous is the place in which he or she would most want to live."
     Virtue cannot exist without freedom, without the right to make moral choices. Coerced acts of conformity with some moral norm, however good, do not represent virtue; rather, the compliance with that moral norm must be voluntary.
     Liberty should be seen as the context of actions and social institutions that facilitate or enable virtue. There are times, of course, when coercion is absolutely necessary, as to protect the rights of others by enforcing an interpersonal moral code governing the relations of one to another. The criminal law is an obvious example, as is the enforcement of contracts and property rights.
     However, virtue reflects a standard of personal morality. As such, it is an area that lies largely beyond the reach of state power, which makes the role of private sector institutions, particularly the church, so much more important. The statist temptation nevertheless remains strong, and for obvious reasons. America today does not seem to be a particularly virtuous place.
     But then, the natural human condition, certainly in Christian theology and in historical experience, too, is not one of virtue.
     Government has shown that it is not a particularly good example of virtue. The state tends to be effective at simple, blunt tasks, like killing and jailing people.
     It has been far less successful at reshaping individual consciences. Even if one could pass the laws without changing America's current moral ethic, the result would not be a more virtuous nation.
     True, there might be fewer overt acts of immorality, but there would be no change in individual hearts. Forcibly preventing people from victimizing themselves does not automatically make them more righteous.
     It is, in short, one thing to improve appearances, but quite another to improve society's moral core. 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 freely. Then, 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, persuade, and solve problems. The law is better at driving immorality underground than eliminating it. As a result, moral problems may seem less acute tab they are.
     In the end, people need to be more willing to tolerate the quirks and failings, even serious lapses of virtue among their neighbors, as long as such actions have only limited effect on others. The fact that government can do little to help does not mean that there is nothing it should do.
     We would all be better off if public officials adopted as their maxim " first, do no harm." Although the community-wide moral breakdown most evident in the inner city has many causes, government policy has exacerbated the problem at almost every level. Governments punish marriage and thrift through their welfare and tax policies.
    Worse still, The state has spent years attempting to expunge not only religious practices but also religious values from the public square. The public school discourages moral education.
     Yet, liberty is the highest political goal, and building a better society that protects justice and meets material needs is a worthy goal, most likely to be achieved through a free society.
     The economic and political system operates most effectively if markets require a certain moral context. 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 individuals will have fewer of the problems that invite government intervention. Forming such an environment requires sustained effort. Although government is a poor means of molding character, collective social action is required.
     In many cases the market process itself will encourage virtuous action. The free market, as any entrepreneur knows, can function from time to time as a moral tutor by fostering rule-keeping, honesty, respect for others, and courage.
     Voluntary cooperation is possible in other ways. Those who believe in both a free and virtuous society face serious challenges in the coming years, but neither cause will be helped by playing one against the other. In the end, liberty and morality need each other.

    [Editor's Note: The Acton Institute seeks to advance the cause of liberty by working with religious leaders and business professionals to promote the moral and economic dimensions of freedom.]

Letter to the Editor

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