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.