Freedom and Virtue Are Inseparable

March 7, 1997 • Commentary

For years the Left promised that socialism would eventually out‐​produce the market. That claim died with the Soviet Union. What remained of the Left then began to complain that capitalism generated too many material goods.

Now similar attacks on capitalism are coming from the Right. The market, it is said, threatens family, human relationships, values and virtue.

However, it is a mistake to treat freedom, which is the essence of capitalism, and virtue as mutually antagonistic. In fact liberty– the right to exercise choice, free from coercive state regulation– is a necessary precondition for virtue. And virtue is ultimately necessary for liberty to flourish.

Virtue cannot exist without the freedom to make moral choices. Coerced acts of conformity with some moral norm, however good, do not represent virtue; rather, compliance with that moral norm must be voluntary.

Virtue rejects a standard of intra‐​personal morality. As such it is an area that lies largely beyond the reach of state power.

Of course societies can be more or less virtuous. But blaming moral shifts on legal changes mistakes correlation for causation. America’s one‐​time cultural consensus eroded during an era of strict laws. Only cracks in this consensus, which provided the moral foundation of the laws, led to statutory changes.

Government has proved that it is not a good teacher of virtue. The state tends to be effective at simple tasks, like jailing people. It is far less successful in shaping individual consciences. New laws would not make America a more virtuous nation. Even if there were fewer overt acts of immorality, there would be no change in peoples hearts and thus in society’s moral core.

Indeed attempting to forcibly make people virtuous would make society it self less virtuous:

  • First individuals would lose the opportunity to exercise virtue. They would not face the same set of temptations and be forced to choose between good and evil. This approach might make their lives a bit simpler. But they would not be more virtuous. In this dilemma we see the paradox of Christianity: A God of love creates man and provides a means of redemption, but allows him to choose evil.
  • Second, 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, attempt to persuade and solve problems.
  • Third making government a moral enforcer encourages abuse by whatever interest groups gain power. If one thing is certain, it is that man is sinful. That sin is magnified by coercive power. Those who possess power can of course, do good, but history suggests that they are far more likely to do harm.

Indeed, as Americas traditional Judeo‐​Christian consensus crumbles we a more likely to see government promoting alternative moral views. This is possible only if the state is given the authority to coercively mold souls in the name of the community or family. Despite the best intentions of advocates of statecraft as soulcraft, government grows ever more likely to enshrine something other than traditional morality.

The fact that government can do little to help does not mean that there is nothing it should do. Public officials should adopt as their maxim “First, do no harm.” Although America’s moral breakdown, most evident in the inner‐​city, has many causes, the welfare state has exacerbated the problem at every level, punishing marriage, work and thrift. Government has spent years attempting to expunge religious values from the public square; the public school monopoly discourages both good education and values instruction.

While freedom is essential, it is not enough. It is the highest political goal, but not life’s highest objective. Moreover, though a free economic and political system is the best one available, it will operate well only if nestled within a virtuous social environment. And forming that environment requires sustained effort, including bringing private pressure against businessmen in the marketplace—like the purveyors of gangster rap. But freedom remains essential.

Society requires both freedom and virtue to flourish, and neither cause will be helped by playing them off against each other. Ultimately neither is likely to survive without the other.

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