- - 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.]
to the Editor
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