Rick Santorum and the Myth of a Morally Neutral Government

One almost feels sorry for Rick Santorum. Could the Republican Senator from Pennsylvania have foreseen the firestorm that is currently brewing around his comments on homosexuality and sodomy laws? Of course, given the recent public shellacking administered to his colleague, Trent Lott, maybe he should have expected it.

For those who may have better things to do than keep up on every petty Washington intrigue, the controversy was started by an interview Santorum did with the Associated Press. In that interview he defended the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws and reiterated his conviction that homosexual acts were immoral (while distinguishing between homosexual acts and homosexual persons''hate the sin, love the sinner' and all that).

Predictably, the Democrats jumped all over Santorum. Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean said in a statement that 'Gay-bashing is not a legitimate public policy discussion; it is immoral. Rick Santorum's failure to recognize that attacking people because of who they are is morally wrong makes him unfit for a leadership position in the United States Senate.'

Santorum defended himself on the grounds that, as a faithful and practicing Catholic, he cannot separate his moral convictions from his life as a public official. But some Catholics, like Mario Cuomo and former Democratic congressman Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit priest, disagree. 'Catholics,' Drinan said 'have no right to impose their views on others. Even if they say homosexual conduct is unfitting for a Catholic, they have no right to impose that on the nation.'

Now, I hold no brief for anti-sodomy laws, or any laws that bring the state into citizens' private lives. Nevertheless, I can't help but detect a whiff of hypocrisy every time I hear someone shriek that some moral busybody is trying to 'impose his views' on others.

We hear echoes of this view whenever the government does something that seems to endorse one particular moral vision over another. For instance, opponents of school vouchers complain that if government money goes to religious schools, people are being forced to support moral and spiritual beliefs that they don't agree with. They can even cite Thomas Jefferson who said that 'To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.'

Likewise, opponents of government funded abortion argue that it's immoral to compel pro lifers to fund something they regard as murder. Conscientious objectors are given exemption from participating in the evil of war. And so on and so forth.

Now, this view is sound as far as it goes, but it fails to get to the root of the issue. The problem is not that government sometimes tries to impose morality; the problem is that government, by its very nature, can't help but impose morality!

Whenever government enacts any policy, it is making a moral judgment. That is, it is making a judgment about what is good and what is evil, what should be pursued or encouraged, and what should be avoided or punished. When Democrats argue for welfare programs, they are making the moral judgment that the need of some outweighs the right of others to the fruits of their labor. When Republicans seek to restrict pornography, they're judging that the freedom of pornographers and their customers is outweighed by the sensibilities of those who are offended by such material. There are no 'value neutral' policies.

Some policies may seem morally neutral, but this is only because the values they promote are so widespread that there is virtual unanimity that they are desirable. Laws against murder, for example.

But beyond the bare minimum of preventing force, fraud, and theft, there is precious little that everyone will agree on. Every policy that goes beyond this is nothing more than one group (even if it is the majority) seeking to 'impose its morality' on others. This is why, when tempted to promote our pet values through government, it's wise to recall the words of George Washington: 'Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.'

The attempts to use government in this way breed social conflict. Whenever someone feels that alien values are being imposed on them, they will respond with resentment, opposition, and possibly violence. We only need to look to places like the Balkans and the Middle East to see what happens when people of different nationalities with different values and religions are forced to live under a single state. One group will always try and lord it over the others.

The best way to avoid this conflict is the libertarian solution of strictly limiting government to protecting against force, theft and fraud. Another option is radically decentralized polycentric law, where people can choose which set of rules they want to live under, and what moral code those laws will embody. But a massive centralized state trying to apply a one-size-fits-all set of standards to a large and diverse population is a recipe for disaster. When government chooses, it chooses for everyone.

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Lee McCracken's picture
Columns on STR: 8

Lee McCracken lives in Philadelphia and works in publishing.  He has also written for anti-state.com.