Promoting Virtue

In considering the extent to which the state should be relied upon to promote social cohesion and virtue, one must keep in mind the potential associated pitfalls as well as the other possible means to accomplish the same desired ends.

Political philosophers have long debated the role the state should play in promoting virtue and thereby the common good. According to Aristotle, politics is essential to the good life because participation in the process cultivates virtue among a state’s citizens. Michael Sandel similarly argues that a just society cannot be achieved merely by maximizing utility or freedom of choice. It must involve determining the “right” way to value things and not just the right way to distribute things. From Sandel’s perspective this is best done through strengthening public institutions and promoting a politics of moral engagement.

While the state can play a role in promoting virtue through extrinsic or intrinsic means, there are two caveats to keep in mind when evaluating the extent to which we should rely on government to promote virtue. First, the state is not the sole means through which virtue can be advanced. The family, churches, guilds, businesses, voluntary associations, and non-profit organizations can play influential roles. Second, while the Great Man theory popular in the 19th century pointed to the pivotal role individual leaders of the state can play in promoting social cohesion, civic virtue, and national advancement, the 20th century debunked the theory by bringing to the fore examples with the exact opposite ultimate consequences through the dictatorial leadership of individuals such as Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Stalin, and Mao. As the 18th century German Romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin observed: “What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven.”

Promoting Virtue Through Non-State Means. Aristotle believed that virtue is learned by doing and that that is why living in a polis was necessary for a virtuous life. The political process at the heart of a polis offers citizens the opportunity to practice moral principles and thereby develop virtuous habits. This argument in support of relying on the state to promote virtue certainly was more likely to hold in the smaller-scale Athenian democracies with which Aristotle was familiar. It is harder to justify in modern democracies, however, where the polis is much larger. More importantly, the larger the role that the state exercises in such settings, the less there is left for citizens to do and thus the more their moral “muscles” are likely to atrophy.

Both Aristotle and Sandel attribute insufficient credit to the role non-state institutions play in developing virtue. Families, guilds, voluntary associations, and churches give individuals much greater daily opportunity to learn virtue by doing. Moreover, they have the virtue of relying on non-coercive means when promoting their objectives. In touring America in the early 19th century, Alexis De Tocqueville commented on how citizens’ involvement with both local voluntary organizations and political associations was a key part of the country’s secret sauce. And while recognizing the influence of “the judge’s bench, [and] the schoolmaster’s lectern” in promoting ethical change, economist Deirdre McCloskey also acknowledges the key roles played by “the mother’s knee, [and] the pastor’s pulpit.”

Even markets and businesses advance virtue. Adam Smith intended to spell this out in a third book that was not published due to his death. Free markets, based on clearly defined and enforced property rights and the liberty of individuals to pursue their interests, maximize the opportunity for repeat interaction across time, products, places, and people. Such interaction creates a future and that future, by casting its shadow on the present, promotes integrity and other virtues. It is for this reason that markets and businesses are credited by Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker for contributing to the rise in civility of our species over the course of history.

The Potential for Capture of the State by Government Insiders. Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Islamic scholar, defined government to be “an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself.” While the state has the potential to promote virtue, the monopoly power that is its essence can also be used for less admirable purposes.

The well-being of a nation depends critically on its political-economic institutions and the extent to which they promote the public interest. That requires mechanisms to limit the size and scope of government. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place to oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Where things go awry, the economic model of politics—developed in an era when democracy has been on the rise—points to the hijacking of the apparatus of the state by special-interest groups on the demand side of politics such as crony capitalists, consumer activists, economic elites, environmentalists, labor unions, industry cartels, one-percenters, and so on. Less attention has been paid to the potential for hijacking by government insiders on the supply side of politics—rulers, elected officials, policymakers, and public employees. In autocracies and democracies, government insiders have the motive, means, and opportunity to co-opt the state for their material or ideological gain at the expense of the common good. The inherent danger of the goals pursued by government insiders is that, when mixed with the coercive power of the state, they can become a potent brew reversing the relationship between constituents and their public “servants.” Constituents can end up serving political principals and their principles.

Government insiders have been responsible for the failure of many past empires. They remain a clear and present danger to the well-being of countries around the globe today—brutal dictatorships such as Syria, relatively new nation-states in Africa, well established European and Latin American democracies with anemic economic growth, Eastern European nations freed from the Soviet/communist yoke, emerging superpowers such as China, and major advanced economies such as Japan and the U.S.

For example, Slovenia has seen its score on the annual Index of Economic Freedom (IEF) rankings fall fairly steadily over the last five years from 64.7 in 2010 to 60.3 in 2015 on the 0-100 scale where higher scores indicate greater economic freedom. The decline in IEF score has been greater than for any other European country except for Greece and Cyprus. Slovenia now ranks 36th among all 43 of the rated European countries. Its IEF rating falls below the global average of 60.4 and the country is in danger of slipping out of the “moderately free” category. Key components of the overall IEF score that have contributed to Slovenia’s decline include the state’s role in the overall economy (public expenditures account for nearly 60 percent of domestic income) and perceived corruption levels due to conflicts of interest arising from contracting links between government officials and private firms.

In the U.S., nearly one out of five workers is in public employ and the associated unfunded pension and health care liabilities associated with such workers total over $11 trillion. Unfunded public employee benefit liabilities are the country’s second largest fiscal problem—larger than Social Security but smaller than the health care obligations being incurred through Medicare/Medicaid/ObamaCare. In addition, the K-12 public school system has grown increasingly unionized and consolidated since 1960 and now produces woeful student achievement outcomes. Minority and low-income families are disproportionately bearing the coast of the monopolization of the supply side of the educational system. The diminished student outcomes, moreover, are not on account of declining public funding. The U.S. now outspends virtually every other developed nation in the world when it comes to public K-12 education and the level of per pupil spending has tripled in real terms since the early 1960s when laws were enacted that dramatically increased the right of state and local government employees to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.

The danger of co-opting by government insiders grows with the state because increases in state size heighten the motive, means, and opportunity for such capture. Expansion of the state also can diminish trust in government while amplifying counter-productive cultural norms such as rent-seeking among citizens. A vicious cycle ensues and a nation can become stuck in a “trust trap,” a low-trust/high-rent-seeking/big-government equilibrium. Greece, the birthplace of democracy, finds itself in such a setting. As the Greek state has expanded, trust by citizens in the government and in each other has eroded. The U.S. provides another example of state growth leading to increased rent-seeking and a decline in trust in government. Peter Schweizer’s two most recent books detail the present rent-seeking on the supply side of American politics.

The bottom line? In longing for social cohesion, the common good, and virtue, the adage of “being careful what you wish for” applies. There are many paths toward such a well-meaning goal, all with their strengths and pitfalls. And while some political philosophers may point to the state as the central means to promote virtue through either promulgating extrinsic incentives or inculcating intrinsic motivations, the monopoly power at the heart of the state is a double-edged sword. In light of the deleterious uses to which the state’s coercive power can be put, humorist Will Rogers quipped “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we pay for.”

The original version of the article appeared in the Schweizer Monat.


McCloskey, D. N. (2006) The Bourgeois Virtues:Ethics for an Age of Commerce. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Pinker, S.A. (2011) The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Penguin.

Ridley, M. W. (2010) The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: HarperCollins.

Sandel, M.J. (2009) Justice: What’s The Right Thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Schweizer, P.F. (2013) Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Schweizer, P.F. (2015) Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich. New York: HarperCollins.

Smith, A. ([unpublished, 1762–1763, 1766] 1982) Lectures on Jurisprudence. Edited by R. L. Meek, D. D. Raphael, and P. G. Stein. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Tocqueville, A. ([1835] 2000) Democracy in America. Edited by H.C. Mansfield and D. Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zupan, M. A. (2011) “The Virtues of Markets.”Cato Journal 31 (2): 171-198.

Zupan, M.A. (2016, forthcoming) How Government Insiders Subvert the Public Interest. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mark A. Zupan