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

10. The Proper Functions of the State

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

The end of the State, we have seen, is to promote the welfare of its citizens as a whole, as members of families, and as members social classes. Anyone who is inclined to doubt the propriety of including the second and third of these clauses, will dismiss the inclination as soon as he looks beneath formulas and fixes his attention upon realities.

State exists and functions for the sake of human beings. It attains this end primarily by safeguarding those interests that are common to all the persons under its jurisdiction; for example, by resisting foreign invasion and protecting life and property. If it stops at this point it will leave unprotected not only many individual interests, but many elements of the common good, many aspects of the general welfare. To neglect the integrity of the family or the prosperity of any considerable social class, will sooner or later injure society as a whole. To take care of these interests is, indirectly at least, to promote the common good. Nor is this all. Since individual welfare is the ultimate, though not strictly the formal, object of the State, that object ought to be deliberately promoted by the State, whenever it cannot be adequately furthered by any other agency.{1} To deny this proposition is to assume that men have been unable to achieve a political organization that is adequate to safeguard their temporal welfare. However, it is neither desirable nor practicable for the State to provide for every individual as such. It can promote individual welfare best by dealing with men as groups, through their most important group relationships; therefore, as members of families, and as members of social classes. When it provides for the needs that are common to members of these two fundamental forms of association, it benefits most effectively the whole number of its component individuals.

What are the specific policies and measures by which the State can best attain the objects described in the foregoing paragraphs? To answer this question will be to describe the proper functions of the State.

Among political writer a fairly frequent classification of State functions is into necessary and optional or essential and non-essential. The former are "such as all governments must perform in order to justify their existence. They include the maintenance of industrial peace, order, and safety, the protection of persons and property, and the preservation of external security. They are the original primary functions of the State, and all States, however rudimentary and undeveloped, attempt to perform them."{2} They may be enumerated somewhat more specifically as military, financial, and civil.{3} In the exercise of its military function, the State defends itself and its people by force against foreign aggression, and prevents and represses domestic disorder. The financial function of the State comprises the collection and expenditure of funds for the maintenance and operation of government. Regulations concerning individual rights, contracts, property, disputes, crime, and punishment, constitute the State's civil function.

The optional or unessential functions are calculated to increase the general welfare, but they could conceivably be performed in some fashion by private agencies. They comprise public works; pwblic education; public charity; industrial regulations, and health and safety regulations.{4} Under the head of public works are comprised: Control of coinage and currency in the conduct of banks; the postal service, telegraphs, telephone and railroads; the maintenance of lighthouses, harbors, rivers, and roads; the conservation of natural resources, such as forests and water power, and the ownership and operation of supply plants and municipal utilities. Public education may include not only a system of schools, but museums, libraries, art galleries, and scientific bureaus, such as those concerned with the weather and agriculture. In the exercise of the function of public charity, the State establishes asylums, hospitals, almshouses, corrective institutions, provides insurance against accidents, sickness, old age and unemployment, and makes various provisions of material relief for persons in distress. In the field of regulation, as distinguished from that of ownership, operation, or maintenance, the State supervises public safety and industry. Regulations of the former kind relate to quarantine, vaccination, medical inspection of school children and of certain businesses and professions, and protection of public morals in the matter of pictures, publications, theatres and dance halls. Industrial regulation extends to banks, commerce, business combinations, and the relations between employer and employee.

The classification of State functions as necessary and optional has the merit of presenting a comprehensive view of political experience. It enables us to see how States have interpreted their scope, and distinguished between functions that are essential and functions that are non-essential. While all fully developed States have regarded as essential the functions which are so designated in the foregoing paragraphs, not all have agreed in conceiving the so-called optional functions as of that character. Some of the optional functions have been regarded by some States as primary and essential. And the number of optional functions that have been undertaken varies greatly among the various States. The factor determining the course of the States in this matter has been mainly, if not exclusively, expediency.

A somewhat analogous classification is used by many Catholic writers. While conforming fully with political experience, it also based upon fundamental principles of ethics, and it illustrates the principles of logic. It is thus stated in summary form by Cathrein.{5} The functions of the State are First, to safeguard the juridical order, that is, to protect all rights, of individuals, families, private associations, and the Church; second, to promote the general welfare by positive means, with respect to all those goods that contribute to that end. Substantially the same classification and principle is laid down by Meyer,{6} Castelein,{7} Cronin,{8} and Lilly.{9} In a general way the primary functions in this classification correspond to the necessary or essential functions in the grouping made by the political writers. While the second group of functions denoted by the Catholic writers resembles the second category of the political science manuals in a general way as regards content, there is a considerable difference of principle. The secondary functions described by the political writers are said to be optional, and their optional character is determined mainly by the varying experience and practice of particular States; but the positive promotion of general welfare is regarded by the Catholic writers as normal and necessary, because required by the fundamental needs of human beings. According to the Catholic writers, the difference between the primary and secondary functions of the State is not a difference of kind but only of degree. As noted by Meyer, the primary functions are not sufficient. The State must not only safeguard rights, but promote the general good by positive measures of helpfulness.{10} This is the general principle. In carrying it out, the State may properly undertake some particular activities which are not obligatory, but only more or less expedient.


The concrete activities which fall under the primary functions of the State may be summarized as follows. All natural rights must receive adequate protection. The State is obliged to safeguard the individual's rights to life, liberty, property, livelihood, good name, and spiritual and moral security. Whence it follows that laws must be enacted and enforced against all forms of physical assault and arbitrary restraint; against theft, robbery, and every species of fraud and extortion; against all apparently free contracts which deny the opportunity of pursuing a livelihood on reasonable terms; against calumny and detraction; and against the spiritual and moral scandal produced by false and immoral preaching, teaching, and publication.

In the individualistic theory, the first two classes of enactments are held to exhaust the functions of the State, apparently on the assumption that they cover all the individual's rights. This is a grossly inadequate conception. Reasonable opportunities of livelihood, reputation, spiritual and moral security, are all among man's primary needs. Without them he cannot develop his personality to a reasonable degree, nor live an adequate life. Therefore, they fall within the scope of his natural rights. For natural rights include all these moral powers, opportunities and immunities which the individual requires in order to attain the end of his nature, to live a reasonable life. Any arbitrary or unreasonable interference with these is a violation of the rights of the individual. Hence the unfair competition carried on by a monopoly, unreasonable boycotts, wage contracts for less than the equivalent of a decent livelihood, untrue or otherwise unjustifiable statements derogatory to a man's reputation, utterances and publications calculated to corrupt his religion or morals, -- are all injurious to the individual, and are unreasonable interferences with the security and development of his personality. All the foregoing rights should be safeguarded by the State, not only as exercised by the individual, but also as involved in the reasonable scope of associations. Hence the family, the Church and all legitimate private societies have a just claim to protection by the State in the pursuit of all their proper ends. Men have a right to pursue their welfare not only by individual effort but through mutual association. A corollary of State protection of rights is State determination of rights. To a very great extent the reciprocal limits of individual rights cannot be satisfactorily adjusted by the individuals themselves. This fact is most conspicuously illustrated in connection with property rights, but it receives frequent exemplification in other sections of the juridical province.

While all the rights above described have a general claim upon the State for protection, not all of them have an actual claim to adequate protection at any given time. This is a question of prudence and expediency. What the State may normally be expected to do, is one thing; what it is here and now able to do, is quite another thing; for example, with regard to false religious teaching and scandalous moral teaching. Perhaps the most comprehensive and practical principle that can be laid down is this: The State should not attempt to protect any right beyond the point at which further efforts threaten to do more harm than good.


These can be conveniently described by following the order outlined in the paragraph which enumerated the so-called optional functions. In general, the secondary functions cover all activities that cannot be adequately carried on by private effort, whether individual or corporate.{11}

Public Works. Under this head are included all those industries and institutions which the State not merely regulates, but owns and manages. The control of coinage and currency are undoubtedly among the necessary functions of government. Almost equally necessary is the government postal service. Telegraphs, telephones, railways, water supply and lighting may in a sense be called optional functions, since the general welfare does not always require them to be operated by the State. When public operation is clearly superior to private operation, all things considered, the State undoubtedly neglects its duty of promoting the common welfare if it fails to manage these utilities. It is a necessary part of the State's functions to provide such public safeguards as fire departments, lighthouses, buoys, and beacons; to maintain such instrumentalities of communication as roads, canals, bridges, and wharves; and to conserve such natural resources as forests, water powers, and watersheds. None of these activities can be satisfactorily performed by private enterprise.

Public Education. As the child belongs primarily to the parents, so the function of education is primarily theirs. Both these propositions are demonstrated by the facts and requirements of human welfare. In very exceptional cases only can the education and upbringing of the child be controlled and carried on as well by the State as by the parents. Nevertheless, the common welfare does require the State to take a rather important part in the work of education. It is summarized in the following excerpts from the Pastoral Letter of the American Hierarchy, issued in 1920.

As the public welfare is largely dependent upon the intelligence of the citizen, the State has a vital concern in education. This is implied in the original purpose of our government which, as set forth in the preamble to the Constitution, is "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

In accordance with these purposes, the State has a right to insist that its citizens shall he educated. It should encourage among the people such a love of learning that they will take the initiative and, without constraint, provide for the education of their children. Should they, through negligence or lack of means fail to do so, the State has the right to establish schools and take every other legitimate means to safeguard its vital interests against the dangers that result from ignorance. In particular, it has both the right and the duty to exclude the teaching of doctrines which aim at the subversion of law and order and therefore at the destruction of the State itself.

The State is competent to do these things because its essential function is to promote the general welfare. But on the same principle it is bound to respect and protect the rights of the citizen, and especially of the parent. So long as these rights are properly exercised, to encroach upon them is not to further the general welfare, but to put it in peril. If the function of government is to protect the liberty of the citizen, and if the aim of education is to prepare the individual for the rational use of his liberty, the State cannot rightfully or consistently make education a pretext for interfering with rights and liberties which the Creator, not the State, has conferred. Any advantage that might accrue even from a perfect system of State education would be more than offset by the wrong which the violation of parental rights would involve. In our country, government thus far has wisely refrained from placing any other than absolutely necessary restrictions upon private initiative. The result is seen in the development of our resources, the products of inventive genius and the magnitude of our enterprises. But our most valuable resources are the minds of our children, and for their development at least the same scope should be allowed to individual effort as is secured to our undertakings in the material order.

The spirit of our people in general is adverse to State monopoly, and this for the obvious reason that such an absorption of control would mean the end of freedom and initiative. The same consequence is sure to follow when the State attempts to monopolize education; and the disaster will be greater inasmuch as it will affect, not simply the worldly interests of the citizen, but also his spiritual growth and salvation.

There are other public educational institutions which can scarcely be called absolutely necessary, and yet which are so useful that they may very properly be conducted by the State. Such are museums, art galleries, libraries, zoological gardens, scientific bureaus, laboratories, and experiment stations. The services rendered by these agencies contribute much to the common welfare and they could not, as a rule, be adequately carried on by private effort.

Public Charity. The principle that the State should do only those things which cannot be done as well by private action, applies with especial force to the field of charity. In general, this principle rests upon the fundamental truth that the individual reaches a higher degree of self-development when he does things for himself than when the State does things for him. In the province of charity this fact is illustrated with regard both to the receiver and the giver. The former is more likely to seek unnecessary assistance from the State than from an individual; the latter is more likely to infuse his charity with human sympathy than is the State; and his incentives to charitable action are diminished if the State does too much. In both cases harm is done to individual development.

Nevertheless, the charitable functions of the State are numerous and important, In the field of prevention, it can and should use all proper and possible methods to provide that kind of social environment which renders charitable relief unnecessary. Under this head comes a large list of industrial, educational, sanitary and moral provisions, to assure people a reasonable minimum of the material conditions of living. Some of these are stated in detail in later paragraphs of this chapter. In the field of relief, the State is frequently required to maintain hospitals, asylums, almshouses and corrective institutions; to grant subsidies to private institutions and agencies engaged in these works, and even to provide for needy persons outside of institutions. Whether and to what extent the State should undertake any of these tasks, is always to be determined by the answer which the actual situation gives to the question: can the State do the work better, all things considered, than private agencies? "All things considered," refers to remote as well as immediate results. For example, it is conceivable that the State might take care of all dependent children more cheaply than could private associations, but this action ought not to be taken if it would lead to a notable decline in charitable feeling, responsibility, and initiative among individuals.

Public Health, Safety, Morals, and Religion. The State should protect its citizens against disease, by sanitary regulations, such as those relating to quarantine, inoculation, medical inspection of school children, impure drugs, adulterated food, and the disposal of garbage. It should safeguard their physical integrity, by such measures as traffic rules, safety requirements for public conveyances, and building regulations. It should, as far as possible, provide them with a good moral environment through the regulation or repression of the liquor traffic, through the suppression of divorce, prostitution, public gambling, and indecent pictures, printed matter, theatrical productions, and places of amusement. Finally, the State is under obligation to protect and promote religion in all ways that are lawful and effective. Here we may appropriately quote the words of Pope Benedict XV:

Let princes and rulers of the people bear this in mind and bethink themselves whether it be wise and salutary, either for public authority or for the nations themselves, to set aside the holy religion of Jesus Christ, in which that very authority may find such powerful support and defense. Let them seriously consider whether it be the part of political wisdom to exclude from the ordinance of the State and from public instruction, the teaching of the Gospel and of the Church. Only too well does experience show that when religion is banished, human authority totters to its fall. That which happened to the first of our race when he failed in his duty to God, usually happens to nations as well. Scarcely had the will in him rebelled against God when the passions arose in rebellion against the will; and likewise, when the rulers of the people disdain the authority of God, the people in turn despise the authority of men. There remains, it is true, the usual expedient of suppressing rebellion by force; but to what effect? Force subdues the bodies of men, not their souls.{12}

All these matters are of vital importance for public welfare, and some of them are even included within the primary functions of the State, inasmuch as they involve the protection of natural rights. None of them can be adequately dealt with by private effort.

Industrial Regulation, Owing to the complexity of modern industrial conditions, this function of the State is more important than in any preceding age. Owing to its effect upon the pecuniary interests of individuals, it has been more strongly criticised than any other activity of the State. Not much opposition has been offered to State regulation of banks. All reasonable men recognize that the public must he protected through requirements concerning incorporation, minimum of capital and surplus, liability of stockholders, nature of investments, amount and kind of reserves, the issuing of notes, and public inspection and supervision.

The regulation of commerce, public utilities and manufactures, has a varied scope and may be exercised in various ways. Foreign commerce may be regulated through taxes and embargoes on imports and exports, and by other methods of restriction. The regulation of domestic commerce takes many forms: intoxicating liquors, tobacco, explosives, drugs and other commodities are subjected to a system of licensing, or special taxation, or other kinds of legal supervision; railroads are forbidden to exact more than certain maximum charges for carrying goods and passengers, and are compelled to maintain certain standards of service; and such municipal utilities as street railways and lighting concerns must submit to similar requirements. Commercial contracts which are clearly extortionate, such as loans of money at usurious rates, are generally prohibited by law. In this matter the policy of governments is not in accord with the individualistic theory that all technically "free" contracts ought to be legally enforced. As a matter of fact, such contracts are not free in any fair sense. All the foregoing regulations promote the public welfare and are evidently among the proper functions of the State.

The most important public regulation of manufactures is that which strives to prevent unfair dealing and extortion by monopolistic corporations. In some form this is a very ancient practice of the State. Many centuries ago, legislators became aware that human beings cannot be trusted to exercise monopoly power with fairness to either competitors or consumers. Today the most enlightened governments have numerous and complex statutes to prevent and punish both these forms of injustice. Such measures are clearly justified, not only to promote the public good, but also as an exercise of the primary function of the State, namely, the protection of natural rights. They are intended to prevent and punish unjust dealing and extortion. Nevertheless, they have not adequately attained that end. Additional measures are required, to limit still further the "individual freedom" of the monopolist to treat his fellows unjustly. Legal determination of maximum prices, government regulation of supply and distribution, and State competition in the manufacturing or other business carried on by a monopolistic concern, -- are the principal new methods that have been suggested. In so far as they are necessary and would prove adequate to protect the general welfare, they can undoubtedly be classed among the proper functions of the State. Since the main object is to prevent the imposition of extortionate prices upon the consumer and the receipt of excessive profits and interest by the monopoly, these and all other regulatory measures are directed against that "rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise but with the like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men.{13}

Probably the most necessary and beneficent group of industrial regulations are those which apply to the labor contract and the conditions of labor. The principal subjects covered are wages, hours of labor, child labor, woman labor, safety and sanitation in work places, accidents, sickness, old age and unemployment. As regards wages, legislation has been enacted regulating the manner and frequency of payment, and fixing minimum rates of remuneration. Underlying most of the latter measures is the theory that no wage earner should be required to accept less than the equivalent of a decent livelihood. So long as millions of workers are unable to obtain this decent minimum through their own efforts or through the benevolence of the employer, they have clearly the right to call upon the intervention of the State. In other words, the enactment of minimum wage legislation is among the State's primary as well as secondary functions. Laws prohibiting an excessively long working day, the employment of young children, the employment of women in occupations unsuited to their sex, the existence of unsafe and unsanitary work places, -- are all likewise included among both the primary and the secondary functions of government. Legal provisions for the prevention and adjustment of industrial disputes, and to insure the workers against accidents, sickness, unemployment, invalidity and old age, have been made by various countries. They evidently represent a normal exercise of, at least, the secondary functions of the State.{14}

To the foregoing legal measures for the protection of labor may pertinently be applied the principle laid down by Pope Leo XIII: "Whenever the general interest, or any particular class suffers or is threatened with injury which can in no other way be met or prevented, it is the duty of the public authority to intervene." Indeed, the great Pontiff himself applied the principle quite specifically to the conditions and needs of the working class. He said: "When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and helpless have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas, those who are badly off have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, who are undoubtedly among the weak and necessitous, should be specially cared for and protected by the government."{15}

Our discussion of the end and functions of the State may fittingly close with the following declaration of the great Catholic authority on law, Francisco Suarez:

"The object of civil legislation is the natural welfare of the community of its individual members, in order that they may live in peace and justice, with a sufficiency of those goods that are necessary for physical conservation, and comfort, and with those moral conditions which are required for private well-being and public prosperity."{16}

{1} Cf. Cronin, The Science of Ethics, II, 474: "The measure of State function, therefore is to be found in the necessities of man and the inability of the individual and the family to provide these necessities. Anything, therefore, which is necessary, whether for the individual or for society at large, and which the individual or the family is not in a position to supply, may legitimately be regarded as included in the end of the State."

{2} Garner, An Introduction to Political Science, p. 318.

{3} Holt, An Introduction to the Study of Government, pp. 268-281.

{4} Holt, op. cit., pp. 285-305.

{5} Philosophia Moralis, No. 545.

{6} Institutiones Juris Naturalis, II, no. 317.

{7} Philosophia Moralis et Socialis, p. 446.

{8} The Science of Ethics, II, 472-479.

{9} First Principles in Politics, ch. IV.

{10} Loc. cit.

{11} Cf. Meyer, op. cit., II. p. 289; Cronin, op. cit., II, 474, 475.

{12} Encyclical, Ad Beat issimi, Nov. 1, 1914.

{13} Pope Leo XIII, On the Condition of Labor.

{14} Cf. Social Reconstruction Program of the Four American Bishops, in The Church and Labor (Macmillan). An excellent and fundamental statement of the economic functions of the State will be found in Institutiones Juris Naturalis, by Theodore Meyer, S.J., II, pp. 683-689. Uninstructed persons who think that legislation for a minimum wage and for social insurance is "socialistic" will have a better notion of Catholic social teaching after reading these paragraphs.

{15} Encyc., On the Condition of Labor.

{16} De Legibus, 1. 3, c. 11, sec. 7.

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