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The Modern State Causes the Problems it Pretends to Fix

by Anthony Esolen

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  • Description:
    The ninth in a series on Catholic Social Teaching by Anthony Esolen in which he discusses the four principles laid down by Pope Leo XIII in which a well governed State will promote the material and moral prosperity of its citizens, will honor private property and free association, and will protect the poor from abuse or depredation by the rich.
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    Crisis Magazine Online
  • Publisher & Date:
    Sophia Institute, January 22, 2013

Pope Leo XIII affirms that a well governed State will promote the material and moral prosperity of its citizens, will honor private property and free association, and will protect the poor from abuse or depredation by the rich.

How to do these things? Leo lays down four principles.

The first is what I’ll call the Principle of Moral Health. “A State,” he says, “chiefly prospers and thrives through moral rule, well-regulated family life [family life directed from within by the moral law], respect for religion and justice, the moderation and equal allocation of public taxes, the progress of the arts and of trade, [and] the abundant yield of the land.” The emphasis is on direction from the objective moral law, and on a combination of self-restraint and industriousness.

This self-restraint, when practiced by the State, suggests a second principle, what I’ll call the Law of Sufficient Generality. A well governed State will assist the poor primarily by establishing an environment wherein people of common decency and assiduousness can raise healthy children to become good citizens in their turn: “The more that is done for the benefit of the working classes by the general laws of the country, the less need will there be to seek for special means to relieve them.”

That leads to the third, what I’ll call the Principle of the Home. It’s often called Subsidiarity. We must never confuse a true beneficence, which honors the prime society of the family, with the false beneficence that barters goods in exchange for the family’s soul: “The State must not absorb the individual or the family; both should be allowed free and untrammeled action so far as is consistent with the common good and the interests of others.” The same holds true of free associations. The State must “not thrust itself into their peculiar concerns and their organization.” There are practical reasons for this restraint. It is absurd to suppose, for example, that a flock of bureaucrats two thousand miles away, or nine judges from Harvard, should have anything to say about the Order of the Moose in Anytown, when the members of that Order best know their needs and the needs of their community, and how to address them according to their neighbors’ sense of the common good.

But the more fundamental basis for the Principle of the Home is not utilitarian, but human: “To enter into a [free association] is the natural right of man; and the State is bound to protect natural rights, not to destroy them; and if it forbid its citizens to form associations, it contradicts the very principle of its own existence.”

Suppose—I’m dreaming wildly—that an arm of the government were to dictate to the Kiwanis Club that it must admit women as members. There are plenty of free associations for men and women both; The Salvation Army, Alcoholics Anonymous, Common Cause, and so forth. What’s at issue is not whether there may be associations of that kind, but whether there may not be associations of the other kind. Pope Leo would find it appalling that any State should forbid men from coming together for the common good, or dictate the terms of their union. We can say the same thing about the Boy Scouts. Should the government compel the Scouts to organize themselves as the archons on the bench determine? Should we live in tyranny? Should we deny the fundamental right of free association?

I dwell upon the Principle of the Home because it helps to clarify the wisdom of the first two principles, and to show how they all work together. Laws cannot, alone, make people good. They do have an instructive value; they restrain vicious actions, and may, much less reliably, foster virtuous actions. But the moral law requires a human face. It’s in our human associations, and not by our subatomic status as citizens of a sprawling State, that we learn virtue. The State can address a few specific troubles, with middling effectiveness, and at great strain—disaster relief, for instance. Beyond that the State must not try to go, because the State should not usurp the roles of the family, the fraternity, and the town, even if the State could assume those roles effectively—which it cannot do: its arrogant attempts have wrought more harm than a hundred hurricanes ever could. The State’s role is to observe the moral law, to promote by general laws the conditions wherein people of ordinary virtue and industry can thrive, providing assistance “in extreme cases,” and to restrain its ambitions, honoring the independence and the interdependence of human beings in families, parishes, churches, guilds, fraternities, sororities, and other unions created for mutual help and the common good.

All this implies the fourth principle, what I’ll call the Principle of the Human Person. Man, made free, in the image of God, must not be subordinated to abstractions. We accept no fatalisms. We will not subsume human commerce under a law, whether Marxist or Benthamite, socialist or capitalistic, which “determines” what is good and bad. We obey God, not man.

It is not right for the strong man to squeeze concessions from his weaker brother. Mutual consent is insufficient. A desperate man may accept ten dollars a day to go down a coal mine, but he has no moral right to do so, nor does the owner of the mine have a moral right to suggest it. A desperate woman may offer her body for money, but she has no moral right to do so, nor does the bawd on the corner have the right to be her broker. We must remember what people are, what (and Who) they are for.

Natural justice trumps consent:

Let it be taken for granted that workman and employer should, as a rule, make free agreements, and in particular should agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that remuneration ought to be sufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage earner.

That just wage implies an intricate set of human interchanges. The worker and the employer must treat one another fairly; if the employer does not bow in homage to the labor market, the employee does not do as little as he can to preserve his job. The employer must find worthwhile and feasible work for the workman to do—for he too must stay in business. The employee must use those wages wisely. They are meant for him in his capacity as a social being: for the family he is supporting or will someday support. “If he be a sensible man,” says the Pope, he will not find it hard “to study economy; and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a small income. Nature and reason alike would urge him to do this.”

Leo’s ideal is not State control, with individuals as wardens, but a society built up of societies; a culture truly social, based on human friendships and family ties and alliances. “The law,” he says, “should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the humbler class to become owners.” Again, we must resist the tendency to abstraction. It will not do for the State to seize all property and parcel it out again according to some mathematical formula. The virtue of ownership is akin to the virtue of the family, of the self-governing town, of the free association. It arouses a love the State cannot command: “Men always work harder and more readily when they work on what belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields, in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat but an abundance of good things for themselves and for those that are dear to them.”

We Americans allow trade unions. We protect workers from various forms of abuse. Those battles were fought and won long before I was born. What we’ve done lately, though, in the so-called “social” issues, is to violate every single tenet of Catholic Social Teaching as proclaimed by Pope Leo XIII.

Leo could not have foreseen that “the State” would become interest in its own right, a new aristocracy, but utterly detached from locale and tradition and unknown to their subjects. The true State thrives by moral rule. But “the State,” the cancerous Metastate, thrives by immorality. It helps to cause the chaos it then pretends to ameliorate. Strong and self-reliant families hurt the Metastate, so the Metastate rewards profligacy and licentiousness, and promotes the easy severance of father from children. The Metastate knows that if people but make an earnest attempt to govern themselves by the Ten Commandments and the Gospel, they will be free and prosperous, and the Metastate will shrivel. Perish the thought.

Father-headed families? Free associations? I credit the Metastate with knowing its enemies.

The Rich, Not States, are Called to Help Others - Part 10


Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ironies of Faith (ISI Press, 2007); and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010). Professor Esolen is the translator of Dante.

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