We cant have our statist cake and eat it

A feature of the current political landscape is the popularity of outsiders, the mavericks who push aside establishment figures. This phenomenon has added some curious spice to the current US presidential race. What is causing it?

It is no secret that many Americans are angry with the government and the general state of things. The so-called anti-establishment candidates are channeling that anger to their camps. It is an undefined rage that is based more on frustration and emotions than on concrete facts or convictions.

For example, people are depressed by an economy stalled at a disheartening 2% growth. They are constantly assaulted by the gloomy mantra that the State is broken and unable to provide for the nation. Government seems to be doing nothing well.

A recent poll by the Ripon Society shows that 69% of middle-class Americans believe the federal government is not doing enough for them. It is not giving them value for their tax dollars or sufficient return on investment. Ironically, those who complain about the shortcomings of the State doubt its ability to aid them. Nearly two thirds of the same voters believe that government is part of the problem and not the solution.

The voters are actually right on both counts. We cannot have our statist cake and eat it too. The State is certainly not satisfying everyone’s desires, nor should it have to. There is something in the nature of the State that prevents it from doing what these voters expect it to do.

Perhaps this is the root of the problem.

The State is trying to be something it isn’t. And when the State tries to do what is not in its nature to do, it cannot do it well. As the French are fond of saying, “The good it does, it does badly; the bad it does, it does well.”

The State, as defined by Aristotle, is the political organisation and order of the nation. Its role is to safeguard the common good and facilitate virtuous community life. And that’s all!

The government is the political system and the institutions by which the State is administered and regulated. The State’s purpose is the safeguarding of the common good. Which is a very different thing to saying it is the common good. The State should promote the common good, not control it. Despite the good intentions officials might have about helping society, when the State tries to do all these things it ends up doing them poorly.

Our problem is that we have become accustomed to a State that provides goods and service that it should not be providing. We have let the modern State assume powers and absorb functions that are contrary to its nature. It has incurred massive amounts of debt to pay for its follies. This dysfunctional State has managed to do all these bad things extremely well.

So what should the State be doing?

The State is the supreme civil authority in the land. It should use its power to preserve and protect the overall order. It should do those things that only it can do. That means defending the nation and keeping public order. It means establishing justice, setting standards, maintaining foreign relations, providing general direction and coordination, and fostering unity. And then, it should leave everyone and everything else alone.

The modern State tends to centralise all power unto itself and take over every aspect of life. In contrast, the Aristotelian concept of State sees government encouraging the widest distribution of authority to lower social groups like the family, trade associations, towns, universities, or any of a number of private associations that make up the rich social life of a nation. The Church agrees with Aristotle and calls this the principle of Subsidiarity.

In this way, each group can accomplish its proper function without undue interference. In other words, the State lets them do the good things it does badly, while doing those things that it alone can do.

When the State’s sovereign power stays within its limits, less force and money are needed to maintain it. The people’s loyalty comes easily. Men are willing to sacrifice and even die to defend the nation, as our brave soldiers historically have given testimony. When the State exceeds its role it becomes a great straitjacket that forces strict compliance with ever-multiplying laws. It no longer facilitates virtuous community life. The common good is shattered into myriad self-interest groups that seek to play the system for all its worth.

Changing all this takes effort on the part of citizens and there is little indication that many are willing to forgo their benefits or ROI on tax dollars. It assumes that people actually want to live virtuously in our morally decadent times. There are few signs that people are willing to look beyond self-interest or be concerned with the common good.

However, the eventual breakdown of the dysfunctional State may leave us with little choice in the matter. Should that happen, we must have the courage to freely return to a virtuous order in which the State assumes its proper role.

Until then, we can only expect a top-heavy government that succeeds in doing good things badly.

The modern State tends to assume power over every aspect of life.

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