My post on the intellectual evolution of George Will created some interesting reactions, including this one from NRO’s Jonah Goldberg. This is probably as good a time as any to elaborate on my views related to Will’s 1983 book Statecraft As Soulcraft and the broader political philosophy it touches on.
There are two separate issues to consider. One is the size of government. As anyone who reads Contentions knows, on this matter, my views are pretty clear. The federal government needs to be re-limited. It’s too large, it spends too much, and (to borrow from a formulation by Margaret Thatcher) it takes too much from us in order to do too much for us.
The second issue has to do with the purpose of politics. Some, like Goldberg—whose writings I enjoy and admire—are left cold by the claim that “the state must take it upon itself to create better people.” My argument is that (i) politics is an extension of ethics and (ii) whether one likes it or not, there is a moral component to many of our laws. Hence government is involved in affecting the habits, values and sensibilities of the citizenry.
For example, the 1996 welfare reform bill is perhaps the most successful piece of social legislation in generations. At the heart of the law was a moral, not an economic, argument: welfare is creating dependency, which is enervating character, which in turn is harming individuals and society. The goal with welfare reform was not to save money; it was to foster self-reliance and dignity. That was the state taking upon itself the task of creating better people, and having some success at it.
That doesn’t mean that the state is always, or even often, successful in this undertaking. But that’s an argument for modesty of expectations and to get the policies right; it’s not an argument against the role government inevitably plays in shaping conduct and character. As Will argues in his book, we frequently “legislate morality” in ways that influences actions, dispositions, and values. That’s been the case, to one degree or another, with desegregation, drug use, smoking, incarceration, sexual assault, abortion, adoption, movie and video-game ratings, marriage and family structure, child support payments, child tax credits, and charitable deductions, to name just a few.
The law is one way society sends a signal as to what it deems to be appropriate and lawful v. what is inappropriate and unlawful. To illustrate the point: My wife and I are the most important influences on our children when it comes to the matter of drug use. Their friends matter a lot, too. But so does the law. It helps to be able to say that drug use is wrong and harmful—and that’s why they are illegal. The law reinforces (or not) a moral message. As the great political scientist James Q. Wilson put it in COMMENTARY, “If we believe—as I do—that dependency on certain mind-altering drugs is a moral issue and that their illegality rests in part on their immorality, then legalizing them undercuts, if it does not eliminate altogether, the moral message.”
George Will, during the question-and-answer period of the speech I cited, suggests that a large welfare state has a crowding out effect that may diminish charitable giving, since citizens assume the state will take care of the most vulnerable members of the human community. (We’ve seen that phenomenon in Europe.)
This doesn’t mean laws are more important than parents and relatives and friends. It doesn’t mean laws have a greater shaping influence on the character of the young than churches and synagogues, than teachers and coaches, than the Boy Scouts and Bible Studies. What it does mean is that the state acts in ways that shape behaviors and attitudes that make us somewhat better or somewhat worse people. I’d rather we act in ways that make us somewhat better.