American Soundings

Governing desire

Outside Paradise, government will never be perfect. But that's no reason to give up on it.

Recently some friends were debating the role of government. Before long, a version of libertarianism, that degenerate form of liberalism now so popular in American politics, reared its head. "Govern­ment," said one of the disputants, "has an important place, but it is a necessary evil. Without sin, we would need no government."

At this point I left the sidelines to join the game. That human societies need—or want—government only be­cause of sin is a common assumption. A terribly wrong assumption.

As Augustine teaches, government is about the right ordering of desire, and desire is not innately evil. It is not wrong to find gold desirous, Augustine said. After all, gold is a creation of God, and all that God created is good. Gold is pretty, durable and scarce, and as such it is desirable. What is sinful is to desire gold inordinately, in an un­ordered way. It is wrong to desire gold above all other goods, including the right of property, which is but to say that it is sinful for me to steal your gold. It is wrong to value gold above the good of care for children, or at the price of despoliation of the environment, or at the expense of those peoples who first owned the land where treasure has been found. There are all kinds of ways in which gold can be inordinately desired—but gold is still a good creation of God.