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Five Pillars of a Decent and Dynamic Society by Dr. Robby George

Dr. Robby George photo by Kate Capato

Dr. Robby George, photo by Kate Capato

Any healthy society, any decent society, will rest upon three pillars. The first is respect for the human person—the individual human being and his dignity.  Where this pillar is in place, the formal and informal institutions of society, and the beliefs and practices of the people, will be such that every member of the human family—irrespective of race, sex, or ethnicity, to be sure, but also and equally irrespective of age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency—is treated as a person—that is, as a subject bearing profound, inherent, and equal worth and dignity.

A society that does not nurture respect for the human person—beginning with the child in the womb, and including the mentally and physically impaired and the frail elderly—will sooner or later (probably sooner, rather than later) come to regard human beings as mere cogs in the larger social wheel whose dignity and well-being may legitimately be sacrificed for the sake of the collectivity.  Some members of the community—those in certain development stages, for example—will come to be regarded as disposable, and others—those in certain conditions of dependency, for example, will come to be viewed as intolerably burdensome, as “useless eaters, as “better off dead,” as Lebensunwerten lebens.

In its most extreme modern forms, totalitarian regimes reduce the individual to the status of an instrument to serve the ends of the fascist state or the future communist utopia. When liberal democratic regimes go awry, it is often because a utilitarian ethic reduces the human person to a means rather than an end to which other things including the systems and institutions of law, education, and the economy are means.  The abortion license against which we struggle today is dressed up by its defenders in the language of individual and even natural rights—and there can be no doubt that the acceptance of abortion is partly the fruit of me-generation liberal ideology—a corruption (and burlesque) of liberal political philosophy in its classical form; but more fundamentally it is underwritten by a utilitarian ethic that, in the end, vaporizes the very idea of natural rights, treating the idea (in Jeremy Bentham’s famously dismissive words) as “nonsense on stilts.”

In cultures in which religious fanaticism has taken hold, the dignity of the individual is typically sacrificed for the sake of tragically misbegotten theological ideas and goals.  By contrast, a liberal democratic ethos, where it is uncorrupted by utilitarianism or me-generation expressive individualism, supports the dignity of the human person by giving witness to basic human rights and liberties.  Where a healthy religious life flourishes, faith in God provides a grounding for the dignity and inviolability of the human person by, for example, proposing an understanding of each and every member of the human family, even those of different faiths or professing no particular faith, as persons made in the image and likeness of the divine Author of our lives and liberties.

The second pillar of any decent society is the institution of the family.  It is indispensable. The family, based on the marital commitment of husband and wife, is the original and best ministry of health, education, and welfare. Although no family is perfect, no institution matches the healthy family in its capacity to transmit to each new generation the understandings and traits of character — the values and virtues — upon which the success of every other institution of society, from law and government to educational institutions and business firms, vitally depends.

Where families fail to form, or too many break down, the effective transmission of the virtues of honesty, civility, self-restraint, concern for the welfare of others, justice, compassion, and personal responsibility is imperiled. Without these virtues, respect for the dignity of the human person, the first pillar of a decent society, will be undermined and sooner or later lost—for even the most laudable formal institutions cannot uphold respect for human dignity where people do not have the virtues that make that respect a reality and give it vitality in actual social practices.

Respect for the dignity of the human being requires more than formally sound institutions; it requires a cultural ethos in which people act from conviction to treat each other as human beings should be treated: with respect, civility, justice, compassion. The best legal and political institutions ever devised are of little value where selfishness, contempt for others, dishonesty, injustice, and other types of immorality and irresponsibility flourish. Indeed, the effective working of governmental institutions themselves depends upon most people most of the time obeying the law out of a sense of moral obligation, and not merely out of fear of detection and punishment for law-breaking. And perhaps it goes without saying that the success of business and a market-based economic system depends on there being reasonably virtuous, trustworthy, law-abiding, promise-keeping people to serve as workers and managers, lenders, regulators, and payers of bills for goods and services.

The third pillar of any decent society is a fair and effective system of law and government.  This is necessary because none of us is perfectly virtuous all the time, and some people will be deterred from wrongdoing only by the threat of punishment. More importantly, contemporary philosophers of law tell us the law coordinates human behavior for the sake of achieving common goals — the common good — especially in dealing with the complexities of modern life.  Even if all of us were perfectly virtuous all of the time, we would still need a system of laws (considered as a scheme of authoritatively stipulated coordination norms) to accomplish many of our common ends (safely transporting ourselves on the streets, to take a simple and obvious example).

The success of business firms and the economy as a whole depends vitally on a fair and effective system and set of institutions for the administration of justice. We need judges skilled in the craft of law and free of corruption. We need to be able to rely on courts to settle disputes, including disputes between parties who are both in good faith, and to enforce contracts and other agreements and enforce them in a timely manner. Indeed, the knowledge that contracts will be enforced is usually sufficient to ensure that courts will not actually be called on to enforce them. A sociological fact of which we can be certain is this:  Where there is no reliable system of the administration of justice — no confidence that the courts will hold people to their obligations under the law — business will not flourish and everyone in the society will suffer.

A society can, in my opinion, be a decent one even if it is not a dynamic one, if the three pillars are healthy and functioning in a mutually supportive way (as they will do if each is healthy). Now, conservatives of a certain stripe believe that a truly decent society cannot be a dynamic one.  Dynamism, they believe, causes instability that undermines the pillars of a decent society.  So some conservatives in old Europe and even the United States opposed not only industrialism but the very idea of a commercial society, fearing that commercial economies inevitably produce consumerist and acquisitive materialist attitudes that corrode the foundations of decency.  And some, such as some Amish communities in the U.S., reject education for their children beyond what is necessary to master reading, writing, and arithmetic, on the ground that higher education leads to worldliness and apostasy and undermines religious faith and moral virtue.

Although a decent society need not be a dynamic one (as the Amish example shows) dynamism need not erode decency.  A dynamic society need not be one in which consumerism and materialism become rife and in which moral and spiritual values disappear. Indeed, dynamism can play a positive moral role and, I would venture to say, almost certainly will play such a role where what makes it possible is sufficient to sustain it over the long term.

That is, I realize, a rather cryptic comment, so let me explain what I mean. To do that, I will have to offer some thoughts on what in fact makes social dynamism possible.

The two pillars of social dynamism are, first, institutions of research and education in which the frontiers of knowledge across in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences are pushed back, and through which knowledge is transmitted to students and disseminated to the public at large; and, second, business firms and associated institutions supporting them or managed in ways that are at least in some respects patterned on their principles, by which wealth is generated, widely distributed, and preserved.

We can think of universities and business firms, together with respect for the dignity of the human person, the institution of the family, and the system of law and government, as the five pillars of decent and dynamic societies. The university and the business firm depend in various ways for their well-being on the well-being of the others, and they can help to support the others in turn. At the same time, of course, ideologies and practices hostile to the pillars of a decent society can manifest themselves in higher education and in business and these institutions can erode the social values on which they themselves depend not only for their own integrity, but for their long-term survival.

It is all too easy to take the pillars for granted. So it is important to remember that each of them has come under attack from different angles and forces. Operating from within universities, persons and movements hostile to one or the other of these pillars, usually preaching or acting in the name of high ideals of one sort or another, have gone on the attack.

Attacks on business and the very idea of the market economy and economic freedom coming from the academic world are, of course, well known. Students are sometimes taught to hold business, and especially businessmen, in contempt as heartless exploiters driven by greed. In my own days as a student, these attacks were often made explicitly in the name of Marxism. One notices less of that after the collapse of the Soviet empire, but the attacks themselves have abated little.  Needless to say, where businesses behave unethically they play into the stereotypes of the enemies of the market system and facilitate their effort to smear business and the free market for the sake of transferring greater control of the economy to government.

Similarly, attacks on the family, and particularly on the institution of marriage on which the family is built, are common in the academy. The line here is that the family, at least as traditionally constituted and understood, is a patriarchal and exploitative institution that oppresses women and imposes on people forms of sexual restraint that are psychologically damaging and inhibiting of the free expression of their personality.  There is a profound threat to the family here, one against which we must fight with all our energy and will. It is difficult to think of any item on the domestic agenda that is more critical today than defending the institution of marriage and rebuilding a vibrant marriage culture.

What has also become clear is that the threats to the family (and to the sanctity of human life) are at the same time and necessarily threats to religious freedom and to religion itself—at least where the religions in question stand up and speak out for conjugal marriage and the rights of the child in the womb.  From the point of view of many on the left, the taming of religion, and the stigmatization and marginalization of religions that refuse to be tamed, is a moral imperative.  It is therefore not surprising to see that they are increasingly open in saying that they do not see disputes about sex and marriage and abortion and euthanasia as honest disagreements among reasonable people of goodwill. They are, rather, battles between the forces of “reason” and “enlightenment,” on one side, and those of “ignorance” and “bigotry,” on the other.  Their opponents are to be treated just as racists are treated—since they are the equivalent of racists.  That doesn’t necessarily mean imprisoning them or fining them for expressing unacceptable opinions—though “hate crimes” laws in certain jurisdictions raise the specter of precisely such abuses; but it does mean using antidiscrimination laws and other legal instruments to stigmatize them, marginalize them, and impose upon them and their institutions various forms of social and even civil disability—with few if any meaningful protections for religious liberty and the rights of conscience.

Some will counsel that commercial businesses and business people “have no horse in this race.” They will say that these are moral, cultural, and religious disputes about which business people and people concerned with economic freedom need not concern themselves. The reality is that the ideological movements that today seek, for example, to deinstitutionalize marriage and abolish its normativity for romantic relations and the rearing of children are the same movements that seek to undermine the market-based economic system and replace it with statist control of vast areas of economic life.  Moreover, the rise of ideologies hostile to marriage and the family has had a measurable social impact, and its costs are counted in ruined relationships, damaged lives, and all that follows in the social sphere from these personal catastrophes. In many poorer places in the United States, and I believe this is true in many other countries, families are simply failing to form and marriage is disappearing or coming to be regarded as an optional “life-style choice”—one among various optional ways of conducting relationships and having and rearing children. Out of wedlock birthrates are very high, with the negative consequences being borne less by the affluent than by those in the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society.

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Harvard professor who was then working in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, shocked Americans by reporting findings that the out-of-wedlock birth rate among African-Americans in the United States had reached nearly 25%. He warned that the phenomenon of boys and girls being raised without fathers in poorer communities would result in social pathologies that would severely harm those most in need of the supports of solid family life.  His predictions were all too quickly verified. The widespread failure of family formation portended disastrous social consequences of delinquency, despair, violence, drug abuse, and crime and incarceration. A snowball effect resulted in the further growth of the out-of-wedlock birth rate. It is now over 70% among African-Americans. It is worth noting that at the time of Moynihan’s report, the out-of-wedlock birth rate for the population as a whole was almost 6%. Today, that rate is over 40%.

The economic consequences of these developments are evident. Consider the need of business to have available to it a responsible and capable work force. Business cannot manufacture honest, hard working people to employ. Nor can government create them by law. Businesses and governments depend on there being many such people, but they must rely on the family, assisted by religious communities and other institutions of civil society, to produce them. So business has a stake—a massive stake—in the long-term health of the family. It should avoid doing anything to undermine the family, and it should do what it can where it can to strengthen the institution.

As an advocate of dynamic societies, I believe in the market economy and the free enterprise system. I particularly value the social mobility that economic dynamism makes possible.  Indeed, I am a beneficiary of that social mobility.  A bit over a hundred years ago, my immigrant grandfathers—one from southern Italy, the other from Syria—were coal miners. Neither had so much as remotely considered the possibility of attending a university—as a practical economic matter, such a thing was simply out of the question.  At that time, Woodrow Wilson, the future President of the United States, was the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton.  Today, just two generations forward, I, the grandson of those immigrant coal miners, am the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton.  And what is truly remarkable, is that my story is completely unremarkable.  Something like it is the story of millions of Americans.  Perhaps it goes without saying that this kind of upward mobility is not common in corporatist or socialist economic systems; but it is very common in market-based free enterprise economies.

Having said that, I should note that I am not a supporter of the laissez-faire doctrine embraced by strict libertarians. I believe that law and government do have important and, indeed, indispensable roles to play in regulating enterprises for the sake of protecting public health, safety, and morals, preventing exploitation and abuse, and promoting fair competitive circumstances of exchange. But these roles are compatible, I would insist, with the ideal of limited government and the principle of subsidiarity according to which government must respect individual initiative to the extent reasonably possible and avoid violating the autonomy and usurping the authority of families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society that play the primary role in building character and transmitting virtues.

But having said that, I would warn that limited government — considered as an ideal as vital to business as to the family — cannot be maintained where the marriage culture collapses and families fail to form or easily dissolve. Where these things happen, the health, education, and welfare functions of the family will have to be undertaken by someone, or some institution, and that will sooner or later be the government.  To deal with pressing social problems, bureaucracies will grow, and with them the tax burden. Moreover, the growth of crime and other pathologies where family breakdown is rampant will result in the need for more extensive policing and incarceration and, again, increased taxes to pay for these government services. If we want limited government, as we should, and a level of taxation that is not unduly burdensome, we need healthy institutions of civil society, beginning with a flourishing marriage culture supporting family formation and preservation.

Advocates of the market economy, and supporters of marriage and the family, have common opponents in hard-left socialism, the entitlement mentality, and the statist ideologies that provide their intellectual underpinnings.  But the marriage of advocates of limited government and economic freedom, on the one hand, and the supporters of marriage and the family, on the other, is not, and must not be regarded as, a mere marriage of convenience. The reason they have common enemies is that they have common principles:  namely, respect for the human person, which grounds our commitment to individual liberty and the right to economic freedom and other essential civil liberties; belief in personal responsibility, which is a pre-condition of the possibility and moral desirability of individual liberty in any domain; recognition of subsidiarity as the basis for effective but truly limited government and for the integrity of the institutions of civil society that mediate between the individual and the centralized power of the state; respect for the rule of law; and recognition of the vital role played by the family and by religious institutions that support the character-forming functions of the family in the flourishing of any decent and dynamic society.

The essential point has been made by Republican vice-presidential nominee Congressman Paul Ryan.  He recently observed that

a “libertarian” who wants limited government should embrace the means to his freedom: thriving mediating institutions that create the moral preconditions for economic markets and choice. A “social issues” conservative with a zeal for righteousness should insist on a free market economy to supply the material needs for families, schools, and churches that inspire moral and spiritual life. In a nutshell, the notion of separating the social from the economic issues is a false choice. They stem from the same root . . . . They complement and complete each other. A prosperous moral community is a prerequisite for a just and ordered society and the idea that either side of this current divide can exist independently is a mirage.


The two greatest institutions ever devised for lifting people out of poverty and enabling them to live in dignity are the market economy and the institution of marriage.  These institutions will, in the end, stand or fall together. Contemporary statist ideologues have contempt for both of these institutions, and they fully understand the connection between them. We who believe in the market and in the family should see the connection no less clearly.

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