At the heart of a great deal of confusion in public debates about government policies and socials goods are basic questions whose answers are often assumed rather than discussed. This is exceedingly bad for public discourse, because it allows people to talk past one another without understanding what the other party is saying.
Two of the most basic, commonly ignored questions are: 1) What is the nature of government? and 2) What is its purpose?
The Nature of Government
A popular quote, often attributed to Representative Barney Frank, states, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”
The idea is simple. Do we need a military? That requires government because one person can’t do it alone. Do we need roads? That requires government because we need to cooperate. Do we need to find ways to punish those that abuse the environment? That requires government to enforce consequences that individuals cannot manage.
If one doesn’t look too hard or consider enough examples, the aphorism seems to work on high level, big ticket issues. However, it quickly falls apart the more local it gets. Local Little League programs are often more effective at serving the community when there is no government official ensuring it happens according to the state’s approved agenda. Many collective initiatives are better accomplished voluntarily. Government is rarely needed to accomplish voluntary activities.
If we are thinking more carefully, the quote might be better rephrased, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to coerce people into cooperating with.”
There may be more to a definition of government, but this must be a part of the definition, at least. Ultimately, every regulation or law established by the government has coercion behind it. If you do not pay the fine from your speeding ticket, you will face a ladder of increasing consequences that may include the loss of your freedom.
The original Frank quote is dangerous because it excludes the possibility voluntary associations and goals we seek to accomplish apart from coercive legal force. The quote has grown beyond whatever the originator likely intended into a support for bringing every good work, including the perfection of society, under the auspices of government.
A free people with a limited government can be a powerful catalyst for Great Commission activity, if they live with a passion to pursue it.
The Purpose of Government
C. S. Lewis recognized this sort of definition. In a 1958 essay, “Is Progress Possible?,” Lewis criticizes the shift toward increasingly collectivistic impulses in government: “The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good––anyway, to do something to us or to make us something.”
At the time, Lewis was responding to the rapid growth of the government in the UK. The government was pursuing much of the vision outlined by William Beveridge in his report, Social Insurance and Allied Service. As the left-leaning welfare reformer, Hillary Cottam, notes, “The new welfare state was for everyone, and it would be universal in scope.”
Under the influence of the Beveridge plan, government in the U.K. quickly became influential in nearly every corner of life. Lewis noted, “We are less [the government leaders’] subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.”
That sort of totalizing influence of government stands in opposition to what Lewis believed to be the actual goal of a healthy government: a civil society. As he wrote in his 1945 essay, “Membership”:
We must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economics, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save in so far as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary; but this is the end to which they are necessary.
In Lewis’ mind, therefore, a central role of the government was to free up space for solitude and voluntary associations. This seems a great deal closer to Peter’s summary of the function of the government, namely, “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). It also allows room for Paul’s description of government as having the authority to punish evil (Rom 13:1–7). Even under the supposed theocracy of Old Testament Israel, there is a great deal more about facilitating voluntary cooperation in society than coercing obedience. And, the descriptions of expansively coercive powers tend to be negative (E.g., 1 Sam 8:10–18).
It’s not that one can draw a straight line from the pages of Scripture to a modern, Lockean democracy, and Lewis made no attempt to do so. However, given the options of the expansion of government control of many aspects of economic and social life and a relatively free economy with a confident ideological pluralism, Lewis plainly favored the latter.
Having a government with a limited role that enables people to freely associate with one another and make their own choices, within reason, about what constitutes the good life is not essential to the flourishing of the gospel. The church invisible has flourished in totalitarian contexts. A free people with a limited government can be, however, a powerful catalyst for Great Commission activity, if they live with a passion to pursue it.
Contemporary debates tend to get pitched as all-or-nothing battles between opposing poles. Either one supports Ayn Rand’s hyper-individualistic vision or is an advocate for Marxist totalitarianism. That assumption is pure foolishness. There are a wide range of options in the middle, but we need to ask basic questions before we debate about the particulars.
Making space for civil society to exist is a legitimate goal of government. Nations fight wars to enable voluntary associations and cooperation to flourish without interference of foreign authorities. Governments enforce laws to prevent strong individuals from oppressing the weak.
Until we discuss these foundational ideas and at least identify our points of disagreement with others, there is little purpose in arguing about the finer points of regulations. As Christians in pursuit of wisdom, this is a form of neighbor love.