Friday, April 30, 2010

Anarchy, Chaos, and Martial Law

If, in 1860, an armed gang had broken into the Capitol during James Buchanan's last State of the Union message and shot him, all the senators and representatives, and all the Supreme Court justices, and then disappeared, what would the result have been?

My guess is anarchy.

That's not to say there would have been no government. The states would have held special elections to replace the dead representatives and the legislatures would have appointed new senators. There might have been elections held for a new president, but since the regular elections were only a few months away, I think Congress would have appointed a president pro tempore.

What I mean by anarchy is that even without a federal government to head things up, life in the areas that count—family, church, commerce—would have gone on unchanged. The farmers would have planted exactly what they would have planted anyway. The dairymen would take their milk, cheese, and butter to market the same as they had the year before. The churches and schools would have aired their grief at the slaughter and gone on with their affairs. People would still have traveled as freely as their finances allowed.

Not all would have been wonderful, of course. The slaves would still have been slaves—state governments are still governments, and some of them were essential supports for the slave system—but perhaps some northern states would have seceded out of revulsion against federal laws requiring fugitive slaves to be returned to their masters, and some southern states would have seceded to avoid tariffs. Pennsylvania would still have been a state on a par with the states of Great Britain and France.

The most common dealing most people had with the federal government was with the Post Office, and that would not have changed. Life would have continued on decently and in order.

What would happen if the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court disappeared tomorrow?

My guess is chaos.

There would be an immediate declaration of martial law, even if all credible evidence showed that the mayhem was spent. All citizens would be required to show identification and subject to random searches. Rationing and wage and price controls would be instituted, with the consequent black markets and violent turf wars. This would "necessitate," in the interests of security of course, that travel be restricted, and travelers and commuters would have to justify every movement. Dissent would be silenced, and all criticism of government policies would be taken as sedition.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once watched youths crowd around and jeer a small congregation of elderly Orthodox Christians as they went about their Easter liturgy and asked something like, "Is this the new man the Revolution promised us?" We've saved the Union, reconstructed the South, had the progress of Teddy Roosevelt, made the world safe for democracy with Wilson, been given the New Deal by FDR, and implemented Johnson's Great Society, Reaganomics, the Contract with America, and now the Audacity of Hope. As a result, we're nothing like eagles, symbol of independence, who (in the Bible anyway) renew their strength by waiting on the Lord. We're more like the helpless, dependent little birds on the Louisiana flag.

I think that was the plan all along.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Limited, Constitutional Government

The concept of limited government, while not prevalent in this authoritarian age, has a certain amount of popularity. Three of my correspondents have written me to describe the limited government they support within the last two weeks, so I thought I’d answer them all here.

Their main desire for government is that it protect them from aggressors; they say that’s its purpose. What they don’t want is for government to aggress against their legitimate interests. Can anything be more reasonable? “The alternative is anarchy, where it’s everyone for himself and society falls apart. You’re living in a dreamland,” they tell me.

I think they’re the ones who are dreaming. Let’s see.

My first answer is, show me one government of the thousands there have ever been that has been anywhere close to limiting itself to protecting its subjects’ legitimate interests. “Why, the United States at its founding,” they reply. “Well, it wasn’t perfect,” they add when I mention the Post Office and the slaves and the Indians and the Nisei, “but it was close.” So OK, I’ll concede that, at least for white folks, the constitutional republic was good. Let’s say there have been a few dozen others that have been reasonably close. But really, what are a few dozen good ones against the thousands of bad ones? If you couldn’t live in the US, which of the “reasonably close” ones would you go to on its merits and not because it’s the least available evil? Just in terms of numbers, isn’t a “reasonably close” government about as likely as a winning lottery ticket? In fact, aren’t conservatives passionately defending Uncle Sam precisely because most governments are abominations?

So I would say that desire for limited government is a house built on sand because governments are (statistically and by design) normally abominable the same way people are (statistically and by design) normally heterosexual. There are exceptions, but they are exceptions.

Secondly, I would point out that our Constitution was not able to prevent our current slide into tyranny. Abraham Lincoln’s most enduring legacy is the idea that the federal government, not the states, determines what limits the Constitution places on the federal government. Roe v. Wade was only one of many arrogations of federal power over the states found constitutional by the federal Supreme Court. In fact, you will look hard to find any federal assertions of hegemony over the states after 1861 found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

What does this mean? Here’s an example: If you don’t want to live in a “dry” county in Texas, or you live in a dry county but want a beer, you simply move to or visit the nearest “wet” county. However, there’s a move afoot at the federal level to make vitamin C a prescription drug, which will, of course raise the price considerably. If you think your vitamin C consumption is no one else’s business, instead of going to the next county, you’ll have to go out of the country, no small inconvenience. Or you’ll have to change the minds of 300 million people or their representatives to overturn the law. In the end, most people will simply shrug, call their doctors, and pay the extra price. And, of course, most people don’t care about vitamin C. “When they came for vitamin C, I said nothing because I don’t take vitamin C.” So they’ll accept what they consider evil as something they either can’t do anything about or not worth the effort to get rid of.

This leads to my third point: government brings with it perverse incentives that lead decent, rational people to ignore and even engage in evil behavior. Let’s begin with ignoring it: The effort required to overturn bad policies increases with the scope of the government that enforces it. If your condominium’s owner’s association passes a bad policy, you have a few dozen people to convince to overturn it and not very far to move if you can’t convince them. If the town does it, you have to convince thousands; if the nation, millions. The smaller the issue, the less incentive you have to fight it, even if it’s blatantly immoral. Yet if you don’t fight immorality X, those who pass it will take its existence to pass immorality X+1. By the time your ox gets gored, the power of precedent is irresistible.

Worse are the incentives to engage in evil. One generation loses its battle against tax-funded schools. Now unable to fund their choice of education for their children, and not desiring to run afoul of truancy laws, they send their kids to the government school. Those children grow up with a decent education and have children of their own. Having never known anything but government schools and being properly grateful to the system that has enabled them to get decent jobs that afford them a living most of the world can only dream of, they send their children to the government schools. And what if those schools need more money? Why, pass school levies; that is, tax not only those who vote yes on it but those who vote no: “Paying school taxes didn’t kill my parents, and it won’t kill my neighbors.” Thus people who wouldn’t think of walking into their neighbors’ houses and writing themselves a check on their neighbor’s account quite rationally advance their own interests by taking the same amount of money from those same neighbors through taxation.

All government action is guided not by right or wrong but by political expediency. Put another way, no matter what the law says, the actual policies that get implemented are those the politically powerful deem expedient. Heretofore, for example, it has not been expedient to ticket all speeders, so one can be a hazard on some roads in the US by driving at the posted speed because everyone else is going ten miles per hour faster. However, once those in power deem it expedient to put the right technology in place, all speeders will be “brought to justice.” If you don’t think such a system is ripe for abuse, you have more faith in human nature than I do.

Which brings up my fourth point. I’m often accused of having too much faith in human nature: “There are evil people out there, and only government can protect us from them.” What this line of thinking fails to account for is that the same guy who mixes sawdust in his sausages is going to be the same weasel once he puts on a federal meat inspector’s badge, only now he will have another layer of protection from punishment. The same guy you hated when he was your ex-wife’s divorce lawyer isn’t going to treat you any better now that he’s an elected official. And because of the perverse incentives inherent to government, government jobs attract people who want to take advantage of perverse incentives. Why starve as a private school teacher who can be fired when you can have a higher salary, better bennies, tenure, and a pension by teaching for the government?

All have sinned; all are sinners. Humans are by nature self-centered, and I have seen in my own life how easy it is to confuse my own selfish desires with some form of altruism. Richard Nixon was excoriated for confusing his personal stake in the presidency with the welfare of the nation; I can’t believe he’s the only political figure to do so. I’ve certainly heard more than one person say that a given government policy is good because it benefits them personally.

Government never punishes its agents’ misdeeds as effectively as the market does. When one Chi-Chi’s employee failed to wash his hands and people got sick and died from eating their salads, the entire Chi-Chi’s franchise went out of business within weeks. By contrast, when the feds fail to do their job—let’s take the guy in charge of inspecting Chi-Chi’s for starters—no one is fired unless there’s a major scandal. We see this with FDA-approved drugs that harm those who take them. We see it with the Federal Reserve, chartered to "preserve the value of the dollar" but having devalued it by over 95 percent. And, of course we see it in the military: an invasion of Iraq that was supposed to cost us $50 billion has cost a trillion with no end in sight. In each case the same people who failed to do the job are still running the show.

“Well,” I hear you say, “dirty hands are one thing. Terrorists and invading armies are another. We have enemies who want to rob us of our wealth and our freedoms. You can’t defend yourself from atomic rockets with a couple of hunting rifles.” This might be true. History records one invading nation that used atomic weapons on civilians to terrorize them into begging their government to surrender; they then invaded unresisted and set up a puppet government, and the two nations have been fast friends ever since. So I suppose it could happen here. But I think some questions could legitimately be asked.

Would that invading nation have invaded unprovoked? Or did they feel (rightly or wrongly) they were preventing themselves from being attacked again? Were the citizens of the invaded country armed so well that their own government, let alone rapacious invaders, lived in fear of them? Could any reasonable neighbor have concluded that that invaded nation’s primary interest was freedom for its citizens, free exchange of goods and services with any who chose to engage in it—”commerce with all, political entanglements with none,” “charity towards all, malice towards none,” “a nation of shopkeepers,” as it were? Was there reason to believe that anyone who bombed that nation into the Stone Age would be working against its own best interests?

“But Muslims are all about taking over the world, by force, if necessary, and they don’t allow religious freedom. We need the government to protect us from Islam. Read Romans 13, you idiot!

You’ve now arrived at the core of the matter.

The question of government is at its base theological. Is “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord” just a tuneful ditty? Or does it apply to politics and war? Are we more likely to resist the onslaught of Islam by mortgaging our grandchildren’s financial future to buy weapons and killing innocent people, or by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God? Is God serious when he says that when a man’s ways please him, he will make that man’s enemies his friends? that neither famine, nor nakedness, nor sword can separate us from his love in Christ? Is the Great Commission more or less important than having that star-spangled banner yet wave?

Christianity is also a religion with a mandate to take over the world, don’t forget: if we do it in the shadow of Old Glory, will Muslims not rightly conclude that US political interests are primary and the Great Commission secondary? Nothing I’ve said about the perverse nature of government is unfamiliar to those who have lived under governments not even close to the small-government ideal; can you blame them for not wanting to exchange one perverse system, one they understand and probably consider beneficent, for another in which they would be forced to the margin?

More importantly, can the Great Commission not be fulfilled apart from national sovereignty? Betsy Ten Boom, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dietrich Bonhöffer, Martin Niemöller, Richard Wurmbrandt, and Watchman Nee all built legacies for Jesus under horrible persecution, and we will meet countless others in heaven whose rewards will surpass theirs because of their earthly anonymity.

As for Romans 13, the government that passage extols ended up killing the guy who wrote it. How is suggesting we’d be better off under a market than a government be any more of a death wish than that?

There are indeed horrible people out there. We see them whenever we look in the mirror. The only government that will give us what we need is that of the Holy Spirit working to conform our hearts to God’s will as revealed in the Bible. All other ground is shifting sand. The less legitimacy we grant to raw power, which is the basis of all government, the better; such will force us to solve our problems through the means of grace and acknowledgment of the image of God, however corrupted, in our neighbors, whom we are commanded to love as our service to God.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

God Bless America!

“Has America ever done anything right?”

My friend was clearly annoyed. We had been getting together every week to talk about our lives and to pray. More times than not, as we talked my friend would raise a concern that seemed to me to be a result of the political process, and I would note the difference between what the Bible clearly (to me, anyway) teaches and what those with political power actually do. On that day I exceeded his limit for tolerance, and our weekly meetings ceased soon thereafter.

I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed in comments and private e-mails about this blog, so I’d like to answer my friend’s question. If I were merely to give the bottom-line answer, which is yes, I think my friend would be satisfied. In fact, far from disparaging America, I think I have a higher view of America than my critics do. Unfortunately, that high view not only almost led me to title this post “Why I Am Not an American” but will probably leave my critics no less disgruntled after I explain it. But here goes.

C. S. Lewis once wrote disparagingly of what he called verbicide, the practice of robbing words of their meanings through inappropriate use. The best-known current example of verbicide is awesome, which used to refer to objects or actions that demonstrated such amazing power that they left observers unable to speak or act. Today advancing up a level in a video game is an “awesome” accomplishment, and there is no word left to describe those things that would have been called awesome before.

The same thing has happened to America. America used to be the word for the idea that individuals were more important than collectives, that there was no collective apart from the individuals who made it up.

Today the term refers primarily to subjects of the government that exercises a monopoly of force over a given territory. An “American” can be a murderer, a rapist, a child molester, a Klansman, a lobbyist, a Communist—you name it. It’s as though the dirt under one’s birthplace makes one an American. If that’s the case, what’s to be proud of about being an American? Newborns don’t choose the dirt under their beds, let alone improve its quality. We know what an American’s passport looks like, but we know precious little about the person’s character.

Dirt has nothing to do with my definition of America. My high regard for America comes from the words of the most familiar American document, the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

That is the America that has done much good, the America known as a good neighbor and a welcoming host. What’s not to like about people who view me as having an unalienable right to live, own property, and go and do what I want?

Unfortunately, by that definition I am not an American (and neither are many of my critics, probably including my friend).

My first disagreement with America is over “self-evident truths.” In purely practical terms, if these truths were self-evident, nearly everyone would believe them. The closest I can get to self-evident truths are along the lines of “putting your hand in a fire will get it burned”; few mentally competent adults would disagree, and indeed, the word fire carries with it the idea that whatever gets into fire gets burned. By contrast, the idea that people are in some sense equals is not shared by most people, as anyone who has suffered from conquest, police brutality, or racism can attest. Slavery, the institution by which one group entitles itself to the fruits of others’ labor in one form or another, has been universal human society, even in that produced by the writers of the Declaration. So unless there is no contradiction to America’s “self-evident” truths being a minority view even among mentally competent adults, Americanism is based on at least one untruth.

The Founders’ use of “self-evident” is, as far as I can see, their way of putting the ultimate stamp of authority on their declaration of their rights. Yet a Christian’s ultimate stamp of athority comes from God through the Bible. That I am no more worthy of life than a “spastic,” an “idiot,” or a “vegetable” and no less worthy than those stronger and smarter than I am is not self-evident, but I can assert it knowing that the Bible will back me up. So right away, my branches intertwine with those of Americans, but my roots are on the other side of an unfordable river.

My next disagreement is with the idea that people are “endowed by their creator with . . . unalienable rights.” By the time I understand the Gospel enough to call myself a Christian, I have admitted that I am a sinner and that the just recompense for my sins is damnation. Whatever rights I had to life, liberty, and property are gone because of my sin. So I never had any unalienable rights, and what rights I might have had have been alienated.

Yet the same Bible that shows me that I have no rights also forbids people from taking my life, liberty, or property unless I commit certain acts. So again, my branches intertwine with Americans’, but my roots don’t.

As I said, Americans make good neighbors. Anyone who leaves my body and property alone is a good neighbor, so even though I cannot call myself an American, I would love to live next door to Americans. And an American is by definition one who does those things right. So yes, America has done things right.

By now it should be clear that those who define America as the US government have a lower view of America than I do. It should also be clear that our government, the most immediate threat to our proerty and freedom, if not our lives, is not American. And to the degree that the government reflects the will of its subjects, we do not live with American neighbors.

When our neighbors say, “God bless America,” if God enters their thinking at all (I know atheists who say “Bless you” to people who sneeze, as well as the ususal spurious “O my God”), they are asking God to bless government policy. It seems to me that when a Christian says, “God bless America,” he should mean “May God show my neighbors all over the world the wonders of his common grace that brings prosperity wherever people leave their neighbors’ bodies and property alone and tell the truth.” More importantly, he should mean, “May God give Americans disciples’ rewards for the cups of cold water they have given to so many of God’s people: may he show them their errors so they become Jesus’ disciples.”

In that sense, then, and only in that sense, do I say it now: God bless America!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

ObamaCare and Prohibition

When am I dumber? When I'm pretending that God isn't looking, or when I come up with "general rules" that just happen to fit in with what I want to do because I want to do it? I can't decide which I base my worst sins on, but it's gotta be one of the two.

All I know is that when the bills for my stupidity come due, I hear God saying, "You wanted me absent when you dug the hole. Let's see you get out of it." Whether he actually says that or not is not for me to say, but there are enough verses like "He who digs a pit for his neighbor will fall into it" and "As you have given, so it will be given to you, pressed down and shaken together" that I think the old saw "Turnabout is fair play" is a good summary of biblical teaching.

Now that Mr. Obama's health care bill has passed—well, he didn't get everything he wanted, but it's close enough for government work—Evangelicals are all in a tizzy because they rightly fear that our health bills will rise and our quality of life will fall. Doug Wilson has called this a time to "take action," his main point being that it may take less to stop Leviathan than we think.

Unfortunately, folks, evangelicals lost the moral high ground on this one the first time under Woodrow Wilson and, after a brief opportunity to regain it, lost it for good under Franklin Roosevelt. They made Uncle Sam the final arbiter over health matters by jailing people for involvement with alcohol, then, when that didn't work, marijuana and later other recreational intoxicants, all the time empowering the Food and Drug Administration to determine what foods and medicines their neighbors would be permitted to consume. ObamaCare is the coup de grace for liberty as well as health and the economy, but the mortal wound was inflicted long ago.

While we will answer to God for what we do with our own bodies and how what we do influences others (see Ro 14), I see nothing that commands, or even allows, us to prohibit our neighbors from consumption of any substance, let alone put them in cages for growing, processing, selling, buying, or possessing it. Yet I have never heard a sermon condemning the War on Drugs or even the government-pharmaceutical complex; quite the opposite, I have heard at least one sermon urging congregants to vote to keep the sale of liquor by the drink illegal, and just today I read an article in the alumni magazine of a respected evangelical university by a man who makes his living caging "methamphetamine cooks and drug dealers."

The Torah's solution for misbehavior is restitution and restoration, not retribution, yet Uncle Sam's criminal "justice" system is anchored securely to retribution. We can sing "The Law of the Lord Is Perfect" in church, but we don't do what it commands and we do do what it doesn't command. And we wonder why our society is literally going to hell and the church has no influence.

If we want to wage a just war against ObamaCare—or al-Qaeda, for that matter—we need to begin with justice. We have sinned and need to confess it, repent of it, and make restitution for it. Simply saying, "These are political matters and I don't want to be involved in political arguments" is a copout: the lives of millions of people to whom Jesus has sent us with the Great Commission are at stake. They may be rejecting Jesus for reasons apart from anything we do right or wrong (Mt 7:13-14), but if we really love God, we will keep his commands (Jn 14:21), not only because those commands are for our benefit but because we don't want our disobedience to give God's enemies the opportunity to blaspheme God (Ro 2:24).

Maybe the political process will undo ObamaCare; if so, will we be content to leave the system alone and not speak out against its fundamental evils? Or will God glorify himself by rousing his church to overturn the entitlements-and-retribution mentality at the center of our culture and call people to himself?

Stay tuned.