JMC : The State and the Church / by Ryan and Millar

9. Erroneous Theories Concerning the Functions of the State

by Rev. John A. Ryan, D.D.

THE ultimate end of the State in the temporal order is the public good, or public welfare. The proximate end comprises all those lawful means that contribute to the attainment of the ultimate end. They consist of political actions and institutions proceeding from the three great departments of government; namely, the legislative, executive, and judiciary. It is these means that we have in mind when we speak of the functions of the State.

Concerning these functions political writers have advocated three different theories. Of these the first two are extreme and mutually opposed; the third occupies a middle ground. Not without some inaccuracy, the first two are commonly known, respectively, as individualistic and socialistic. The third theory has no fixed designation, although it is sometimes called the "general welfare theory."


Inasmuch as the State operates through the political organization called the government, discussion of the State's functions is necessarily discussion of the functions of government. Hence the task before us is to describe, in outline, the kinds of activities which the government may properly perform in order to attain the end of the State; that is, "to promote the welfare of the people as a whole, as members of families, and as members of social classes." This task can be most satisfactorily undertaken by considering successively the three theories noted above. The individualistic theory may be defined in general terms as that which would reduce government functions to a minimum. It frequently finds expression in the assertion, "the best government is that which governs least." It conceives government entirely, or almost entirely, in terms of restraint. Governmental acts are thought of as restrictions upon individual liberty. Government and its operations come to be regarded as little better than necessary evils. Between this theory and anarchism the difference is one of degree rather than of kind. While the various defenders of the theory differ somewhat in their conceptions of the proper limitations of governmental action, the great majority hold that it should merely preserve order, enforce contracts, and punish crime. Hence their doetrine has been called in derision "the policeman theory of the State." A more general name is the laissez-faire theory, which denotes in particular its attitude toward government supervision of industry.

The roots of the individualistic theory are partly political and economic, partly philosophical, and partly industrial. Politically it was a reaction against the excessive and harmful restrictions of individual liberty by the governments of Europe. The civil freedom of the masses was throttled in the interest of the privileged classes. Commerce and industry were hampered by a multitude of restrictions that had long outlived whatever usefulness they once possessed. The latter half of the eighteenth century witnessed a formidable reaction against these restrictions. In France it found expression in the writings of the Physiocrats and in the principles of the Revolution; in Great Britain it was championed by Adam Smith and other economists with such extraordinary success that it was translated unmodified into acts of Parliament.{1} "All systems either of preference or restraint being thus completely taken away," said Smith, "the simple and obvious system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord."{2} In the United States of America, the political philosophy of the day, the revolt against the petty retrictions imposed by the British government, and the natural individualism of a pioneer people inhabiting a land of exceptional opportunities, -- combined to make our government from the beginning a more thorough exponent of the individualistic theory than those of England and France.

In the realm of philosophy, the two most influential promoters of the theory are probably Immanuel Kant and Herbert Spencer. The Kantian principle of individual rights and liberty is this: "Act externally in such a manner that the free exercise of thy will may be able to coexist with the freedom of all others, according to a universal law."{3} According to the advocates of this principle, the proper and only function of the State is to protect men in the enjoyment of their equal spheres of liberty, specifically, to safeguard men's rights of person and property against violence and fraud. As we shall see presently, the principle does not logically warrant even this measure of State activity.

The principle of individual rights and liberty laid down by Kant is substantially the same as that formulated by Herbert Spencer: "Every man has freedom to do all that he wills provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man."{4} However, Spencer arrived at this formula without being aware of the similar maxim which Kant had enunciated many years before.{5} The inference regarding State functions which Spencer draws from his principle of individual rights and liberty is substantially the same as that deduced by Kant. "The greatest prosperity and multiplication of efficient individuals will occur where each is so constituted that he can fulfill the requirements of his own nature without interfering with the fulfilment of such requirements by others."{6} Hence the sole duty of the State is "to insist that these conditions shall be conformed to"; in brief, the State should not go beyond the task of "maintaining justice." By induction as well as by deduction, Spencer arrives at the conclusion that "the primary function of government is that of combining the actions of the incorporated individuals for war, while its secondary function is that of defending its component members against one another."{7}

Both Kant and Spencer conceived the functions of the State in terms of coercion. Government has no other duty than that of protecting rights and repressing injustice. It should not go outside this province to promote the welfare of individuals or classes by positive measures of State assistance, whether in the field of religion, morals, education or industry. While very few political writers and no governments any longer consciously subscribe to the theories of these two writers, a large section of the people, educated and uneducated, is still considerably influenced by them on account of the place which they have obtained in political, philosophical, and general literature. Kant, especially, gave a strong impetus to the political and economic liberalism which was formerly very powerful, and which is still dear to the hearts of the bourgeois.

The industrial contribution to the individualistic theory is to be found in the interests and influence of the capitalist classes. Reference has been made above to the part played by the economists in popularizing the doctrine and promoting its enactment to law in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. More powerful even than the economists was the new capitalist class which arose during the Industrial Revolution. So influential were the capitalists in shaping legislative policies at this period that the Combination Acts, passed at their dictation, "remain the most unqualified surrender of the State to the discretion of a class in the history of England."{8} "Let alone" by the government, the capitalists were enabled, through "free" contracts with the laboring population, to employ children under the age of ten in factories, to require women and children, as well as men, to toil for 12, 14, and even 16 hours per day, to injure the bodies and the health of the employees through unsafe and unsanitary work places, to pay starvation wages, and in general to exploit the workers to the utmost limit of human endurance. Since they were greatly and notoriously superior to the workers in bargaining power, they were obviously interested in having the labor contract unregulated by legal statutes. This attitude has been taken by the employing classes of every industrial nation. As regards government regulation of industry in the interest either of the laborer or the consumer, they have been in great majority champions of the individualistic theory.

So much space has been given to the origins of the individualistic theory because the interest in it is now mainly historical. In the form advocated by Kant and Spencer, it has never been adopted by a modern State. Not even in the first quarter of nineteenth century England, nor in the first half of nineteenth century America, did the State confine its activities to the protection of life and property and the enforcement of contracts. There was always some regulation of industrial affairs in the interest of some class, some government operation of public utilities e.g., the post office, some public provision for education and some State protection of public health and morals. With the exception of about half a century of reaction brought about by the political, economic, philosophical, and industrial factors above described, the policy of all nations has been out of harmony with the individualistic theory, and if the signs of our own time can be trusted this theory will command less respect twenty years from now than it commands to-day.

From the side of reason and experience the arguments against the individualistic theory are overwhelming. They are drawn in part from the nature of man, and in part from the defects of the individualistic assumptions.

The most extreme of these assumptions is that government is merely a necessary evil. Government is conceived entirely, or almost entirely, as a check upon individual liberty, and therefore as regrettable if not abnormal. Now the truth is that the State and government are as natural as human association. Men cannot live in isolation; in society they cannot live reasonable lives nor pursue self-development without the State. This is a fundamental, normal fact of human nature, as evinced by universal experience. It is a fact that the Catholic Church has always recognized and proclaimed. She teaches that the State is a necessary, not a voluntary, society, and that it is as natural to man as the family or as organized religion. The exponents of the individualistic theory proceed from a false viewpoint and a false assumption concerning the nature and needs of man in relation to the State. Were they to estimate the facts of life without these prejudices, they would realize that the State is a necessary means to right living and human progress.

Their conception of governmental activity as almost entirely restrictive and coercive is false and misleading. In the first place, modern governments perform very many functions which are not restrictive, even in form. Such are the maintenance of schools, a health service, a life saving service, fire departments, roads, parks, etc., and the operation of a great number of scientific bureaus and other centers of information and advice. None of these is a direct restraint upon the freedom of the individual. Some of them indirectly diminish the economic and professional opportunities of some persons, inasmuch as they occupy, in whole or in part, fields that would otherwise be occupied exclusively by individual citizens. To be sure, the individualist may assert that these are not legitimate functions of the State, but that contention is based upon an a priori theory rather than upon any direct interference with individual liberty. The a priori theory will be considered presently.

In the second place, a great deal of restrictive or prohibitive legislation is negative only in form. In effect it is positive, inasmuch as it increases the actual liberty and opportunity of all those persons who could not or would not exercise the liberty which the law forbids, and who would be injured through the exercise of such liberty by others. For instance, child labor legislation increases the opportunities and welfare of children; anti-monopoly laws are calculated to increase the opportunity and welfare of the majority of the population. When men denounce industrial regulations of this sort as restraints upon individual freedom, what they really demand is that one class of persons should be left free to oppress another, usually a larger, class of persons. In all such situations the real conflict of desires and interests is not between the government and the whole body of citizens, but between two classes of citizens. Hence the reasonableness of government interference with individual liberty cannot be determined by the bare, technical fact of restraint. It is to be sought in the effects which the law produces upon the rights and welfare of the various classes that make up the community.

In the third place, restrictive and prohibitive legislation rarely diminishes the actual liberty of more than a minority, generally a small minority, of the community. The law forbidding theft applies in form to all the citizens, but it actually affects only a small minority; for the great majority have no desire to steal. The liquor prohibition law curtails the desired liberty of as large a proportion of the population as any other restrictive statute, since a very numerous section of the community wants to consume intoxicating drink; nevertheless, a very large number, if not the majority, attaches no importance to this freedom. The latter are not practically affected by the prohibition law. Their liberty is only hypothetically, not actually, diminished. The law forbids them to do something which is outside of their desires. The repeal of the law would give them a kind of liberty that they do not regard as of any value. When we turn to the industrial field, we find a very striking difference between the hypothetical and the actual diminution of liberty. Laws which prohibit the exploitation of child labor by employers, and the imposition of extortionate prices upon consumers by a monopoly, restrict the potential or theoretical liberty of all persons, since they carry no exemption for any class. Nevertheless, the persons whose freedom is actually lessened, constitute a very small section of the population. The overwhelming majority could not or would not do the things which the law forbids. In their case the law is no restraint upon actual liberty.

In the fourth place, the curtailment of liberty is not necessarily nor always an evil thing. It is not even a lesser evil. Not infrequently it is a positive good. Individual liberty is a means, not an end. When it is directed to evil purposes, to objects inconsistent with the true welfare of its possessor, it is a bad thing for him. When it inflicts injury upon the neighbor, it is likewise irrational. And these perversions of liberty are sufficiently frequent to require constant restraint by an adequate social agency. Such an agency is the government. While negaive in form, -- "thou shalt not" -- its regulations are ultimately positive and constructive. It assures to men a larger measure of opportunity for right life than would be possible in its absence. The limitation of liberty is quite as normal as the exercise of liberty. Hence due limitations imposed by the State are in no sense an evil, nor even abnormal. It must be acknowledged that the restrictions of individual liberty by many European governments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were tyrannical and destructive of human welfare; but this fact does not warrant the inference that restriction itself is only a species necessary evil.

So much for the assumptions and prejudices underlying the individualistic theory. Let us now consider its supreme political formula; namely, that government should merely prevent and punish violence and fraud and enforce contracts, or that its sole function is the protection of rights. In passing, it may be noted that the exponents of the theory are not willing to have their formula applied in its full extension. For example, the claim of the laborer to a living wage is in the present industrial system one of man's natural rights. Yet the individualist would deny that the enforcement of this right by means of minimum wage law is a proper function of government. In any case, the formula itself has no basis in reason or in experience. If the end of the State is to promote the common good, why should its benefits be restricted to one class of goods? Men need protection against injustice, indeed, but they have also a great variety of other needs. Religion, morals, education, and health, are at least as vital to human welfare as physical integrity and private property. And the inability of the individual to safeguard his welfare in respect to the former goods is frequently as obvious as in the case of his corporal and property rights. Nevertheless, the individualist would not permit the government to make adequate provision for man's welfare as regards religion, morality, education or health. Such legislation he would condemn as outside the legitimate province of the State. Surely this position is artificial and illogical.

The individualistic principle of equal freedom is likewise artificial. Moreover, it is impossible. It holds that the individual should be free to do anything that he wishes, provided that he does not interfere with the equal freedom of others. But this principle is gratuitous and palpably false. Translated into governmental policy, it would permit adultery, fornication, the teaching and propagation of obscenity, deception, usury and all other forms of extortion. It would provide a paradise for every species of economic oppressor. The man who desired to commit any of these crimes could logically claim immunity from governmental interference on the ground that he conceded the same liberty to everyone else. This principle would be of great advantage to men who were exceptionally vicious, exceptionally cunning, and exceptionally selfish. It would put at a disadvantage all those who did not wish to exercise this kind of individual "liberty."

Nor is this all. At first sight, the principle of equal individual liberty seems to authorize, or at least to permit, governmental repression of such crimes as theft, assualt, and homicide. In reality it does nothing of the kind. For it is not based upon nor determined by objective considerations, such as the safety of society or the maximum amount of human welfare. Both Kant and Spencer express the principle in subjective terms. The will of the individual is to determine the limits and the application of the principle. "So act," says Kant, "that the free use of thy liberty can coexist with the liberty of everyone else according to a universal law." In Spencer's formulation, "every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man." Therefore, each individual is the authoritative interpreter of the principle in his own regard. The man who steals does not violate the principle, so long as he does not ask the State to deny the same liberty to his fellows. The murderer is likewise safe from interference if he will concede to other men the right of universal homicide. As pointed out above, this principle should be peculiarly gratifying to the exceptionally vicious and exceptionally cunning; also to those possessed of exceptional physical strength. Many if not all such persons would welcome a regime of unrestrained competition in fraud and violence. With immunity from legal restraint, they would be willing to take all the risks of competing in criminality with their less "efficient" fellows.

Admirers of Kant may question this interpretation of his principle. They may claim that the phrase, "according to a universal law," is an objective limitation upon the subjective and arbitrary interpretation and exercise of individual liberty. The claim cannot be allowed. The "universal law" which Kant had in mind was not the moral law, nor the civil law, nor the divine law. It was simply the universal law of liberty. It could be violated only by the man who refused to grant to others the liberty that he claimed for himself. Such a man would be acting according to a particular, or exceptional, law of liberty. But the man who was willing to concede the same liberty to others could indulge in wholesale acts of injustice without violating the Kantian principle. Nor is it relevant to object that such conduct if universalized would destroy human society; for the Kantian principle does not recognize any objective standard or consequence as the determinant of individual freedom. Each individual is authorized to apply the principle according to his own desires and conceptions, unhindered by any consideration of social consequences.


According to the program of International Socialism, the State would assume several new and very important functions. These are mainly economic, but they also include a large extension of State control over the family and education.

The Socialist theory holds that the State should own and operate substantially all the means of production; that is, all land used for commercial and industrial purposes, all mines, all but the smallest farms, and all except the very small industrial establishments and instruments of production and distribution. The great majority of individuals engaged in agricultural, industrial, and commercial pursuits would be employees of the State. The only kinds of business, whether in town or country, owned and carried on by individuals would be such very small concerns as could be managed by one person, or at most, by one person with the assistance of one or two employees.

From both the individual and the social viewpoint this would be an undesirable extension of State functions. The individual would be dependent upon the State throughout his whole life, not merely for protection and economic opportunity, but for his occupation and his livelihood. His only source of income would be his salary, and for that he would be dependent entirely upon the State. He could not choose between that condition and the management of a business of his own. At least, such would be the lot of the vast majority. On the other hand, everything that entered into the individual's consumption would have to be bought from the State. At present the purchaser of goods can make a choice among competing dealers. If he does not like a certain dealer or a certain kind of commodity, he can supply his wants elsewhere or otherwise. In a Socialist regime he would be compelled to select from the small number of standardized articles provided by the State. In a word, the State would be the only seller of goods as well as the only buyer of labor. Even if men obtained a better and more secure livelihood in a Socialist society than they now obtain, this advantage would not compensate them for the lack of freedom in their economic contracts, and the lack of that social power and that self-respect which are provided by private property.

The combination of political and industrial functions in the State would place the individual entirely at the mercy of bureaucrats and majorities. Human beings could not be trusted to exercise justly this tremendous power. While the people would, indeed, have the legal right and power to remove any set of officials at the elections, we must remember that "the people" is never a simple entity, having only one set of interests and acting unanimously. In political affairs, "the people" that determines policies is never more than a part of the whole population. It is at most a majority; sometimes it is only a well organized minority. A national administration that possessed the economic and political power conferred by Socialism would be much more difficult to dislodge than one possessing merely the authority conceded by our present political system. Under Socialism a government could be maintained in office indefinitely, though a combination of the workers in the principal industries, and would be able to subject the rest of the population to unlimited economic oppression.

The common good would be enormously impeded by the attempt of the State to own and manage the means of production. In the words of Pope Leo XIII, such an industrial organization would produce universal "misery and degradation." The main reason is that the State would be unable to command either the incentives or the discipline which are necessary for efficient production. Under Socialism both the directors and the directed would be remunerated entirely by salaries. There would be no elastic and indefinite gain held out before men as a stimulus to iniative, hard work and efficiency. In the present system substantially all business men and a large proportion of those who are compensated by salaries and wages, have some reason to hope that their rewards can be increased to an indefinite extent through their own efforts. In a Socialist system this hope would all but disappear. Even though increases in salaries and wages might be appointed for those who exhibited a certain degree of productivity, the arrangement would necessarily be operated in such a rigid and routine fashion, and recognition of merit would be so slow and halting, as to stifle incentive at its source. The promptness with which efficiency is now rewarded would be most entirely wanting.

Not only adequate incentive but effective discipline would be impossible. The great majority of men are lazy. To a great extent they are kept working through the stimulus of fear. They are afraid of losing their jobs. In a Socialist regime the directors of industry would not have sufficient power to discharge lazy and incompetent workmen, since their own positions would be usally dependent upon the votes of those under their direction. The only alternative is a militaristic organization of industry which could not long survive in a democratic State.

The Socialist program includes a large extension of governmental control over the family and education. Indeed, the majority of Socialists regard the child as belonging primarily to the State. They look with favor upon a loosening of the marriage bond, and the continuation of the marital union only so long as the two parties think they love each other. The disastrous effects upon the welfare and progress of the race which would follow State usurpation of most important parental functions, and State encouragement to a system of free love, are too obvious to require formal or detailed description. And State monopoly of education would be a most subtle and destructive assault upon individual liberty.

The distrust of the State which underlies the individualist theory would be entirely justified if political society had an inherent tendency toward the Socialist State. Happily there exists no such tendency. Indeed, it is only when the State is prevented from exercising and developing its normal functions that the danger of perversion into Socialism can become considerable. The true and rational conception of State functions avoids the vices and the extremes of Socialism no less than of individualism. This conception will form the subject of the next chapter.

{1} Cf. Ingram, History of Political Economy, pp. 89-93; Toynbee, Industrial Revolution, 11-26; Hammond, The Town Laborer, chs. VII and X.

{2} The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, ch. IX.

{3} Einleitung in die Rechtslehre, pp. 31, 68; Cf. Meyer, Institutiones Juris Naturalis, I, 525; II, 305.

{4} Principles of Ethics, II, 46.

{5} Idem, appendix A.

{6} Idem, p. 221.

{7} Idem, p. 207.

{8} Hammond, op. cit., p. 118.

{9} Cf. Hillquit-Ryan, Socialism: Promise or Menace? Skelton, Socialism, A Critical Analysis. Cathrein-Gettelmann, Socialism.

<< ======= >>