How Active are Governments in the Morality Business?
| Benito Arruñada |
The moral authority of the Church was anywhere near complete in even the most ardently Catholic societies. The Church claimed a monopoly on morality, and many people went along with it to a greater or lesser degree. This seems pretty close to what government does today. The state doesn’t simply create laws aimed at resolving the inevitable conflicts among people, but attempts to influence public opinion through various types of propaganda – telling people not to smoke or get drunk and dance, for example.
I would not claim that the Church enjoyed a monopoly, only that the production of morality was more organizational — i.e., it took place within organizations (the Church itself was divided in several organizations), was more centralized, and was made by specialized moralist experts (mainly, theologians and priests, but even with some specialization of priests between those who focused on taking care of parishes, preaching, and confessing). In contrast, I am inclined to think that morality is now produced more in the market: it is less centralized and is produced by generalists.
It is true, as Brad says, that governments play an increasing role, especially in many European countries where they (1) control most education, even introducing new mandatory courses on “Good Citizenship”; (2) run their own TV stations, with plenty of scope to manipulate its contents; and (3) are actively running advertising campaigns about everything from global warming to racism or the use of condoms.
However, there are many other powerful sources of morality that are purely market driven: e.g., Hollywood movies and commercial TV series; biologists, pop stars, and former politicians moonlighting as preachers for their favorite causes; reality shows; gossip media; and so on.