St. Augustine on the Liberal State

Comparisons of the modern state to the Roman Empire are common enough but Brad Littlejohn of The Sword and the Ploughshare brings this passage from The City of God to our attention. It is, I think, particularly relevant to the modern state:

'So long as it [the republic] survives,' they say, 'so long as it prospers, rich in resources, self-confident in victory, or, better still, secure in peace, what difference does it make to us? What matters is that there is money to be made to support our lavish style of life, and to give the stronger their hold over the weaker; that the poor treat the wealthy with compliance, to ensure their daily bread--the poor depending on the patronage of the wealthy for a quiet life, the wealthy calling on the poor for support to boost their public standing. Popularity should accrue not to those whose policies promote public welfare, but to the big providers of public entertainment.
Law should not be rigorous; low indulgences should not be proscribed. Rulers should not bother themselves with getting virtuous subjects, simply quiescent ones. Territories should view their rulers not in the light of moral educators, merely as economic managers and purveyors of satisfactions. It does not matter if they do not seriously respect them, so long as they treat them with a calculating and subservient fear. No one should be liable to court proceedings if he has not infringed or done harm to the property, real estate, or physical safety of another person without consent;* but everyone should be free to do with himself, his dependents, and consenting associates exactly what he likes. Sexual satisfactions should be freely available on the open market for those who want them, especially those who cannot afford to maintain facilities privately. Domestic architecture should be expensive and ornate, to accommodate large and lavish parties where anyone may game and drink all day and night, if he pleases, till he brings it up or sweats it out. The sound of dancing should be heard in every neighborhood, and theaters should be humming with excitement at their coarse amusements and their various brash entertainments.
Should someone disapprove of this perfect contentment, he must expect to meet public hostility; and should someone attempt to reform or abolish it, the spirit of popular freedom must know what to do with him: shut him up, pack him up, beat him up! Religion ought to make a case for itself by guaranteeing and perpetuating these conditions of life for the greatest number of people. Let the gods have all the worship they want, and all the games that they want, to enjoy them with (and at the expense of) their worshipers, just so long as they ensure this satisfactory state of affairs against threat from enemy, plague, or disaster.' (Book II, 20, Brad's italics)

It seems to me that this is a perfect description of the modern liberal state and its conception of law and economics. The idea of virtue in general, and the specific virtue of justice in particular, have been exiled from our notions of politics, law, and economics. But a political order divorced from justice can only be about power; a legal order divorced from justice is merely a contradiction; an economic order divorced from justice is always on the verge of collapse (as ours is.)

Distributism is about restoring justice to the political and economic orders (orders which we refuse to separate), and especially distributive justice. In thinking about these questions, we can take another passage from The City of God:

Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?


Grace Potts Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 7:28:00 PM CST  

Tell me again, John: Why aren't you running for governor of Texas?

John Médaille Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 8:37:00 PM CST  

Because I used to be a politician...of the type I particularly dislike.

Chris Campbell Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 7:52:00 AM CST  

The insistance on Christ and Justice in economics and political order is what separates us from most Libertarians and others

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