Skip to main content

Many thought that a clear lesson about the size and function of the state had been learned from twentieth-century history, particularly with the collapse of communism. Human well-being required a very limited state. The state itself had turned into man’s greatest enemy, so its purpose and centrality needed rethinking. Economic prosperity could be best achieved through the free operation of the market.

Most institutions of culture should be left in the hands of voluntary agencies. These organs of culture–museums, galleries, and theaters–should not be administered by state bureaucracies. Education and the press should not be state-run monopolies. Religion should be free and encouraged. The state’s jurisdiction should be limited to general purposes like the common defense, policing, and justice resolution.

State employees, moreover, should not be society’s most cared-for and pensioned members. Their numbers should not be so great as to become a major political factor in deciding elections. They should not be able to manipulate the organs of society for their own benefit. They are primarily servants, not receivers of public benefits.

Most of the things the state does can be done more efficiently and effectively by putting these activities in private hands. Private property and private initiative are in fact guarantors of both freedom and productivity.

What is clear since the crisis of Marxism is that these lessons about the nature of the state are not always learned with any clarity. Too many people are reversing their attitudes toward the state, because no external enemy exists, believing officials should take control of all neglected aspects of society.

In fact, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century socialists argued that there was nothing wrong with Marxism, as long as its purpose could be achieved by capturing the institutions of the liberal state though political, not revolutionary, means. But the purpose of socialism was total state control, a purpose that reappears now under names like “welfare” and “liberal” instead of socialist.

A new version of this state socialism, though rarely called that, is being proposed as the objective of republican government. The voting patterns of democratic societies since World War II reflect a popular desire to be the primary objects of state attention. They appear to have willingly given up their sense of independence and initiative. The bureaucracies, media, and politicians accept this condition as natural. Indeed, it is their primary justification for existence. A helpless, wanting, and envious citizenry is the tailor-made counter-part of zealous politicians and bureaucrats who are anxious to attend to everything.

That this disastrous trend may be changing is one of the more hopeful signs of recent political life. Certainly the dangers of this “democratic socialism” are recognized more clearly by the people, if not by politicians, in recent decades. Democracy, of course, only works with a virtuous people, and the origins of virtue are not primarily political. Some encouraging signs that people are beginning to realize this, even on the political plane, seems evident; much, however, still needs to be done precisely to counteract the established bureaucratic and ideological state.

Divination of Temporal Power

During this century, the state acquired certain religious overtones or missions. Political oratory in democratic societies is surprisingly biblical and ethical. Drying every tear and curing every hurt is not so much a description of heaven but of state policy. Hospitals and education were mostly developed under religious influence and guidance. These institutions gradually or violently came under state control, without losing their sense of mission. “Humanitarian” motives replaced religious ones. Religion was looked upon either as a source of discord or as a supporter of the state, not as a transcendent relation to God. Religion was the source of energies and initiatives not inspired by politics or motives of self-interest.

In modern times, the state has taken on particular importance for faithless men. When the notion that certain things do not belong to Caesar disappears, state power grows. Indeed, the modern state can be called the one substitute for God. It claims total allegiance of the human soul, even where that soul still claims to be pious and religious. When the state becomes an instrument of political ideologies designed to cure human ills, it does take on characteristics of a substitute religion.

Civil religion, classically understood, kept the masses quiet since they could not understand the ideas behind philosophy. The new state replaced this negative view with a positive notion: the state cares for the masses. It does not merely keep them quiet with religious tales but gives them all the material comfort and ethical purpose they need.

The “poor” and needy provide the political justification for the ever-increasing power of the modern state, whereas the means learned in modern times to actually help the poor and needy invariably imply a lessening of its power and scope. The growth of what Hilaire Belloc called the “servile” state goes hand in hand with preventing any independent institutions and initiatives that could alleviate poverty or need privately. To justify its size and control, the state claims to be the primary, and increasingly the only, institution that can deal with human need and purpose. Elected state officials who appeal primarily to this benevolent motive are the immediate beneficiaries of the enormous increase of state power in human life.

Many writers have noted the relation between a secularized notion of compassion and the growth of state power. The state comes to conceive its mission and purpose as “taking care” of everyone–this is really what is behind the recent health care debates. We have produced, as I have called it, “the all-caring state.” The all-caring or compassionate state seeks to find ways to care for its subjects who are not viewed as independent citizens but as objects of concern. It has little interest in what the citizens can do for themselves. The scope of the all-caring state widens as the citizenry become more helpless and lethargic.

Subsidiarity Is Neglected

This state is not interested in a system of ordered liberty wherein citizens solve their own personal problems on their own initiatives and with their own institutions. The principle of subsidiarity is neglected because responsibility is not left at the lowest possible level. Problems are solved from the top down because the greater the perceived problem, the greater ethical scope given the state. Every local problem is a national problem, a humanitarian problem. The state deals with a general populace who have lost their initiative to solve their own problems. The state thus appears as an angel of mercy. Everyone is a victim. No one is responsible for his own disorders. Personal disorders are not cured by personal reform but by political regulation of consequences.

This loss of individual and local responsibility is encouraged by a state only too willing to step in to fill this void. It does so with its own laws and institutions which gain more and more control of the economy and social institutions. The further loss of a transcendent sense of purpose allows the state to portray itself as the proper organ for justifying every human activity. This enhances the power of the state since no real room is left for a free and responsible citizenry to do anything on its own. Everything becomes politicized, especially those things in the most sensitive area of charity and compassion. The tax power is the measure of compassion. State schools and agencies take control of the primary functions of the family, whose decay is itself largely the result of “compassionate” state intervention.

From Support To Control

As the phenomenon of the all-caring state becomes more pervasive, by assuming all risk into itself, the perceived benefits of such a system becomes more and more evident. Those in charge no longer believe their purpose is to allow people to do the right and productive thing on their own. Officials begin to address themselves to what the people want, or better, to what the government defines as their “wants,” which are now seen in need of control and regulation.

The rulers become what C.S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, called human “conditioners.” The political project becomes one of refashioning man. He is made into a sort of being that will be able to live in this new benevolent state fashioned out of the compassion of the conditioners. It is here that the modern all-caring state comes into direct conflict with human nature or transcendent purpose. The common good becomes its good. It fashions what can be or must be. The redefinition of man gives the state enormous new scope and power. It indeed makes a divine claim.

This new all-caring state sees no limit to its sovereignty. What it wills is not restricted by human nature. Man’s being runs counter to what this new state perceives to be the conditions of its own existence, justified by the good it does. This perceived benevolence causes certain things to be sacrificed. At the roots of our civilization, Socrates said that it is never permitted to do evil, that it is always better to suffer evil than to perpetrate it. The power of the state was that it could kill a Socrates. But if it did, there was still his example.

To avoid this critique of nature against unlimited state power, the Socratic idea, that there are things that the state could not do, needed to be killed. The sacredness of human life could restrict the state if it concluded, for instance, that it must control the freedom of individuals to have and care for their own children. The new state’s mission thus became the elimination of the idea that there is something above the will of the people. Since the state is an expression of their will, nothing can be done against its own purpose or interest.

State Redefines Man

Consequently, what is behind most of the social and political issues of our time is an effort to weaken the limits of the state by redefining the nature of man so that the classical definition does not restrict the state’s all-caring purposes. Everywhere there is a policy of dealing with the effects of human actions and not with their known causes and the moral response to them. Practically the entire agenda of the all-caring state arises from violations of virtue and the Commandments. The all-caring state cannot concede a fundamental relationship between personal morality and the social disorders that contribute to the growth of power. Instead of returning to classical definitions of political responsibility and their relation to personal morality, the all-caring state proceeds in the opposite direction by addressing itself only to the effects.

Once these effects are so widespread that they begin to overwhelm even the all-caring state, its theoreticians begin to propose ways to limit not the state but man himself. He will be redefined, reeducated, and restricted to act only within the narrow limits that this new all-caring state allows. All these changes will be proposed “democratically” but they will have the effect of undermining man’s ethical integrity and freedom.

“The state that justifies” is that state that explains its intentions and actions in the name of humanity, of the needs of the world. But what is justified is precisely that concept of man that makes him “servile,” that reduces him to a subject of the benevolent state whose justification in being is precisely a perverted form of brotherly love or charity, one that does not begin with what man is but with what the new state thinks he must be even if he is not.

The Reverend James V. Schall, SJ, Professor Emeritus of Politics at Georgetown University, now resides in California. Among his many books are Political Philosophy and Revelation, At the Limits of Political Philosophy, Reasonable Pleasures, and The Order of Things. He writes regularly for online journals such as The Catholic Thing and Catholic World Report.