by Rhys Gray
On February 21—24, 2002, I had the pleasure of attending the Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conference hosted by the Acton Institute at beautiful Rancho Capistrano, California. The weekend conference was attended by a dynamic and varied group of participants, hailing from fourteen different countries. During the weekend, conference attendees endeavored to identify what comprised a free and virtuous society, as well as the practical ways in which we, as active Christians, might work toward fostering its realization.
The conference presentations were founded on the premise that for a free society to sustain itself, freedom must pursue that which is truly good, not merely individual passions or free license. In the words of Lord Acton, "Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought." This concept was eloquently discussed and expanded upon throughout the weekend's presentations concerning Christian anthropology, the distinction between rights and responsibilities, the rule of law, economic justice, the family, private charity, and globalization.
The resonance of this powerful message in each presentation led to the rational conclusion that if the human person should be left free to pursue the good, then a system of free economic exchange and limited government would best facilitate a free and virtuous society. At the same time, it was carefully stressed that a positive recognition of the free market did not mean the promotion of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism, but rather the idea that government regulation of a free economic system should not hinder voluntary exchange.
Throughout the discussions relating to the role of government, it was highlighted that a government authority in a free society must naturally limit itself to the provision of a few public goods and enforcement of the rule of law. Imbedded in this perspective was the necessity for government to hold to the principle of subsidiary, that of higher orders deferring to lower orders to address problems wherever feasible. In this context, the presentations explored how the principle of subsidiarity could be applied in various fields of public policy including the provision of charity and the protection of the environment. After each presentation, the participants had ample opportunity to discuss a number of issues salient to the current political debate including the extension of the controversial 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the role of private charity, and the role of government in promoting faith-based initiatives.
As expected, the conference participants were not able to resolve, in one weekend, the contentious public debate concerning where the clear limits of government actually exist. It was, however, agreeable to all participants that the welfare state and excessive government regulation of the economy had caused immeasurable and unintentional harm during the past fifty years by working contrary to the principle of subsidiarity. One of the most striking examples discussed was how the welfare state has created and imbedded a false sense of entitlement among a large contingent of society that continues to look to the government to solve its problems. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from this discussion was that the existence of such a mentality not only causes harm to individuals but also, through the negation of the lower orders of society including the family and community, weakens those structures through which individuals could receive more appropriate and tailored assistance, including instruction in virtue.
Upon returning to New York City after the conference, I found myself able to understand some of the problems facing the city and the nation with a fresh and informed perspective. I have also become more aware that while America is rightfully defending its freedom against further acts of terrorism, true freedom must be defended from the challenges of materialism and moral relativism that deny the existence of good or evil and thereby constrain the free pursuit of the good. In looking for solutions to social problems in general, it is difficult, but necessary, to avoid the trap of looking for grand solutions that result in establishing more government regulations and programs. Instead, the weekend challenged participants to work according to the concept of subsidiary by encouraging virtue beginning with each individual.