In a recent post I discussed what I think are some problems in Kevin Williamson’s critique of Catholic thinking about economics and politics. Here I would like to continue the critique.
From the old royalist Right to the redistributionist Left, there is an implicit and sometimes explicit belief that the state is a channel for moral expression, whether that expression takes the form of entrenching traditional ideals about family life or or collaborating with the state in the seizure and redistribution of wealth. (Probably worth keeping in mind the clergy’s historical track record here: The last economic idea that it got itself exercised about was Marxism.) But the state is in fact no such thing. It is a piece of social software, a technology, a tool with no more moral significance in and of itself than a hammer.
I think we find a number of problems here.
In the first place, this is not so much an argument as it is an assertion. Catholicism thinks the state can be a channel of moral expression, and Williamson says it cannot. He does not explain why we should reject the view he rejects. If the state is just a tool, as he says, then presumably it can be put to a moral purpose, just like any other tool. Or if it cannot, he needs to explain why it cannot.
In the second place, Williamson needs to face the fact that in criticizing the Catholic view that the state can be put to moral purposes, that it has moral obligations, he is not really just criticizing the view of some kooky clerics, but is really criticizing a view that has been held by almost everybody. That the political authority has a moral character, that it can be used with a view to moral ends, was held by Plato and Aristotle, by Ciero, by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, by the Protestant reformers, and by the American founders. And if we leave aside the theorists and look around the world at political practice, we see that almost everybody everywhere treats the political authority as if it can be a means to moral ends. Almost all laws everywhere are justified on some ground of decency or justice.
Of course, it goes without saying that the state can be perverted to bad ends, or that moral ends can be invoked as a mere pretext for the exercise of power in the service of somebody’s self-interest. But everybody who has thought it has moral purposes has known that, and they have understood it in light of Saint Augustine’s observation that “the abuse does not take away the use” of a thing.
This is a problem not just with Williamson but with libertarianism in general. It tends to be a creed at war with the common sense of human kind. By insisting that the state must not be used as a channel of moral expression, it is putting itself at odds with the opinion of almost all human beings throughout history, as far as we can tell.
Williamson then goes on and criticizes Saint Pope John Paul II for holding that “the State has the duty of watching over the common good.” Williamson says:
But the state in fact has no way of knowing to any practical effect what the common good even is or how its policies might affect priorities relating to it. The “common good” may seem like a relatively straightforward thing when your theater of operations is the general moral intuition of a saint, but it’s something else when you’re working with 20,000 pages of Affordable Care Act regulations — and that, not refined sentiment, is the realm in which the state operates. Meanwhile, he also expects the state to determine just wages and union work rules, to administer unemployment insurance, to calculate the economic consequences of immigration, and a hundred other things that the state has no capacity for doing.
Doesn’t this argument just prove a little too much? I mean, if the state has no way of knowing what the common good is, then presumably nobody has any way of knowing what the common good is. But if we cannot know what it is, how can we say, for example, that libertarianism is any good as an approach to politics and economics. I suppose any given libertarian can say that he is happier with less government, but if the common good is unknowable he can’t show why anybody else should care—especially people who directly benefit from government.
If Williamson’s argument is correct, it would mean that there should be no government regulation of the economy at all, and maybe no government at all. But this is not a position that ever has or ever will will substantial support.