Monday, November 05, 2007

The Moral Purposes of Law and Government

Princeton's Robert George:
The obligations and justifying purposes of law and government are to protect public health, safety, and morals, and to advance the general welfare -- including, preeminently, protecting people's fundamental rights and basic liberties.

At first blush, this classic formulation . . . of the purposes and powers of government seems to accord public authority vast and sweeping powers. Yet, in truth, the general welfare (or common good) requires that government be limited. Although government's responsibility is primary in respect of defending the nation from attack and subversions, protecting people from physical assaults and various other forms of depredation, and maintaining public order, its role is otherwise subsidiary: to support the work of the families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society that shoulder the primary burden of forming upright and decent citizens, caring for those in need, encouraging people to meet their responsibilities to one another, and discouraging them from harming themselves or others.

Governmental respect for individual freedom and the autonomy of nongovernmental spheres of authority is, then, a requirement of political morality.

The strict libertarian position . . . goes much too far in depriving government of even its subsidiary role. It underestimates the importance of maintaining a reasonably healthy moral ecology, especially for the rearing of children, and it fails to appreciate the legitimate, albeit once again limited, role of law and government in maintaining such an ecology.

HT: Joe Carter

(The full essay will be in a future issue of First Things.)