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Friday, November 2, 2007

Virtue versus Legal Obligation

Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter and policy adviser to President George W. Bush, is the latest in a long line of political writers who fail to see the distinction between a virtue and an enforceable legal obligation. Missing that difference leads to all sorts of mischief and undermines a writer's insistence that he favors liberty. Some people may find it an unpleasant choice, but choose they must: freedom or compulsion? There is no third way.

The other day in the Washington Post, columnist Gerson, author of Heroic Conservatism, wrote this:

The two intellectually vital movements within the Republican Party today are libertarianism and Roman Catholic social thought — a teaching that has influenced many non-Catholics, including me.

The difference between these visions is considerable. Various forms of libertarianism and anti-government conservatism share a belief that justice is defined by the imposition of impartial rules — free markets and the rule of law. If everyone is treated fairly and equally, the state has done its job. But Catholic social thought takes a large step beyond that view. While it affirms the principle of limited government — asserting the existence of a world of families, congregations and community institutions where government should rarely tread — it also asserts that the justice of society is measured by its treatment of the helpless and poor. And this creates a positive obligation to order society in a way that protects and benefits the powerless and suffering.

This obligation to protect has never, in Jewish and Christian teaching, been purely private…

He went on to endorse an unspecified form of government urban renewal, foreign aid, and efforts to contribute to the racial healing and unity of our country.

One wants to ask him where he has been for the last, say, 60 years. Does he think he's proposing something new? If so, he really should spend some time in the vast literature documenting the failures of the war on poverty, foreign aid, and government-managed race relations.

Or is he just looking for a winning agenda for the Republican Party? In support of his program he says, A significant portion of the Republican Party and the American public is influenced more by the social teachings of the Jewish and Christian traditions than by the doctrines of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Religious conservatives, broadly defined, prefer free-market methods. But they believe that the goal directing all our methods must be the common good.

The Common Good

Let's look closely at what Gerson is saying. Starting with the last part, apparently he thinks that if the free market is not directed by a goal — the visible hand of government, I assume — then it won't work for the common good. Can he really be that ignorant of the work of such economists as Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, and those he himself mentions, Mises and Hayek? These men did nothing if not demonstrate that the self-regulating market process yields general social benefits, the common good if you will, without having an overarching goal or intention. When governments have tried to impose a goal on the political-economic system, the effort has always come to grief.

The historical record backs up the economists. Although the market has never been allowed to operate free of mercantilist privilege and other sorts of government intervention, it would be hard to dispute that societies which became substantially market-oriented achieved a general prosperity unprecedented in history.

So what is Gerson going on about? Is it that there are still poor people in the United States? While the general condition of those we call poor here would be the envy of much of the world, we cannot deny that some people are really in bad shape. Is Gerson seriously suggesting that this is the result of too much market and too little government in America? Again, I refer him to the literature that shows beyond a shadow of doubt that most of those who have been left behind are the victims of government — specifically, politicians and bureaucrats, some even with good intentions, who say they want to protect the helpless and poor to whom Gerson refers. Is it really necessary to mention occupational licensing, minimum-wage laws, the war on drugs, inflation (the cruelest tax on the poor), trade restrictions on food and clothing, and all the rest?

Gross Injustice

This brings us to Gerson's statement that the justice of society is measured by its treatment of the helpless and poor. And this creates a positive obligation to order society in a way that protects and benefits the powerless and suffering.

The treatment of the helpless is indeed an important measure of justice — and, as noted, the way they have been treated by the corporatist welfare state is a disgrace. Crumbs from the table don't constitute compassion.

But the justice of a society is also measured by how it treats those who are not impoverished. Gerson speaks abstractly of a positive obligation to order society in a way that protects and benefits the powerless and suffering. Let's get concrete. By positive obligation, he means an obligation enforced by armed officers of the state. And that can mean only one thing: the threat of brutality against anyone who does not discharge that alleged obligation. There is no point in prettifying the rhetoric. That's all a legal obligation means. If you don't do what you are told, you will be visited by the authorities, who are prepared to billy-club you — or worse — into submission. By what right? How compassionate (or Christian or Jewish) is that?

And what is this obligation? A responsibility to help the poor. But here's where the missed distinction comes in. If this is a moral obligation that people ought to assume volitionally — and generosity is certainly among the virtues appropriate to a rational being — then there is no political problem or role for government. The American people voluntarily donate billions of dollars every year to help all kinds of unfortunate souls. When a disaster hits, they pile ad hoc generosity atop their routine generosity.

But if generosity is a legal obligation — as Gerson says it is — then government can hardly be called a protector. And generosity is no longer really generosity. How can government be a protector if it forcibly takes honestly acquired property from some people in order to give it to others? Gerson is saying that property not needed by its owner should not be protected. Rather, it should be expropriated and distributed to those who really need it. That would require politicians and bureaucrats — !!! — to treat people unequally (pdf) and empower them to be the arbiters of what individuals do or don't need. Is Gerson really comfortable going down that road? Is he expecting advocates of limited government to follow?

Gerson doesn't seem to realize that he can have it both ways. He can have free markets with full individual freedom and compassion toward those who suffer. If Gerson thinks free people would be incapable of caring for those who can't care for themselves — or would be unwilling to — that says more about him than it does about us. He should stop using his low opinion of mankind as an excuse to violate our freedom.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.