Conservative Colloquium

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A Moral Case Against Big Government: How Government Shapes the Character, Vision, and Virtue of Citizens

Posted by Tony Listi on October 14, 2007

By Ryan Messmore

To advocate good government is to recognize the indispensable role that political authority plays in a healthy community. To advocate limited government is to understand that not everything necessary for a community to be healthy is the responsibility of government. A good but limited government is one that serves its citizens by exercising well its particular task and refraining from other tasks. Essential to government’s particular task is ensuring that other social institutions are free to exercise their own particular tasks.

Identifying the proper tasks and limits of various social institutions is bound up with a society’s understanding of the good life and the good community-its moral vision of its defining goods and purposes. The case for good, limited government is therefore incomplete if it proceeds only in terms of the effects upon individual freedom or the fiscal implications of expanded government programs. Governing is a moral task, and the size and scope of government have moral implications for society, including its members’ ability to fulfill their ethical obligations to one another.

The primary task of government is administering judgment according to standards of justice. Because law by its very nature concerns moral judgments, a government that stands under the rule of law presupposes the existence of a moral order, expresses the social concept of that order, and in turn encourages the fundamental moral principles of a society, particularly regarding justice. Citizens’ assumptions and expectations of government therefore shape not
only their national character, but also their approach to issues like poverty and economic justice. Moreover, our assumptions about government influence the formation of the social bonds required to cultivate virtue, and thus sustain freedom, as well as the way citizens think about and relate to neighbors in need.

Sustaining limited government and freedom turns on the question of how virtue is cultivated and which communities and institutions are most appropriate for this task. Local forms of association, especially the family and religious congregations, generate the thick, personal bonds that unite and motivate individuals toward the good for themselves and others. The proper exercise of political authority articulates a society’s understanding of good through law and enacts judgment upon those who violate it through certain acts of wrongdoing. Citizens thus render a proper level of trust and appreciation for the crucial role that good government plays in a healthy society.

As government assumes greater political authority, however, it is more able to shape the terms of public discourse and draw to itself expectations and levels of trust beyond those appropriate to good government, often at the expense of smaller institutions of civil society.
Such a shift in the public’s attitude toward expansive government can weaken democracy, given that diversification of authority among local associations is a strong check against government tyranny. Moreover, not only does unhealthy reliance upon government social programs discourage genuine compassion and personal relations between wealthy and poor citizens, but the cost of funding such programs actually threatens future generations with unsustainable debt. A good but limited government will thus acknowledge that other social institutions are better able to cultivate virtuous citizens, care for those in need, and further
true democratic freedom while exercising its own crucial responsibility to protect its citizens and social institutions from injustice.

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One Response to “A Moral Case Against Big Government: How Government Shapes the Character, Vision, and Virtue of Citizens”

  1. isis solar said

    isis solar…

    A Moral Case Against Big Government: How Government Shapes the Character, Vision, and Virtue of Citizens « Conservative Colloquium…

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