First Things, January 2008.
The obligations and purposes of law and government are to protect public health, safety, and morals, and to advance the general welfare” including, preeminently, protecting people’s fundamental rights and basic liberties.
At first blush, this classic formulation (or combination of classic formulations) seems to grant vast and sweeping powers to public authority. Yet, in truth, the general welfare”the common good”requires that government be limited. Government’s responsibility is primary when the questions involve defending the nation from attack and subversion, protecting people from physical assaults and various other forms of depredation, and maintaining public order. In other ways, however, its role is subsidiary : to support the work of the families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society that shoulder the primary burden of forming upright and decent citizens, caring for those in need, encouraging people to meet their responsibilities to one another while also discouraging them from harming themselves or others.
Governmental respect for individual freedom and the autonomy of nongovernmental spheres of authority is, then, a requirement of political morality. Government must not try to run people’s lives or usurp the roles and responsibilities of families, religious bodies, and other character- and culture-forming authoritative communities. The usurpation of the just authority of families, religious communities, and other institutions is unjust in principle, often seriously so, and the record of big government in the twentieth century”even when it has not degenerated into vicious totalitarianism”shows that it does little good in the long run and frequently harms those it seeks to help….