I have written about the importance of a society being populated with people who have internalized virtuous values and behaviors. The family is the primary institution for socializing children into virtuous people. The family is aided in this socialization by a variety of intermediary institutions, most notably for Christians, the Church.
However, it doesn’t take much observation to see that a great many people in our free market capitalist society live by less than virtuous values. Whether it is corporate executives plundering pension funds, drug dealers leading millions into addiction, porn producers degrading human beings, or just every day folks drowning in debt to “keep up with the neighbors,” not everyone makes virtuous decisions. As we each examine our own lives we can point to less than virtuous decisions we have made.
The libertarian idea that all we need to do is to lift all restraints and people will behave virtuously does not take seriously the fallen nature of humanity and the inclination toward evil. Boundaries are critical for a virtuous and just society. They restrain the most virulent forms of evil behavior, thus providing a safe space where virtuous behavior can flourish.
But where do we put the boundaries? This is always leads to a dilemma. Does the fact that I didn’t rob the bank I visited today make me a virtuous person? Not necessarily. It is entirely possible that I very much wanted to rob the bank but the threat of years in prison was of greater concern to me than the potential financial reward. I was compelled to behave in a way that a virtuous person would behave without necessarily having internalized the virtuous values. This gives the semblance of virtue when in fact it is only the avoidance of negative consequences. Remove the negative consequences and the desired behavior will end.
The trap for conservatives and liberals is to use of the state to compel certain behavior rather than seeking a populace that behaves virtuously out of internalized values. Ironically, the more we try to force good behavior the more externalized, rather than internalized, the motivations for good behavior become. Conservatives tend to look for external means to control bad social behavior and liberals tend to look to external controls to control bad economic behavior. Take away the external motivations and the good behavior dissipates as well.
Therefore, a society without state enforced boundaries will lead to rampant corruption and evil behavior. Virtue is destroyed. A society where every boundary is defined and enforced by the state prevents the internalization of values. Virtue is also destroyed. This is the virtue dilemma.
The virtue dilemma is why overly ideological commitments to a libertarian, conservative, or liberal mindsets are not usually helpful in discerning a solid biblical response to public policy. As Christians, we are always weighing essential boundaries against the goal of seeing each human being living up to their full potential as virtuous eikons of God. Our primary strategy is the transformation of the broken eikons. The more poorly the Church does its job at creating virtuous people, the more other institutions, like the state, must intervene in order to keep a stable society. This puts more power in the hands of the state and, as already noted, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is why a prolonged slide away from virtue driven behavior makes a society more and more vulnerable to totalitarian control. Too much power concentrated in the hands of the most benevolent state will ultimately lead to corruption. Strong families, and strong intermediate institutions that support them, are essential for a prosperous society.