Laws politic, ordained for external order and regiment among men, are never framed as they should be, unless presuming the will of man to be inwardly obstinate, rebellious, and averse from all obedience unto the sacred laws of his nature; in a word, unless presuming man to be in regard of his depraved mind little better than a wild beast, they do accordingly provide notwithstanding so to frame his outward actions, that they be no hindrance unto the common good for which societies are instituted: unless they do this, they are not perfect. It resteth therefore that we consider how nature findeth out such laws of government as serve to direct even nature depraved to a right end.—Richard Hooker
It is, therefore, a just political maxim that every man must be supposed a knave, though at the same time it appears somewhat strange that a maxim should be true in politics which is false in fact.—David Hume
The First Lady has been described in the New York Times Magazine as a proponent of the “politics of virtue.” Compassion is the virtue to which the author refers and while in ordinary life it means that A gives of his own to help B, in Mrs. Clinton’s style of activism it means that A takes from C to make B dependent. Apparently, what the “politics of virtue” means to the author is a high-tax welfare state.
Political theory uses an almost identical expression, the “politics of virtues,” for something quite different: an approach to statecraft that gives first place to considerations of excellence of character. To be sure, the proponent cares about the other things, but he begins by thinking of the virtues. Before all else, he wants to know how wise, how just, how temperate, and how courageous the citizens are, and whether they are becoming better people or worse. The principal reason is simple. As de Maistre put it, every country gets the government it deserves. One cannot expect liberty, justice, or concern for the common good where knaves rule a rabble. So much we should have learned by now.
Here’s the rub: we are a broken race in a fallen world. For denying the Atonement a man may be faithless, but for denying its need he is insane. We are all caught in the wreck. Hence the single greatest problem of politics is simply this: how can we make government promote the common good when there is so little virtue to be found?
By my count, Western thought records just seven general solutions. There is, first, deterrence, according to which acts of vice must be inhibited by the threat of legal punishment. Second is filtration, which counsels that officeholders must be recruited disproportionately from among the most virtuous. Then there is compensation, whereby citizens must be organized in such a way that excess and deficiency correct each other, and all the scattered chips of insight come together in a whole. Next comes balance: selfish groups must be set against each other so that vice is checked and virtue given leverage. Fifth is channeling, in accordance with which non-virtuous motives must be shaped and directed so that they give rise to the same behavior as virtue would require. Next, inculcation: through law in the broadest sense, government must teach virtue directly. And finally, subsidiarity, which requires that government honor virtue and protect its teachers without attempting to take their place.
By reason of our many follies, we may at last have reached that point in history where these solutions can be judged.
Consider deterrence, that acts of vice must be inhibited by the threat of legal punishment. Even this simplest and most straightforward of the seven solutions is sometimes misunderstood, so let us begin by making sure just what it does and does not propose. In the first place, its target is not vice proper, but only the acts of vice. For the very good reason that vice is an invisible disposition of the heart that cannot be detected by the authorities, we do not punish folly, injustice, or intemperance as such, but rather, say, the foolish act of selling liquor to a six-year-old, the unjust act of taking a bribe, and the intemperate act of having a drunken orgy in a public place. Second, because the purpose of law is the common rather than the personal good, not even every act of vice is a fitting concern of law; to make it so there must be significant injury to the rest of the public. In practice this is less a limit than it seems, for once we consider indirect harms, like the harm of bad example or the harm of reducing one’s ability to fulfill one’s duties, we realize that there may be no such thing as an act of vice that does no public injury. Nevertheless it is a limit, for not all injury is significant injury.
Now, how effective is this solution? Not very. In the first place, deterrence, supposedly our answer to depravity, is crippled by depravity itself; it works well only when depravity is incomplete. For as lawbreakers in and out of government know full well, only a fraction of crimes are punished. True, the fraction may be enlarged by such means as putting more policemen on the streets and auditors in the Treasury Department. Beyond a certain point, however, the cost of enlarging it becomes too high-and the more reprobate the population, the sooner this point is reached. Thus law achieves most of its deterrent effect not by exploiting fear, but by exploiting guilt. It presupposes not the total absence of moral qualities among the citizens, but only their imperfection. It shores up a faltering conscience, but this presupposes conscience. Further, punishments must be in keeping with the stage of development that conscience has already reached. To be sure, Thomas Aquinas held that punishments can instruct the conscience as well as employ it-a thesis we will consider later. But even he conceded that punishments can neither instruct nor deter if they get too far ahead of the point that conscience has already reached. As the debacle of Prohibition confirms, the attempt to suppress those acts of vice which the citizens still love and find blameless merely makes them “break out into yet greater evils.”
Not only must law achieve most of its deterrent effect not by exploiting fear but by exploiting the residue of virtue; the guardians themselves must have an even purer heart than those they guard. This is a hard demand, even harder in the marble corridors than on the streets. It is one thing asking policemen not to murder or take bribes, quite another asking lawmakers to abstain from partiality. As Hume observed, men act less virtuously in their public capacities than in their private. Several explanations can be offered for this. One is that few virtuous men have the stomach to campaign; another, that great temptations bring out hidden faults; still another, that personal responsibility is easier to evade when individuals act in concert. Hume’s own explanation is more subtle. What steers most men toward the common good, he says, is merely the desire for honor, which is not a craving for goodness as such but for the good opinion of others. Unfortunately, whereas in private life a man may crave the good opinion of everyone, in politics he craves it only of his confederates; hence the common good becomes, for him, the good that is common to party. True, some few do keep their hearts pure even in the sewer of faction. But because the policy of a group is determined by its majority, these few count for nothing. Groups are not kind to exceptions.
We see then that deterrence is not a true solution to the problem of the scarcity of virtue, for the scarcer the virtue, the weaker the deterrent. At best, deterrence is a kind of Hamburger Helper. It helps government go a little further toward the common good with what little virtue we have; it cannot enable it to do without.
As for filtration, the idea that officeholders must be recruited disproportionately from among the most virtuous: in this solution to the problem, no pretense is made that we can do without virtue; filtration is an open strategy for getting more from the little bit there is. If power waters all the seeds of vice, all the more important that those in power are not too seedy at the outset. Political history knows of just four filtration strategies.
There is ascription, that candidates must have particular characteristics which are supposedly correlated with merit but cannot be attained by any voluntary action. The ascriptive characteristic of lineage was the basis on which Aristotle distinguished virtuous aristocracy from its perversion, oligarchy. Both, of course, made rule the affair of an elite, but whereas in aristocracy the few are set apart by noble breeding, in oligarchy they are merely filthy rich. Several ascriptive filters are also specified by the American Constitution; for instance, the President must be a natural-born citizen, and Senators must be at least thirty years of age.
Another strategy is that of achievement. Not only did every senator in Republican Rome come from a magisterial lineage-by itself, an ascriptive requirement-but each had also personally ascended the cursus honorum, holding in turn every one of the prescribed magisterial offices from lowest to highest. Although the analogy is perhaps not to be pressed too strongly, some Americans view the system of presidential primaries in a similar light: not, to be sure, as a ladder of honors, but as a gamut of obstacles.
Then there is filtration by examination, in which candidates must perform well on a formal test of knowledge or belief. Mandarin bureaucrats demonstrated erudition in the works of the sages. Although the United States Constitution forbids using religion as an examination filter, we too require a civil service exam. While the Mandarin exam may have been viewed as the best filter possible, the American exam is viewed merely as an improvement upon patronage.
Finally, there is approbation, that is, candidates must demonstrate their merit to those deemed qualified to judge it. Madison expected citizens to vote according to their estimates of the candidates’ virtue. The key assumption here is as old as Plato’s Laws: that when undistracted by bribes, ordinary people are both able to identify and willing to defer to persons of greater virtue than themselves. Of course, Madison does not assume that every kind of merit can be judged by inexperienced people. For the kinds that cannot, he simply adds more layers to the filter.
Are we better off with a filter than without? Sometimes, but not always. Consider some of the ways in which filters can backfire.
The whole point of a filter is, of course, to magnify some difference between ruled and rulers. But any difference between the ranks may whet the tooth of envy. This is especially true with a difference in virtue-whether it is real or only shammed. A virtue filter that awakens envy is like a winnowing basket that separates the chaff by destroying the grain.
Ambition gives rise to another possible backfire. The wise, said Plato, must be forced to rule. What does this say about those who want to? Walter Mondale has said that to run the gauntlet of presidential primaries, one must have “fire in the belly.” Does he mean persistence, endurance, and adaptability? Or does he mean the love of power and the lust of domination?
Then there are the wise fools. Examination filters presuppose that learning is correlated with wisdom. True, moral discernment without any propositional knowledge at all is clearly impossible. In modern, relativistic education, on the other hand, the more someone learns the less discerning he becomes.
And there is the race of technique. Every advance in the technique of filtration calls forth an advance in the technique of evasion. Consider the electoral filter. Leak: Voters can be bribed. Patch: Make electoral districts large. As Madison suggested, the greater the number of voters who have to be bought all at once, the more expensive it is “for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried.” New leak: Unable to finance these vicious arts themselves, candidates seek the assistance of large-scale political organizations.
Last, there is the vesting of interests. The steps we have taken to keep patronage out of government hiring make it hard to control bureaucrats, and the steps we have taken to keep it out of firing make it hard to dismiss them for incompetence. Indeed, a permanent, nonpartisan civil service, protected by law and largely unionized, naturally reinterprets the virtues of professionalism in terms of survival, growth, and expansion of mission.
Filtration’s inherent problems help us to understand the pendulum quality of some of our reforms. Consider the Progressive Era replacement of partisan caucuses by partisan primaries. This merely reflects a preference for the approbation of followers over the approbation of bosses. In view of the swelling lunacy of electronic politics, the old smoke-filled room is looking better and better.
In the case of compensation, that is, that citizens must be organized in such a way that excess and deficiency correct each other, and all the scattered chips of insight come together in a whole: wherever there are differences, there must be coordination. To be sure, not all difference in temperament is due to vice, nor all difference in insight to folly. But each sort of difference requires its own sort of coordination. Francis and Benedict must be coordinated because they develop virtue in different ways; Laurel and Hardy, because they bungle it in different ways. Whereas gifts must be arranged to unfold each other, flaws must be arranged to offset each other.
Suppose we were to follow Aristotle and St. Thomas in distinguishing between rectitude of judgment and rectitude of passion (leaving rectitude of will for later). Each kind of rectitude is lost in a different way: rectitude of judgment by seeing only part of the picture, rectitude of passion through excess or deficiency, as in rashness and cowardice.
For each kind of deviation from rectitude there is also a different method of compensation. The compensation for defects of judgment is composing insights. At a certain point in Aristotle’s Politics, he sets the Many and the Few in an imaginary conversation about who has the best claim to rule. The aristocrats claim rule on grounds of superior wisdom, for they have both experience and erudition. The commoners concede inferiority man to man, but deny it in the group. The reason? The assembly collects perspectives as well as people; through the taking of counsel, fragmentary insights are composed into a rounded picture of the whole.
Was it true? In Aristotle’s day, assemblies were often hard to tell from mobs. Today’s representative legislatures are much less turbulent, but no more given to deliberation. Political scientists find that more is explained by the “aggregation of preferences” than the composition of insights. In fact, on most issues Congressmen are too hyperspecialized even to have preferences. Instead of taking counsel, they take cues from colleagues whose hyperspecialties are different. That would be all right if wisdom could be entirely reduced to technical expertise, but as Socrates taught, it cannot. The reason counsel is so rarely taken is that it is so demanding. In order for people to compose their scattered and one-sided insights, they must take counsel with firmness, fairness, coolness, discretion, and restraint. Most of all they must crave truth more than victory.
The compensation for defects of passion might be called weaving. The metaphor comes from Plato’s dialogue Statesman, where the true man of state is portrayed as a weaver of opposite civic temperaments. The rash and the timid become the warp and woof of an intricate pattern in the fabric of the community. Plato is speaking not of composing fragmentary insights, but of tempering extremes of passion. Fear tempers fire, fire fear.
Weaving is an almost impossible discipline. Mix salty with bland and you get mulligatawny, but mix hawks with doves and you get mayhem. Now and then you may get a dove-hawk hybrid, but that is not much better, for though the mean and the midpoint are the same in arithmetic, they are different in policy: we should sometimes act and sometimes wait, sometimes spend and sometimes save, sometimes fight and sometimes flee. Therefore the weaving would also have to change with circumstance. It seems, then, that in order to weave successfully, the statesman himself must have virtue entire. To know how to manage souls he must be wise, just, moderate, and courageous himself.
In the end we see yet another application of the Hamburger Helper principle. Compensation does not replace virtue; it only extends its range. The taking of counsel composes insights only among those who have some virtue already. Weaving demands less virtue from the ruled, but even more from the rulers.
What of balance-that selfish groups be set against each other so that vice is checked and virtue given leverage? Achieving balance between opposing groups has generally been thought to involve three different tasks. First, the constitutional advantages of each group must be made as nearly equal as possible. Second, straddling every important cleavage, a middle or third group must be made as secure as possible. Third, incentives for opposing groups to court this middle must be established and strengthened.
Examples are easily compiled. The Few and the Many might be balanced by a middle class (Aristotle’s theory), a monarch (the “literary” theory of England), an elected chief magistrate (John Adams’ theory), or a college of magistrates (the “literary” theory of Rome). In similar fashion, opposing parties might be balanced by independent voters, opposing coalitions might be balanced by independent parties, a parliament and cabinet might be balanced by independent members, and so on.
Does balance solve The Problem? One criticism, at least, is groundless-that balance causes “gridlock,” institutionalizing a bias in favor of an unjust status quo. This charge overlooks the role of the middle. As the English Reform Acts demonstrated, competition between the extremes in the presence of a middle can even supply a motive to make the middle bigger, to enfranchise portions of the population that have previously been excluded from full political rights.
Other charges against the strategy of constitutional balance are harder to dismiss. The classical version of the strategy of balance told a story of the Many, the Few, and the Middle. Conflict more often occurs between different factions of the few, variously allied with the middle and variously mediated by the sullenness or compliance of the many. The lower orders have less protection than the classical strategy supposes. Furthermore, those who devise schemes to balance opposing groups are apt to be involved in the conflict themselves. Beyond this, any device that can be used to weaken the strong and strengthen the weak, as balance requires, can also be used to strengthen the strong and weaken the weak. If the social positions of the groups to be balanced are grossly unequal, the middle group may even be exploited by the Few as a buffer against the Many-a scapegoat. In addition, balanced government is complicated government. The more complicated the government, the more difficult to know whom to blame when something goes wrong. And no matter how well groups are balanced, changes in their behavior over time are likely to knock them out of balance again. For instance the legislature, at first factious, wild, and impulsive, may later settle down, while judges, at first modest and steady, may become capricious and arrogant.
Coalitions against the middle do occasionally occur. The Roman senatorial elite was sometimes able to gain the support of the urban rabble for laws that hurt the middle class, and in America, incumbents of opposite parties, out to increase their own advantage, find common cause against challengers.
There are such things as unbalanceable groups. Although there may be none that cannot be taken into a constitutional scheme of balances, there are some that should not be. The Church, for instance, ought not to be made a “second estate”; it is “a colony of heaven,” not a province of this world. Besides this, just as there are some groups that should not be taken into a constitutional scheme of balance, so there are some issues that should not be resolved by compromise. For instance, the middle cannot be right about abortion, because killing the child is either murderous or not.
In any case, whatever device we use to even the scales between opposing groups is likely to generate a new opposition that is itself in need of balancing. Suppose we were to even up the rulers and the ruled by dividing the former into “branches.” Horizontal collusion would become less important, but vertical collusion would become more. Thus in the United States, each interest group has its own little chunk of the civil service and the legislature.
In addition, certain policies disturb the constitutional balance even though they contradict no constitutional rule. The classical example of a constitutional sleeper is the Roman policy of imperialism, which indirectly made free farming unprofitable on the Italian peninsula and thereby destroyed the landed middle class. For future historians, the classical example of a constitutional sleeper might be the welfare state.
Finally, who really gains from what is often difficult to tell. For instance, a landed elite may like nothing better than to make the franchise universal, for tenants will probably accept direction from those on whom they are dependent. The real loser here is the middle class.
Considering these flaws, balance might still give us a little better than the government we deserve, but it cannot plausibly give us justice and good order in the complete absence of virtue. The most penetrating theorists of balance have understood this. Aristotle seemed to conceive the opposition of selfish groups not so much in terms of checking vice, as in terms of giving leverage to the otherwise voiceless group cast in the role of balancer. In his ideal case, the balancing group is really virtuous; all of the swing votes are held by “a few good men and true.” In his second-best case, the balancer does not have virtue, but imitates it; all of the swing votes are held by members of the middle class, who are far from being saints yet have none of the usual motives for injustice. They are neither so rich that they can exploit their neighbors, nor so poor that they have nothing to lose by revolution.
Next in our order of strategies comes channeling-in which non-virtuous motives must be shaped and directed so that they give rise to the same behavior to which virtue would give rise. We have without noticing considered an instance of channeling already. Remember that according to Aristotle the middle class is well cast to balance the Few against the Many not because it truly has virtue, but because it imitates it: its middling position shapes and directs its desire for security in just such fashion that it avoids both extremes of injustice.
For Aristotle, channeling is part of a broader strategy of balance. However, channeling can also work by itself. Desire for independence, for example, is no more a virtue than desire for security, but it can imitate a virtue well enough to have fooled both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Hence Hamilton, who found the desire for independence in business, pinned his political hopes on the leadership of gentlemen, whereas Jefferson, who found it in farming, pinned his on the sons of earth. From either point to policy is but a single step: for Jefferson commerce is anathema, while for Hamilton it is a republican necessity.
In principle almost any motive might be the object of channeling. In our century, disastrous attempts have been made to put even envy, fear, and hatred into harness for the good. Republics, however, exploit a different set of motives. Our keenest republican theories of channeling can be credited to Augustine, Adam Smith, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Reflecting on the history of Rome, Augustine explained how the love of glory could prompt seemingly public-spirited deeds by keeping yet worse motives in check. Smith and Tocqueville developed similar analyses of the love of wealth. What makes these thinkers so acute is their recognition that successful channeling has both institutional and moral requirements. For the Augustinian strategy, the institutional requirements include, first, a society of fixed statuses, for only a nobility is interested in glory; second, an arena of competition, for otherwise the glory motive would be given no direction. Smith and Tocqueville require a society without fixed statuses, for only under a regime of insecurity are people sufficiently interested in gain. On the other hand, they too require an arena of competition, otherwise the gain motive would be similarly undirected.
The moral requirements are more interesting because they show that channeling is yet another Hamburger Helper strategy, like deterrence, filtration, compensation, and balance. Rather than offering a substitute for virtue, it seems, by a Faustian bargain, to make a little bit go further. Augustinian nobles must have not only a desire for glory but a sense of what truly merits it; Smithian entrepreneurs, not only a desire for gain but a sense of restraint; and Tocquevillian citizens, not only self-interest but “self-interest rightly understood.” Otherwise, nobles are just as apt to seek fame by fraudulent means as by fair, following Machiavelli’s advice that if they cannot be entirely good, they should be entirely evil. Otherwise, businessmen are just as apt to collude as to compete, following mercantilist advice to seek tariffs, privileges, and monopolies. Otherwise, citizens are just as apt to seek license as liberty, following demagogic advice to step on the faces of their fellows in order to rise.
Only Augustine, however, perceived the paradox that channeling entails. Channeling doesn’t just manipulate the subvirtuous motives with which it deals; it accommodates them. This is like promising an alcoholic a drink for staying sober. For a while, then-a few centuries in the most successful cases-channeling seems to work. But in the long run it undermines that little bit of virtue that it seems to stretch; it saws off the limb that it is sitting on. Hence between the channeling of gain and glory and the channeling of fear and envy there may be less difference than we think. Sallust and Cicero, who do not know the difference between a virtue and its imitation, are at a loss to understand why gloria was supplanted by cupiditas and ambitio in Rome. Not Augustine; he knows. Do we?
Inculcation: Through law in the broadest sense, government must teach virtue directly. All of our substitutes for virtue have turned out to be merely unreliable ways to extend its range. Shall we use law in the broadest sense-not only its essential acts, commanding, permitting, and prohibiting, but also their modalities, such as honoring and dishonoring, encouraging and discouraging, protecting and attacking, helping and hindering, declaring and denying, giving and taking, educating and administering-to make men good?
We know at least that the law cannot be neutral. Everything a government does is founded on some understanding of what is good. Moreover, no law that has effect at all can fail to have effect on character. On the other hand, granted that the law must take an interest in whether men are becoming worse or better, it does not follow that it must make men better. Perhaps it is a poor teacher, other teachers are better, and it only hinders them when it tries to do their job. The position maintained here is threefold: it is, they are, and it does. Thus a fitter set of maxims than “Make men better” is “Protect the true teachers of virtue; get out of their way; and be sure not to make men worse.” The true teachers are church and family.
The state should defer to church and family partly because of its own nature. Though government exists for the common good, it is the target of partisan interests. Capture by these interests is just as easy when it tries to teach as when it tries to tax. Consider, for example, the present struggle over whether sodomy is to be legitimized as a way of life. As both armies engaged in the struggle understand, this war concerns the distribution not only of privileges but of esteem: rules concerning adoption, employment, housing, and health are just as “educational” as rules concerning what is to be taught in the public schools.
Now despite the risk of partisan capture, the government must do what no one else can do. But others do raise children and minister to souls. The family is not subject to partisan capture at all; normal parents love their children as no politician can, and they do not stand for election. The visible church is subject to capture, but unlike the government, it is purely voluntary.
The state should also defer to church and family because of the nature of moral development. We often speak as though becoming good were an arithmetic process of adding good qualities and subtracting bad ones, so that the greater the sum, the better we get, and we can get just as good as we please. But this picture is false to human experience. For three reasons.
One reason is the Paradox of Treacherous Good: bad qualities always depend on imperfectly good ones for their vigor; the more of the good ones we have, the more harm we can do with the bad ones. We all know that patience and caution are good qualities; but unless we are speaking of that perfected patience which awaits only good and of that perfected caution which fears only evil, then these qualities may serve knaves as well as honest men. A man must be not only taught and trained, but turned around. He must repent.
Another reason is the Paradox of Elevation: because we imitate virtue by channeling vices, apparent improvement in a single moral dimension can mask the fact that in the long run one is getting worse in all of them. A climber may be going in the wrong direction even though the ground is rising on the path he walks. Consider pride in its nobler forms. It may demand obsequies-but at least it never offers them. It may step on unrelated inferiors-but it is generous to its dependents. It may make evil vows-but, whatever its vows, it keeps them. Eventually it poisons the springs of all the virtues-but, most glorious of banes, on its tainted way it achieves some mighty splendors. A man must be not only turned around, but turned in the right direction. He needs the word of God.
The third reason is the Paradox of Countervailing Vice: the cure of a channeled vice may open the door to others that are even worse. We have seen the Hoover Dams of channeling already. Vice dons virtue in smaller ways as well; for instance, the need to condescend, or the urge to atone, may ape compassion for the weak and misused. Unfortunately, if weeds and wheat are matted together, a yank on one may uproot the other. Chide glory, and the nobility grow slothful. Curb materialism, and the merchants grow indolent. Cure condescension and displacement of guilt, and the compassionators grow indifferent. A man must be not only turned around and guided, but transformed. He needs God’s Grace.
Repentance, revelation, and grace are far beyond the scope of law. That is the doom of official inculcation.
Subsidiarity: that government must honor virtue and protect its teachers without attempting to take their place. In escaping inculcation we have tumbled into subsidiarity; the same arguments that push us out of the one have pulled us into the other. But we must be careful not to misunderstand where we have gotten. In the first place, the fact that subsidiarity is opposed to inculcation in no way makes it neutral. A state that defers to parents and church has not thereby suspended judgment; it has agreed with them that their jobs are not its own. A state that forgoes inculcation has not thereby denied its own influence on character; it has agreed that it ought not put this influence in competition with that of parents and church. A state that lays down its pretension to make men good has not thereby abandoned concern for their goodness; it has merely removed the chief cause of its making them worse. Subsidiarity means confirming good qualities taught elsewhere-instead of, for instance, tearing them up and replacing them with supposed others.
The second point we must be careful not to misunderstand is what it means to “protect” the family and the church-what it means for the state to be a subsidium. Concerning the family, G. K. Chesterton put the problem well in The Well and the Shadows. What he disliked most, he said,
is not the Communist attacking the family or the Capitalist betraying the family; it is the vast and very astonishing vision of the Hitlerite defending the family. Hitler’s way of defending the independence of the family is to make every family dependent on him and his semi-Socialist State; and to preserve the authority of parents by authoritatively telling all the parents what to do. . . . In other words, he appears to interfere with family life more even than the Bolshevists do; and to do it in the name of the sacredness of the family.
But this sort of thing does not require death camps or wars of conquest; it gets along better without them. All it needs is the quiet crushing kindness of the welfare state. Government first taxes away the family income, then “helps” the families thereby enfeebled by giving back part of the income in the form of “benefits” and regulations that further reduce their independence and vitality. Schools, for instance, are “free,” but parents cannot choose their children’s teachers or control what their children will be taught. “When they come through that door,” said an education despot in the seat of government, “they’re mine.”
The point we are making concerns the church as well. Not only does the modern state interfere with family in the name of family, it interferes with faith in the name of faith. Whenever it is not scolding the church in fear of her challenge, it is whispering to her in hopes of making her pregnant with its purposes. So intent on seducing the Bride of Christ is the current President that during his candidacy he tried to imitate her Husband’s voice. Identifying himself with the Redeemer, he called his program the New Covenant, then misquoted Scripture to support it. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined what we can build,” he prophesied at his convention. The way this runs in Scripture itself is, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9, NIV, quoting Isaiah 64:4.) The biblical passage gives sovereignty to God. Although the President’s language still sounds biblical, it gives sovereignty to Man.
Subsidiarity, then, does not mean that the state flatters, seduces, or absorbs the true teachers of virtue. It means getting out of their way, and keeping other things from getting in their way. The state gets out of the way not by raising taxes and putting all mothers on the dole, but by reducing taxes so that they do not have to work; not by making sex a compulsory subject in the schools, but by letting families choose their own schools; not by keeping children from ever hearing a public prayer, but by keeping them from ever hearing a public obscenity; not by calling for a “politics of meaning,” but by honoring that Meaning which no politics made, that Glory which even the heavens, though soulless, declare.
Is subsidiarity, then, a solution to The Problem? No. But until the world is remade, we can probably do no better.
J. Budziszewski, whose essay “The Illusion of Moral Neutrality” appeared in our August/September 1993 issue, teaches in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.