How to Ruin Lives

Monday, 08-26-2019


For several months each year I live in a high-government dependency, high-drug addiction, high-family disorder region of Appalachia.

Yes, there are jobs.  At present the unemployment rate here is only a little higher than what economists call full employment.  Just like everyplace, lots of folk work hard to make a living and raise their kids, God bless them.

Lots of others don’t.  They don’t show up in the unemployment figures because they aren’t looking for jobs.

The rate of opioid abuse is sky-high.  Everyone, including the police, knows where the dealers live.  Everyone also knows that it isn’t a good idea to inform on them.  Your house may be burned down.

Observation of my neighbors suggests that many of those who do use opioids use them because they are bored and have no hope.  They are bored and have no hope because they don't work.  They don't work because getting on the dole is more attractive, or so it seems.

Getting on the dole?  How is that possible?  “Everyone knows” that in 1996, welfare was reformed by the abolition of the government program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children.  From now on only genuinely needy people would receive aid, and there would be work requirements.

In this case, what “everyone knows” is false.  The abolition of AFDC accomplished nothing but to shift monetary handouts from one government program to another.  In the name of helping the poor, multigenerational AFDC dependency has been replaced by multigenerational Social Security Disability dependency.

You genuinely disabled people, I am not writing about you.  Many of you live bravely under stupendous disadvantages.

But a great number who claim disability are not disabled.

In my Appalachian neighborhood, quite a few people go through life with no higher aspiration than to convince the government that either they or their children are disabled.  This is easier than you might think, because many of the bureaucrats want to be convinced, and their lawyers are eager to help.  One of my neighbors got her children signed up for disability payments on grounds that they all had strabismus, which means crossed eyes.  Although Medicaid would pay for corrective surgery, which is fairly simple, she didn’t want their condition corrected.  Then the checks would stop – checks, mind you, which were supposed to be used for the children but which the parents used as their source of family income.  Why work if you don’t have to?  The shame of it was that failure to correct strabismus early in life can lead to permanent vision loss.

The fraud associated with the program is spectacular.  You may have heard of the scandal associated with attorney Eric C. Conn, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison for defrauding the government of over $72 million by submitting false documentation to support clients' claims of disability.  Conn -- whose "law complex," a set of three double-wide trailers, was just down the road from us – is reported to have paid more than $600,000 in kickbacks to David B. Daugherty, an administrative law judge who for years approved over 95 percent of the applications from Conn's clients.  The national average is about 60%, but Daugherty’s rate of approval was not unusual.  What Mr. Conn, Judge Daugherty, and cooperating doctors were up to was common knowledge.  The government paid attention only when extremely persistent whistleblowers within the agency made it impossible to continue ignoring it.

I don't mind the fraud so much.  The government is always defrauding us.

I do mind the destruction of ambition, the uprooting of meaning in life, and the generation of perverse incentives that undermine families and ruin lives.

And I especially mind the lie that this is the meaning of compassion for the poor.  A better word for the attitude would be contempt.






Monday, 08-19-2019


The only excuse for broadcasting how one thinks about the upcoming election is that plenty of other people are probably having the same difficulties.  If this sort of disclosure bears no interest for you, try again next week.

The last presidential election was the first in which I did not support either of the two major candidates.  Low character is a grave disqualification for public trust.  So far as I was concerned, that wiped both of them off the slate.  Although Mrs. Clinton was beyond dreadful, I couldn’t then imagine that Mr. Trump would be better.

Of course character is not the only consideration in voting, especially when the character of both candidates is base.  The strongest reasons for voting for Mr. Trump, had I done so, would have been his promises concerning judicial appointments and regulatory reform – and those would have been very strong reasons indeed.  But he said so many contradictory things to different audiences, and he spoke in such a demagogic way, that I didn’t believe any of his promises.  I expected his style of governance to be as erratic as his campaigning, and I thought -- because of some of his own statements -- that he would try to govern by decree, as his predecessor had.

It turns out that my expectations were wrong.  He has not tried to govern by decree; on the contrary, he revoked many of his predecessor’s decrees.  He has, in fact, nominated the sorts of judges he promised to nominate, a fact which among other things translates into a lot of babies’ lives.  He has vigorously pursued regulatory reform, and it is no surprise that the economy is doing better as a result.  I hope I have not become jaded, but though his manner of speaking still leaves much to be desired, these days it is more often merely juvenile than demagogic, and on rare occasions it even rises to the dignity of his office.  Nobody would describe his way of governing as smooth, but as he has gained experience in choosing compatible advisors and subordinates, it has become a lot smoother.  Though he zig-zags a great deal in negotiations with other countries, some of this appears to be strategic, for there is much to be said for keeping one’s opponents off-balance.  For the chaos at the border with Mexico, there is plenty of blame to go around.  However, considering the reluctance of his opponents to properly fund shelters for the detainees, it seems due less to a desire on his part to keep everyone out, than to a desire on the part of his opponents to abandon even the pretense of border security and let everyone in.

Although I never expected to have sympathy for this president, that changed when his opponents set in motion plans for impeachment before he had even taken office.  Their attempt to use fraudulent evidence to frame him -- with the connivance of justice officials, intelligence officials, and even the intelligence agencies of other countries -- is a threat to self-government.  So are the more mundane aspects of how his opponents play the political game.  Today, a public figure who is not a so-called progressive can expect to face not just political criticism, but attempts to destroy the lives of his wife, his children, his associates, his supporters, and even people who merely know him.

And how have we got to the point where asking one’s lawyer what the law permits is classified as a crime, on grounds that the questioner must have been thinking of doing something wrong?

One might wish that free government had more attractive representatives, but one cannot always have what one wants.  I still do not like Mr. Trump, but unless things change radically, the next time around I will vote for him. 


What’s Up with Conscience?

Monday, 08-12-2019



I don’t get it about protection of conscience for medical workers.  Why would anyone think doctors should be allowed to refuse to give medical care to people with whose beliefs they disagree?



No one thinks doctors should be allowed to do that:  That’s not what’s being debated.  The question isn’t about medical care – that is, treating illnesses and furthering health -- but about other things doctors are sometimes asked to do.

For example, a physician who is asked to perform an abortion or kill a postnatal patient might refuse to do so because it isn’t medical care and he rightly considers it a violation of his moral and medical duty to promote life and health.

Such are the times that killing sometimes is described as medical care, just as abortions are sometimes described as reproductive services, infanticide is sometimes described as after-birth abortion, pregnancy is sometimes described as a disease, and babies in the womb are sometimes described as parasites.  This is spin.  Don’t be taken in.



Politics in the Pulpit

Monday, 08-05-2019


Query from a pastor:

When most American Christians think of politics, they think of promoting their favored candidates for office.  I think of politics in the broader, more ancient sense, as promoting the common good.  In this sense, I, as a pastor, can talk all day about politics without ever mentioning candidates. 

But I am concerned that this view is not more widely held.  We hear all the time that “Pastors should preach the gospel and stay out of politics.”  To be sure, the pulpit is not the place for advancing someone’s campaign for office – but if pastors are not to speak about the common good, then they might as well not talk about anything in life!  May I have your thoughts?



I agree with you that in the broadest sense, politics is caring for the common good, and pastors should certainly talk that kind of “politics.”  To say that a pastor must not raise his voice about such things as euthanasia, genocide, or the use of social policy to undermine the family would be as absurd as saying that he must not speak about the Ten Commandments (about which, by the way, we ought to hear more).

But let me add a few other points.  You suggested that pastors should not promote particular candidates, and this is true.  But it is merely a special case of a more general principle. As custodians of morals and doctrine, pastors are best equipped to judge principles.  By contrast, choosing which candidate to support is a prudential judgment, and for making prudential judgments -- especially in matters requiring specialized knowledge -- pastors are rarely any better equipped than the members of their flocks.  So it is entirely proper for a pastor to use the pulpit to declare the principle that abortion is wrong, but it is quite another thing for him to opine about which refrigerant gasses are best for the environment.

This I admit:  In extreme cases, there may arise exceptions to the point I have just made.  Sometimes a pastor must offer a judgment of prudence, one which is such an immediate practical corollary of a moral principle that it would be an abdication of his office not to speak.

Unfortunately, a high degree of prudence is required to judge when such an exception should be made.  Few people are sufficiently prudent about prudence to make such judgments well.  Erring on the side of caution may be just as gross an error as erring on the side of risk; not making an exception when one should may be just as dangerous as making an exception when one shouldn’t.

On the other hand, in our day more people err in the latter way than in the former.  To give but a single example, whether people should be healed is an easy question of principle, but under what arrangements they are best healed is a difficult question of prudence.  Confusing their judgments of prudence with principle, “social justice Christians” mistakenly conclude that if you don’t want the government to take over the practice of medicine (and, I suppose, everything else), you must be against Christian love.

Perhaps if conservatives ever attained the same level of cultural influence, they would be just as bad in their own way.  For the present, the point is moot.

Keep up the good fight.


From the Menagerie of Rare Beasts: The Politics of Virtues

Thursday, 08-01-2019



I am writing a thesis on the politics of virtues, and I know you have written about this.  But where?



The politics of virtues is a way of thinking about government and politics that gives a very high place to considerations of moral character.  As thoughtful people have remarked for centuries, it’s difficult to get a better government than we deserve.

Moral character cannot be the only consideration.  If the only candidate who objected to infanticide was an adulterer, I would vote for the adulterer.  But I would worry.  A man who cannot keep his marital vows is unlikely to keep his promises to the rest of the citizens.

An early, short statement of my own take on the politics of virtues may be found in my online 1994 article “Politics of Virtues, Government of Knaves.”  In passing, some of these themes are discussed and elaborated in my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, the online Companion to the Commentary, and my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics, although there, of course, I defer to the views of St. Thomas.

But a number of brief reflections on politics and virtue can also be found – with some repetition -- right here in the blog.  Take a look at the following:

On Kicking the Ball Down the Road” (2 August 2014)

Rules and Virtues” (19 November 2014)

The Hamburger Helper of Regime Design, Part 1 of 2” (21 November 2014)

The Hamburger Helper of Regime Design, Part 2 of 2” (22 November 2014)

Bad Man, Good Statesman” (6 January 2015)

Just Like Me” (7 January 2015)

Heroic Virtue” (11 January 2015)

The Threshold of Judgment” (23 February 2016)

The Cruise” (26 March 2016)

How Much Difference Does It Make?” (5 April 2016)

Too Much Virtue Signaling, Not Enough Virtue” (6 August 2018)

Bad Men, Revisited” (23 August 2018)

Then Are All Good Men Good Statesmen?” (25 August 2018)

What to Do While Trying Not to Overload the Camel” (3 June 2019)

I hope this gives you some ideas.  Best wishes for your research.



Only Truth Is Merciful

Monday, 07-29-2019


Says one internet news outlet, “Since his election in 2013, conservatives have sharply criticized Francis, saying he has left many faithful confused by pronouncements that the Church should be more welcoming to homosexuals and divorced Catholics.”

Such reportage is typical.  However, the reason the journalist gives is not why the faithful are confused, or why so many Catholics have expressed concern about Pope Francis.

We have all sinned.  Nobody thinks the Church should not welcome sinners.  The problem is blurry language that makes it seem as though we cannot welcome sinners unless we ignore the reality of sin.

Ambiguity is not merciful.  Only truth is merciful.

How can anyone receive the loving God’s forgiveness if he is encouraged to believe he doesn’t need it?


Natural Law for Lawyers

Friday, 07-26-2019


For years I’ve been teaching a group of law students called the Blackstone Fellows about the classical natural law tradition.  I think this is one of the most important things I do every year, and it is certainly one of the most satisfying.  These young people are interns with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a coalition of public-interest law firms which fight for religious liberty, the integrity of the family, and the sanctity of life.

At the request of the Alliance, in 2006 I wrote a brief introduction to natural law, called Natural Law for Lawyers.  This book has been part of the Fellows’ curriculum every year since it was written, but I am pleased to announce that in order to make it easier for other readers to obtain, I’ve just made it available through, both as a Kindle electronic book and as an on-demand paperback.

Of all of my books on the subject, this one is the fastest read.  Despite the title, it’s not just for lawyers and would-be lawyers, but for anyone interested in natural law.  Here is the Table of Contents, and here is a sample.

Here are a few endorsements:

“J. Budziszewski has done it again.  This lean, lively, and compelling book may be one of the best introductions to classical Natural Law ever written.  It is certainly the best such introduction for lawyers. This swift and sure survey combines history and argument so that the reader not only knows how we got to where we are, but what the way out of the woods is.  A splendid achievement.” -- Ralph McInerny, professor emeritus, School of Law, University of Notre Dame

 “This readable book will tell a lawyer two things about the Natural Law:  That everyone ‘practices’ it whether he knows it or not, and that it makes no ultimate sense apart from its Lawgiver who wrote it in our minds and hearts because He loves us.” -- Charles E. Rice, professor emeritus, University of Notre Dame Law School

“J. Budziszewski distinctly understands and recognizes the importance of higher law and the vital role it played in the foundation for and establishment of the American legal system.  His book is a valuable tool in the struggle to recover original intent and founding principles in American jurisprudence and defend our First Liberty—religious freedom.” – Alan Sears, President, CEO, and General Counsel emeritus, Alliance Defense Fund

“J. Budziszewski is our finest modern exponent of Natural Law, the guide to moral right and wrong that we can’t do without, because it is written on our hearts.  I enthusiastically recommend this learned, charming, and lucid book for lawyers, for people who despise lawyers, and for everyone who knows someone who might someday become a lawyer.” -- Phillip E. Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, professor emeritus, School of Law, University of California at Berkeley


My other books