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The culture these days seems distinctly unfriendly to both freedom and virtue. For all of the rhetoric about the end of big government, the GOP Congress has made peace with Leviathan. At the same time, evidence of moral decline, from family disintegration to artistic obscenity, lies all around us. Superficially, at least, enhancing state power in order to make society more virtuous seems to be a losing strategy.

Yet some conservatives, when not busy concocting new duties for government–to promote “national greatness,” for instance–are pushing state action as the best means of rescuing the culture. And the temptation to do so is understandable. America is broke morally. Should not government attempt to fix it?

Can Government Play a Role in Moral Education?

The culture today poses a serious challenge to anyone who believes in liberty. Unless one is a libertine, the images that flood the airwaves, the lifestyles that dominate the media, the lyrics that make up contemporary music, the visions that are presented by popular artists, and the mores that govern sexual behavior are all cause for concern. The problem is not just that they are ugly, though they often are–it is embarrassing to travel abroad and realize that mtv is perhaps the most visible expression of American culture. More important, these phenomena are fundamentally destructive, eroding the moral underpinnings not only of families and communities but of a free society.

There has been a loss not just of sexual responsibility but of responsibility generally. Where there are no standards, anything is acceptable. And where anything is acceptable, no one can be held responsible. Indeed, those who hurt others the most demand support and affirmation. We live in a world of victim-ology, where almost everyone claims to be a victim of one sort or another.

This loss of individual responsibility invites government intervention. The Founders designed the new political system for a virtuous people, even though they did not take virtue for granted. They consciously sought to create mechanisms–federalism and separation of powers, for instance–to restrain the vice that they knew would never disappear. Nevertheless, the political world at that time was nestled within a largely Christian moral environment. Today, if people will not control themselves, some ask, what alternative is there but to turn to the state?

There is none when it comes to attempting to control the practical consequences of an irresponsible society. Criminals must be arrested, absent fathers must be dunned for child support, and the negligent must pay damages. But it would be far better to forestall such problems. Can government help do so by shoring up the culture, even at the price of individual liberty? It is an issue that divides libertarians and traditionalists, and this division seems more likely to grow than shrink in the future.

Virtue needs to be taught. And authority is useful in teaching virtue. The anarchist slogan so often seen on bumper stickers, “Question Authority,” misses the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate authority. There is, perhaps, no more important duty for the family than moral education. While church leaders have no particular expertise to lecture about the best organization of the economy, they are well-equipped to offer a moral road map. Community institutions of various sorts also should play an important role.

Can government do so too? The twentieth century is what historian Paul Johnson calls the “Age of Politics.” The state has demonstrated its ability to kill and steal on a mass scale; sculpting human lives, however, has consistently lain beyond its competence. Government simply lacks the tools to create a virtuous person.

No Guarantee the State Would Reflect Judeo-Christian Worldview

Nevertheless, the state can try to prevent some vicious acts–to have sex outside of marriage, view pornography, or use drugs. Today, figures like Judge Robert Bork forthrightly call for censorship. Such restrictions might promote a habit of doing right, thereby aiding the process of moral education. Maybe, but not certainly. After all, while such laws historically have driven vice underground, it is not clear that they have measurably reduced the incidence of vice. Moreover, virtue cannot be exercised without free choice. The attempt to enforce moral conformity through the law risks improving appearances far more than reality.

The temptation to rely on the law for moral education is risky for other reasons. People who view vice with distaste have a tendency to undervalue liberty. Yet the notion of arresting someone–and that is the ultimate sanction to enforce the law–because, say, of the way in which or with whom he or she has sex, should cause anyone who values freedom and human dignity to pause.

The danger is surely more acute today when people give radically different answers to the question, “What is virtue?” In the view of some, there is no greater sin than to smoke cigarettes, to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or sexual orientation, or to earn a profit. If morality is to be determined politically, then what cause for complaint is there if government penalizes whatever moves the majority? Or a coalition of active minorities? Reliance on special revelation, in the case of the religiously faithful, and general revelation or natural law, in the case of those who are not, implies truth with a capital T. Reliance on politics does not.

At least, when the United States was founded, there was a general moral consensus devolving from a biblical world-view. That meant government was likely to pass legislation reflecting this traditional moral code. Today, however, the moral consensus undergirding American society continues to fray. It is foolish to expect that government support for morality would necessarily reflect a Judeo-Christian worldview. Public figures today are more likely to be upset at Hollywood portrayals of figures smoking than committing adultery. The President and Vice President urge cultural support for gay relationships. School districts teach Heather Has Two Mommies, not sexual abstinence. Government agencies and officials work tirelessly to scrub the public square clean of any mention of religion. Censorship in Scandinavia focuses on violence, not sex.

Great Moral Awakenings Sparked By Revival, Not Legislation

Why would one assume that newly empowered censors would target the right depictions? And how can they, if there is no moral consensus upon which to base their actions? For example, fornication became the norm at a time when many states banned sex outside of marriage. Acceptance of homosexuality expanded in spite of anti-sodomy laws. Even today some states maintain laws against adultery, but there is no public support for enforcing them. The notion that government can reverse the shift in American morals by passing laws and prosecuting miscreants ignores both the limitations of government and recent history.

One answer, of course, might be to elect the right people. Bill Clinton’s presidency illustrates the bankruptcy of this approach, however. The American people obviously value economic prosperity above personal probity. That could change, of course, but until it does, there is little sense in expecting public officials to restore the nation’s traditional moral core.

The problem is not simply that some politicians possess seared consciences. Average Americans are rightly nervous about those who wish to forcibly impose a moral code on their neighbors. Most people may reject adultery, but few wish to prosecute adulterers. And, implicitly at least, they recognize the danger of allowing ephemeral political majorities to decide matters of private virtue.

Of course, some people advocate using the law simply to reinforce social attitudes–to make a collective statement, if you will. Yet criminal law is meant to be enforced. When it is not, it has little educational value. How many people eschew adultery because of a restrictive state law? Conservatives, of all people, should recognize that human behavior cannot be so easily modified.

Instead of focusing on passing new laws, conservatives should focus on rebuilding America’s moral consensus. Doing so will entail hard work. But such a strategy can be effective. Social mores are critically important in shaping human behavior. For instance, the war against smoking was largely a private battle until recently, and it was private pressure, not the threat of jail, that forced the practice into retreat.

Indeed, history’s great moral awakenings have been sparked not by legislation but by religious revival and renewal. Unfortunately, such events cannot be willed. But they can be encouraged.

That means a concerted effort to transform the culture. Such an effort requires action by conservatives of both a traditionalist and a libertarian bent. The former need to recognize the difficulty in using politics to promote virtue, and to concentrate on the difficult task of moral reconstruction through the efforts of civil society. The latter need to acknowledge that liberty is not enough, and to support the various forms of non-political authority that help generate a moral consensus. Both need to combat government interference with private institutions, especially the family, as they chide, push, pressure, restrict, and offend.

We need to begin at home, emphasizing the importance of the transmission of values to children. Doing so requires many things, ranging from family time to monitoring children’s television and Internet activities. It may require the sort of financial sacrifice that even conservatives, with the usual career ambitions, hesitate to make. It requires celebrated religious figures to attack not only sin that seems alien, such as homosexuality, but that which pervades middle-class congregations, such as greed and anger. It requires active engagement throughout the culture, including the arts and media, to develop positive alternatives.

It requires people to encourage their friends and colleagues to live up to a commonly understood moral code. Virtue should be modeled and promoted. That does not mean retreating into a shell and avoiding the world. It does mean articulating a belief that there is right and wrong behavior.

Believing In Both Freedom and Virtue Offers Special Challenge

Finally, moral reconstruction requires punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior. Boycotting Seven-Eleven over the sale of Penthouse, criticizing not only the record companies that produce Gangsta Rap but also the music stores that sell it, and refusing to buy products from firms that support the worst television shows are examples. So, too, is celebrating the “good family man,” not the wealthy executive with a trophy wife. These sorts of efforts require not only theoretical assent but active support.

None of this will be easy. The challenge facing one who believes in either virtue or liberty is great enough. To believe in both offers a special challenge.

Freedom allows conduct that often erodes the moral foundation upon which a free society rests. However, attempting to enlist the state in rebuilding that foundation is a doomed enterprise.

The argument for doing so had some appeal many years ago, when there was a rough consensus on what made up such a foundation, though government’s role was always secondary to that of the broad array of institutions that comprise civil society. The argument has no appeal today. Given the composition of government and the attitudes held by the voting public, political action is more likely to degrade than enhance society’s moral tone. In such a world, it is even more important to protect liberty. Freedom is not sufficient to create a good society, but it is an essential ingredient in doing so.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is a frequent lecturer at Acton Institute events.