Today's political debates are often muddied by misconceptions of
the role of government and its responsibility to American citizens.
What are the limits of good government? How can the virtues
necessary for freedom flourish? Sustaining ordered liberty depends
on good answers to these questions.
1. What should government do?
Government plays an indispensable role in a healthy community,
but this does not mean that everything a community needs to be
healthy is government's responsibility. Government expresses
society's understanding of justice and enacts judgment in light of
that understanding. Government's task is to articulate the rights
and duties of citizens and protect them from threats. This is very
different from the belief that government should create rights or
exercise people's duties for them through programs that replace
individual and community initiatives.
2. Does morality have anything to do with
The government, acting on behalf of the people, declares certain
actions to be just and unjust. This is a moral distinction
between right and wrong. Whenever government debates whether or not
certain actions and institutions are lawful, it takes moral
considerations into account. Put another way, by formulating and
upholding laws, government encourages and expresses a society's
fundamental moral principles.
3. What should limit government's
"If angels were to govern men," wrote James Madison, "neither
external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."
But even if political authorities were angels, there would still be
limits on what government should and should not do.
In this sense, government power is inherently limited by the
role of other social institutions, such as families, religious
congregations, schools, and businesses. The rightful authority of
these institutions helps to check the authority of the state.
Government's formal authority is restrained by its primary
purpose (see question #1). Government is supposed to protect the
ability of individuals and social institutions to exercise
legitimate authority within their own particular areas of influence
without unjust interference from other institutions. If the
government is supposed to protect this freedom for citizens, its
power to intrude must be subject to clearly defined limits. Such
limits are defined in the United States Constitution and individual
4. Does big government pose moral problems?
When government oversteps its bounds and begins to assume more
authority, it weakens other important social institutions,
including those, like the family and religious congregations, that
are particularly capable of encouraging moral virtue among
citizens. Big-government programs and policies also tend to confuse
the lines between citizen responsibility and government
responsibility. As a result, they erode our understanding of the
ethical obligations we have to one another-especially in regard to
issues such as poverty and economic justice-and encourage us to
assume and to expect that government will provide for our
5. What is the relationship between freedom and
Freedom relies on virtue for its survival. Government protects
ordered liberty, but it is virtuous citizens taking personal
responsibility for their actions and exercising mutual
responsibility for the welfare of others who make ordered liberty
possible. As Benjamin Franklin declared, "Only a virtuous people
are capable of freedom."
All political communities are held together by common civic
bonds. As the motto of the United States-e pluribus
unum,or "out of many, one"-implies, the bonds that unite the
nation's many individual citizens into one people are of critical
importance. These bonds often take the form of moral obligations
that we owe to one another as members of the same community. To
fulfill these obligations, citizens need to exercise certain
virtues. A virtuous citizen is someone who is enabled by character
to act in a way that promotes the common good within the
Americans tend to see freedom, prosperity, and security as
necessary elements of the common good. The habits needed to achieve
these ends include trust, cooperation, self-sacrifice, hard work,
and a sense of responsibility for others. These are key virtues for
members of the American community and essential to the preservation
of ordered liberty.
6. If virtue is necessary for freedom, what institutions
are best equipped to promote virtuous behavior?
America's founders recognized that local forms of association
are the best way for citizens to fulfill their moral obligations to
one another. They believed that families, religious congregations,
and other institutions of civil society are most effective in
uniting their members in cooperative pursuit of the common good and
thereby cultivating the indispensable virtues that are the
foundation of a healthy democracy.
The founders especially emphasized the role of religion in moral
formation. The belief in a "God All Powerful wise and good,"
claimed James Madison, is "essential to the moral order of the
world." George Washington declared that "reason and experience both
forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion
of religious principle." Religious communities bind people
vertically to God and horizontally to one another. These social
bonds not only depend upon, but actually help to generate, trust,
cooperation, respect for authority, self-sacrifice, and a shared
pursuit of and participation in the common good.
The family is also crucial to the cultivation of virtue and
moral sense. In the family, continual character training and moral
authority are exercised by those who love and desire the best for
In addition, sports teams, orchestras, schools, professional
guilds, neighborhoods, theatre troupes, and other voluntary
associations can function as local communities that cultivate moral
development in similar ways. On a basketball team, for example,
players learn what it means to trust others, work together, train
hard, respect authority, identify and coordinate different personal
skills, accommodate the errors of others, and rely on others to
accommodate their own errors. Team members are trained not to
consider just themselves, but to act in the best interest of the
7. How does big government weaken smaller,
As government claims responsibility for more tasks, it absorbs
the allegiance that citizens once placed in other relationships and
forms of association. When the federal government assumes more
responsibility for fulfilling the moral obligations among citizens,
it tends to undermine the perceived significance and authority of
local institutions and communities.
This encourages citizens, instead of looking to their families,
churches, or local communities for guidance and assistance, to
depend on the government for education, welfare, and various other
services. As individuals begin to look more consistently to the
government for support, the institutions that are able to generate
virtues like trust and responsibility begin to lose their sway in
the community. Excessive bureaucratic centralization thus sets in
motion a dangerous cycle of dependence and social decay.
8. Does government have a role in the moral formation of
Smaller institutions can encourage virtue among their members
because of the strong social bonds and personal contact they share,
but government is more dependent on fear of punishment to motivate
good behavior. Government can promote political goods such as
justice and equality and can contribute to habits such as
self-restraint and moderation. However, it is not as equipped as
other institutions to cultivate the virtues necessary for many
other important ends. As Martin Luther King, Jr., explained, laws
can restrain the heartless; they cannot change the heart.
But while government is not equipped to cultivate some virtues
in citizens, it does have a role to play in their moral formation:
It articulates a sense of justice, impartial judgment, and equality
before the law. Government also protects those institutions that,
through their strong social bonds and personal contact,
are equipped to encourage other virtues among citizens. By
protecting virtue-forming institutions such as the family or
religious congregations against unjust interference from other
institutions-including the state-government can influence the
cultivation of virtue and the strength of social bonds. Government
officials should work to provide the social and legal conditions
that help local associations to exercise the authority that rightly
belongs to them.
9. How does government influence public opinion and
Government actions subtly shape how citizens think, speak, and
act, thereby influencing where we tend to place our trust, hope,
The authority to enforce laws carries certain implicit powers:
the power to promote certain causes, prioritize certain risks,
endorse certain values and beliefs, uphold certain standards,
encourage certain expectations, and define and interpret certain
terms. For example, government policy dictates that American
taxpayers must contribute to Social Security, and that shapes how
we think about addressing need in our society (regardless of one's
opinion of the current Social Security program).
Government also has the power to influence our expectations and
outlook on important social questions, such as where to seek
assistance for material needs (the welfare state); whom to blame in
times of crisis (FEMA, the President, the Federal Reserve); and
what people are entitled to by right (privacy, cheap prescription
drugs, same-sex marriage).
The powers to pass laws and collect taxes therefore entail the
power to set social priorities and to define, to some extent, the
terms of public understanding, involvement, and debate.
10. How much should we trust government?
We should be able to trust our government to perform its
appropriate tasks of promoting justice and punishing injustice.
Without this protection, communities would not be as free to
strengthen social bonds, encourage pursuit of the common good, or
cultivate virtue. Therefore, the government deserves a certain
degree of trust, hope, and loyalty. But a healthy democracy is one
in which citizens give government only the loyalty it deserves
without diminishing their trust in or allegiance to other
institutions and authorities.
Cultural allegiances to family, church, and local associations
are some of "the most powerful resources of democracy," according
to Robert Nisbet. By not placing complete trust in the government,
citizens can help to prevent any one institution from becoming too
powerful. For this reason, the diversification of authority and
allegiance among various social institutions actually
The power of government carries significant moral implications.
The amount of responsibility yielded to or claimed by government
can shape attitudes, motivations, expectations, and even the terms
of public debate.
Government can also influence the cultivation of character and
the strength of social bonds by protecting institutions that help
to encourage virtue in society, such as the family or religious
congregations, against unjust interference from other institutions,
including the state. In other words, there is a strong moral case
to be made for limited government authority.
Ryan Messmore is
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society in the
Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at
The Heritage Foundation.