At the FOX News/Google Republican presidential candidates' debate last week, Ron Paul got philosophical. In the context of explaining why he would not ban the morning after pill "as a practical matter," he redirected the public's attention from dependence on law to a dependence on citizen character. (Watch the video clip below at the 3:50 mark.)
"Nobody can outdo me on respect for life," Paul said. "I've spent a lifetime dealing with life. But I still think there is a time where the law doesn't solve the problems. Only the moral character of the people will eventually solve this problem, and not the law."
In our zeal to correct the laws and establish justice in our land, we must not lose sight of the natural limit on how useful law can be, and the more fundamental and more reliable role of that internal policeman: good character.
Fifty years before his role in crafting our Constitution, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters." That is, they have more need of laws and regulations. But what John Adams called "a moral and religious people," which he said our Constitution presupposes, governs itself by a law written on the heart by a healthy culture.
Those in government who add law to law and see the need for ever more detailed regulation of citizens' lives show that they do not trust people to regulate their own affairs. The response from the people then runs in two different directions. Some get the message that if a behavior is not forbidden or regulated by law, then it must be morally permissible. They become irresponsible and morally uncircumspect in a way that you see in small children. Others become resentful and suspicious toward government in general. As one of my students put it in an exam essay: "If the government doesn't trust me, why should I trust the government?"
A friend of mine who is originally from the Netherlands had family visiting from the old country. The Dutch are a highly regulated people with a lavishly generous welfare state. As a result, they expect the government to order their lives, and they take little responsibility for one another. (I have written on this before.) In the family's touring around Long Island, they came to a four-way stop. This traffic arrangement puzzled the Dutch relatives. "How do you know who is to go first? " they asked. My friend explained that the right of way goes to whoever arrives first. But they pressed on to the next obvious question: "But what if two cars arrive at the same time?" "Well," explained their Americanized relation, "typically one driver will wave on the other, and there's no problem." The Dutchmen were flabbergasted: "In Holland, they would fight to see who could go first!"
Of course, the general rule is that the driver on the right has the right of way, but few people know this so most people revert to courtesy. But the Dutch European found it inconceivable that people could regulate their common life by their widely shared moral character.
There is an alternative to the libertarian reliance on people's pursuit of self-interest on the one hand and the progressive liberal regulatory state on the other. It's called healthy political community and it still has a foothold in American life.