The Role of the State

[How would you live, Pompey? By being a bawd?
What do you think of the trade, Pompey? Is it a lawful trade?
—Escalus, Measure for Measure]

Enforce morality. The answer to critics who so frequently question the role of the state in Distributism or Catholic Social Teaching is simple. Excepting those who prefer anarchy, libertarian “free market” advocates and others who wallow within the Keynesian economic system should all agree with the principle that the state exists to govern rights and wrongs. The disagreement, however, lingers over the definition and scope of the principle. Should the state exist? Why does it have the authority to enforce morality? What does this mean? Does this authority include regulating the economy? If so, how? Confusion and ignorance are the weaknesses that constrain a man between two oversimplified systems: the market system and the state system.

Should the state exist?

Anarchy suffers the fate of a society based on cultural values as opposed to transcendental values. Incidentally, this is the very plight that almost all nations face today. The anarchist system will eventually yield to a government of one form or another. In a world filled with sinners, mayhem is inevitable. Human nature abhors chaos, and because the system falls victim to cultural values, the subjects of an anarchy innately gravitate towards forming a government. Anarchy crumbles. The government uses its authority to uphold morality, which is the key to overcoming the disorder that typifies the anarchist state. Whether the state should exist is an inapposite question. The state will exist, regardless.

Why does the state have the authority to enforce morality?

The state is the institution most capable of using morality to vanquish sins, which helps maintain order, provide security, and foster decent mores. In Toward a Truly Free Market, John C. Médaille reveals that “the purpose of government is to provide the conditions under which all the other communities that make up the social fabric can flourish.” At a more basic level, in order to keep us out of anarchy, government imposes morality on sinners. This ideal, when implemented, means government imposes laws on citizens. Laws are the instruments by which government fulfills its purpose of providing sound conditions for the social fabric. Some governments are better at this than others. A government that is inherently more susceptible to corruption, such as a socialist or communist government, fails to abide by the same morality that it purports to enforce, thus betraying its citizens. Governments that base laws on cultural values, on the whims of the world, are likewise prone to failure. Nevertheless, the authority to enforce morality rests with government because it is the only institution within the social fabric with the ability to carry out this grave responsibility. In our fallen world, government is morality’s best hope, albeit an imperfect one.

What does enforcing morality mean?

Enforcing morality means using laws to encourage justice and fight injustice. The government can encourage justice by using its lawmaking powers to cultivate moral behavior and reward excellence. Fighting injustice means not only punishing iniquity, but discouraging and inhibiting temptation. However, here questions begin to arise as to which values a society should promote and which laws are best in achieving these ambitions. Centuries of Church Teaching, including the teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, have given Catholics the benefit of understanding the origin of effective ethical laws. The laws of the state should derive themselves from the Natural Law, which is of course derived from God. The more a government mimics the Natural Law in its own lawmaking, the closer it comes to overcoming its own imperfection. Enforcing morality means to render the Natural Law operative in this world.

Should the state enforce morality within the economy?

In order to thoroughly enforce morality, the government must “meddle” in the economy. This is the principle debate, where libertarian “free market” advocates and distributists fundamentally differ. It is also, as we shall see, where the libertarian is less than honest with himself. The economy is a realm defined by day-to-day ethical decisions. If the government were to ignore this, it would fail in its duty to its citizens. Many in the “free market” crowd acknowledge this, if only to a limited degree. They realize that the economy cannot sustain itself without some enforceable ground rules, such as protecting property rights and abiding by contracts. However, they condemn the notion that the economy needs to be regulated even if by creating a more moral framework in which the economy can operate.

Just as government cannot be self-regulating, the economic system cannot manage itself. Most Americans are indoctrinated into believing that “greed is good,” and that if greed were only liberated in a “free market” system, the competing greeds of individuals would generate a better world for us all. Sounds blissful. Regretfully, the premise is bogus. No system can use greed or any other “inescapable” vice as its basis and expect positive results. Greed, or avarice, is unethical. Its treacherous modus operandi is to acquire even at the expense of others. By its nature, it harms others. (Libertarians should detest this fact.) Even in rare instances where greed may not directly harm others, instances which are dubious at best, it does impose incontrovertible harm on the sinner’s soul, if not his perseverance in morality. In a society, all members are valuable and important, and if harm comes to one member, even if that harm is self-initiated or self-inflicted, it brings down the society as a whole. Thus, there are no “private sins.” Despite this reality, some economists still endeavor to tell us that, in greed’s case, we are all lifted by its proliferation, ergo the ends justify the means.  However, as the Summa Theologica explains in its treatise on human acts, “if the will be good from its intention of the end, this is not enough to make the external action good.” More aptly stated, no good can come from greed. Not to mention there are practical issues at stake, including the Austrian system leaving much to be desired within every economic stratum.

If an unchecked government is a threat to liberty, then why is the same not true for an unchecked economy? Are all the players in the economy (including, but not limited to: banks, borrowers, cartels, corporations, criminals, domestic and foreign governments, foreign companies, lenders, militaries, monopolies, oligarchies, producers and sellers of inelastic goods, unemployed persons, and unions) immune to corruption? How are we to expect a system so rampant with liabilities to keep itself in check? True, government is corruptible as well, but what is the alternative? In a world where sin stems from sin, is it even plausible that sins will, by some economic magic, cancel each other out and acquiesce to the greater good? Dare we ask who or what is to prevent unsavory markets, such as prostitution or drugs, from spreading vices contrary to the Natural Law once they assert themselves? Indeed it takes great faith to believe in this ungoverned economy.

Because economics is a moral theater, the role of government as far as the economy is concerned is no different than its role in other facets of society: to enforce morality.

Libertarians mischaracterize this enforcement of morality by claiming it is an exercise in forced action. In an attempt to appeal to our Christian hearts, they assert that ethics, Judeo-Christian values, and even the Bible repudiate forced action. While basking beneath this “nobody can tell me what do do” attitude, the libertarian contrasts forced action with voluntary action, which he of course alleges is the liberty enjoyed by many or all within a “free market” system. Fortunately, distributists understand that expecting one to act morally when they participate in the economy is necessary to achieve not only economic justice, but economic success.

Furthermore, and unfortunately for the libertarian, their position yields little, if any, truly voluntary action. An unbridled free market system does in fact oppress freedom in a number of ways. For instance, no system liberates any person from the market economy. Everyone must participate in order to survive. Moreover, while seeking freedom from government “oppression” of that economy, one is left with economic oppression within the economy, where true voluntary action is enjoyed by few. This, in turn, hinders overall economic success.

It is true that government intervention can and does harm our economy. However, there is a difference between improper intervention and sound regulation. There is also a difference between patching holes in a Keynesian system and laying a superior foundation.

An ungoverned economy mirrors an economy governed by sin. In this system, the economy suffers, and thus society suffers because people’s lives and welfare are dependent upon the performance of the economy or economies in which they live. Government therefore has a duty to enforce morality within the economy.

How should the state enforce morality within the economy?

Distributists propose a better system by rewriting the ground rules. This “third system,” is not based on the state hoarding all economic power, as in communism, nor does it propose to remove the state from the equation, leaving all economic power in the hands of a wealthy few. Instead, it seeks to distribute economic power to all members of a society.

Just as a democracy seeks to decentralize the political power, a distributist society decentralizes the economic power. This does not mean taking from some to give to others, which would have the unscrupulous effect of violating property rights. Rather, it means organizing a society’s economy around a set of principles that would lead to a distribution of economic power. Yes, it takes lawmaking and law enforcement powers of the state to accomplish this.

Some of these principles are:

  • a just wage for a man’s labor;
  • workers having ownership in the means of production;
  • the use, not mere ownership, of land and private property;
  • fair lending practices;
  • localizing the supply of goods and services;
  • limiting the cost of government and its participation, as both a spender and borrower, in the economy; and
  • barring immoral markets and behavior within the economy.

Others are included, but those are some of the basics. Yes, let’s apply these just and moral principles to our society by way of the government’s lawmaking powers and enforce them via the justice system. Government fails in its role and responsibility if it ignores the sins inherent in a “free market” economy by either assuming that the market will regulate itself or pretending the economy is devoid of moral corruption.  Translated into simple, flippant language, it boils down to two choices: a moral economy or an immoral economy. Until governments begin to support moral economies, we can expect little more than continued injustice, instability, and depravity.

Nick Hosford is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. He has studied Economics and Political Science for many years, including as an undergraduate at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is also a graduate of the Birmingham School of Law. He lives with his wife and two children in Vestavia, Alabama. They regularly attend the Traditional Latin Mass.

This article courtesy of The Distributist Review.