All Commentary
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Personal Character Is More Powerful in Shaping Society Than the Legal-Political Environment

by Lawrence W. Reed

In a recent hour-long program examining “The Great Food Stamp Binge,” Fox News told the story of hardscrabble North Carolinians resisting the dole. Like generations before them, they wouldn’t stoop to taking handouts, preferring instead to tighten their belts in tough times. Then government social workers went to work on them and eventually broke down what was locally called “mountain pride.” The do-gooders were subsequently given awards for their “success” in turning those self-respecting, self-reliant citizens into taxpayer dependents.

Is this a case of the legal-political environment overwhelming personal character? It would seem so.

There’s a big chicken-or-egg component to this question. I think strong arguments are available to both sides. When Max first asked me to pick a side, it wasn’t easy and it took some time and thought. In the end, I’ve opted to put the premium on character, so here’s my case.

There’s more to the North Carolina story than the system corrupting character. Why should we assume that the only people in the story with character were the proud, independent mountaineers? Didn’t the social workers have character too? Of course they did, but arguably it was lousy.

Part of the problem here stems from the multitudinous meanings of the term. “Character” can be a mere description of personality, as in, “He is reserved and studious,” or “She is energetic and optimistic.” Whether those qualities are good or bad can depend on the circumstances. What would you say if someone asked you, “How would you describe the character of Adolf Hitler?” You wouldn’t reply by asserting he had none. You’d more likely respond this way: “Hitler had an evil, scheming, power-lusting, disreputable, and reprehensible character.”

Then there is the most positive sense of the term, in which a person’s character is composed of indisputably good traits almost universally admired. “Wow! What a man of character!” is an exclamatory statement that is nearly always synonymous with the highest praise. You would use that statement if you meant to suggest that the man is consistently (not occasionally) and deliberately (not unthinkingly) honest, responsible, caring, reliable, trustworthy, or fair.

So everyone has his or her own character. It may be characterized (is that a pun?) by traits that are mostly and widely regarded as good, or mostly and widely regarded as bad, or a mix that’s somewhere in between.

I approach the North Carolina story with some settled truths I accept as unassailable fact: It’s a good thing to work hard, to accept nothing from others but what they choose to provide willingly, to respect the property of your fellow citizens. Likewise, it’s not a good thing to take property by force and redistribute it, or to pressure self-reliant people to be party to such behavior. It’s a bad thing when you undermine good character traits in others and an even worse thing to accept the government’s loot to do it.

Character was overwhelmingly at work on all sides of the North Carolina story. Sadly, the side that won out was the one with the rotten (though perhaps well-intentioned) character because it had a powerful ally—other people’s money.

You don’t check your character at the door when you go to work for the government. That means that the legal-political system is itself a reflection of the character of those who made the laws and those who are employed to carry them out. A people of the highest character won’t write laws that undermine it, nor will they take other people’s money to corrupt and destroy it. People of questionable character may do both, and there’s no question that their power to do harm is greatly magnified when they have the force of the State in their grasp.

The only truly unwilling parties in the North Carolina story were the taxpayers whose money was taken under threat of force for the do-gooders to pass around. The mountaineers ultimately did not have to succumb to the temptation to take it, and they don’t have to allow it to permanently corrupt their character. Likewise, nobody put a gun to the heads of the social workers, who could have chosen a more honorable profession.

Only in the most extreme situations where free choice is impossible might there be a case that the legal-political system is more powerful than character, and that requires you to assume that the system doesn’t reflect the character of those who created or tolerate it. The late Viktor Frankl, a prominent neurologist and Holocaust survivor, might well argue that there is one dimension in which character ultimately triumphs over the most vicious and all-encompassing compulsion. He wrote in his 1946 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

To accept the notion that the legal-political environment is more powerful in shaping society than character is to accept the rationalization, “The system made me do it.” I think that’s rarely the case, and it certainly wasn’t in the instance of the social workers in North Carolina. “But they didn’t understand that what they were doing was a bad thing,” you might say. Ignorance is regarded as no excuse for breaking the law, so why should it be accepted as an excuse for upholding it when the law is rooted in error, theft, demoralization, or injustice?

I hope this is much more than just semantics, but I believe that character shapes everything, and everything is a mirror image of it.

An old proverb teaches, “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.” I can’t quite assign the same degree of indispensability to the legal-political system.

Lawrence W. Reed, economist and historian, is president of FEE and author of the forthcoming book, Are You Good Enough For Liberty?

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is