Thomas Aquinas on the Role of Government

This is the second in a series by Wesley Coopersmith, a recent Grove City College graduate in political science and biblical and religious studies. Wesley is currently interning on Capitol Hill. Read the first post: Thomas Aquinas on Private Property.

Many American Christians believe that the government has a moral obligation to provide material benefits to those who are in need. Government must, so the argument goes, provide for every American who is struggling financially. Government welfare is simply one way Christians can provide for their neighbors.

But is this a proper role for government to undertake? Thomas Aquinas argues that the purpose of government is to promote justice. Does government welfare qualify as promoting justice?

In his book “On Law, Morality, and Politics,” Aquinas defines justice: “First, theft is indeed sinful because it is contrary to justice, which renders to all persons what is their due.” Government is promoting justice when it renders to each person their due or their own possessions. As we previously discussed, private property does not come from government, therefore government does not have the authority to take from some and give to others. Dr. Ritenour, professor of economics at Grove City College, comments on this matter:

Just as private citizens should not steal, the state should not steal either. Scripture is clear that none of us should individually take what is not ours. Similarly, we should not collectively take what is not ours through the state.

Theft is not justified on an individual level or a state level. Stealing is stealing. But if this is true, does government commit theft when it taxes its citizens? According to Aquinas, not quite. “If rulers exact from their subjects what is due them in justice in order to maintain the common good,” he writes, “there is no robbery” (emphasis mine). Government may justly take from its citizens their God-given property only if it promotes justice for the common good of society.

But this criterion is vague. The common good may be defined in a variety of ways. But Aquinas does not leave the reader without qualifying his statement:

But public authority is committed to rulers in order that they may safeguard justice. And so they are permitted to use force and coercion only in the course of justice, whether in wars against enemies or in punishing civilian criminals. (emphasis mine)

Government may take from its citizens, i.e. taxes, for the two-fold purpose of defended them from foreign enemies and convicting domestic criminals.

Dr. Ritenour seems to agree with Aquinas, writing, “Good government is one that protects citizens from violence and does not intervene in the economy to take wealth from some people and distribute it to others.” Indeed, a government that fails to promote justice ceases to be a government at all. Aquinas quotes Saint Augustine: “If justice is taken away, what are kingdoms but massive robberies?”

According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the proper role of government is to protect the life and property of its citizens from domestic and foreign violence. A government that fails to do this and instead redistributes the private property of its citizens becomes a robber more dangerous and powerful than any individual could be.

But if government is not permitted to take property from its citizens and give to those in need, who will help the poor? Aquinas answers this question in the third and final part of this series, further evidencing the fact that issues of redistribution are anything but unique to the modern-day.

  • Michael

    I think that your argument is rather undermined by Thomas Aquinas’ 7th article on the question of theft and robbery; he argues that need makes property common and that the redistribution of that needed property is not theft.

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