THE BLOG

How Big Should Government Be?

05/30/2012 12:39 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2012

We need a government strong enough to protect and maintain the rule of law but limited enough not to violate it. The American Founders understood this paradox of power. That's why they established checks and balances in the Constitution. Between the Founders and us, unfortunately, came the progressives. They sought to expand government without limit, so they viewed the Constitution not as a guide but an impediment. Progressivism came to dominate all branches of government and most elite institutions in the twentieth century. This created a conspiracy of consensus, which has devastated the checks and balances established by the Constitution. The federal government is now a Leviathan. We must support policies and candidates committed to restoring constitutional wisdom to our political institutions. This means that we must be willing to see unsustainable programs cut, even programs that we like and depend on.

While the government helps provide the conditions for prosperity and the creation of wealth, it's not their source. When government tries to substitute itself for the proper functions of business, enterprise, and the market, it does more harm than good, distorts natural incentives, encourages cycles of dependency, replaces the happiness of earned success with the subtle indignity of a handout, hinders the creativity of entrepreneurs, and turns the win-win game of a free exchange into a win-lose game of coercion and redistribution. (You just read a very long sentence: Read it again!)

Some Christians think that because of sin, the federal government should have even more power over the economy and our lives, as if the way to disperse power is to give more power to the most powerful entity. As several chapters make clear in the book Indivisible, a free market limits the power of the state. A healthy free market exists only where there is a rule of law, private property, and business institutions that, while certainly not perfect, at least channel our creativity, legitimate self-interest, and even vices such as greed, into ventures that meet the needs of others.

As damaging and despicable as it is, greed did not even make the top ten "Thou shalt not's." Covetousness and envy did. Why? Consider the facts. As awful as greed is, a person has to have gained in some way to be greedy. When people are greedy about something, there has been profit or gain which can be hoarded, invested, spent, increased, saved, or shared. In many instances the benefit of that gain has some positive effect on others. Something was bought, built, or multiplied that required someone else to be involved who was being paid to create, produce, sell, or perhaps help maintain and provide service for. The pursuit of more, even for selfish reasons, often produces jobs, opportunities, and the chance to serve in a meaningful way, even while a greedy person is in need of a heart change. Whatever the motivation is, if laws are not broken, the person who gains has something to share because there was freedom to succeed and even prosper. As Christians we should warn those controlled by greed to learn from Jesus who warned us to "be on guard against every form of greed, for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions." Paul made clear in several New Testament epistles that greed is idolatry and can keep a person from inheriting the Kingdom of God.

Why did covetousness make the top ten? In prayer and meditation and searching God's Word, I've come to have a measure of understanding concerning this question. Covetousness and envy of what others have results in expressions of bitterness, resentment, and hatefulness, producing the same negative consequences produced by a spirit of unforgiveness which can lead to the destruction of your relationships and meaningful life. In the model prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, "Father forgive us as we forgive others." This was the only phrase He immediately explained at the conclusion of the prayer. "If you don't forgive others, the Father will not forgive you." On another occasion, He said if we do not forgive others, we will be tormented. Fellowship and relationship is damaged, resulting in an inability to think straight, see clearly, and make wise decisions. Craving what others have destroys one's own ability to have the creative potential of the Creator and the ability to effectively produce in order to experience personal benefit, achieve goals, and be personally blessed and prosper.

Personal and even national freedom is destroyed by a sense of dependence upon inappropriate, idolatrous substitutes for God which results in bondage to a worldly power, person, or government. The importance of personal responsibility, determination, earned gains, and prosperity is diminished by a form of spiritual death. The potential for love has been destroyed by deep-seated hatred and animosity. Covetousness stops you from experiencing the full release of the rivers of life Jesus referred to when we share with others from our own means, however meager or great. Breaking the tenth commandment can totally devastate personal success, progress and prosperity.

Since everyone in a market is sinful as well, laws and economic policies should, as much as possible, be set up to channel selfish motives into actions that benefit others. We know from experience that a free market does this better than the alternatives. That's why we should defend policies that advance economic freedom rather than extend the reach of political control ever farther into the economic realm.

A free economy can't long exist unless a people are at least minimally virtuous. "Liberty," said Lord Acton, "is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization."Our economic freedom won't last unless certain institutions, especially churches and families -- are free to instill virtue.

As important as government is for preserving the rule of law, history teaches us that it can also be the worst violator of the rule of law. We must oppose attempts to expand the role of government beyond its constitutionally enumerated duties. Given our current debt crisis, for instance, we should especially oppose attempts to add or expand entitlement programs. These programs entice citizens to vote for more and more services for themselves with borrowed money that must be repaid by our children and grandchildren. As people become more and more dependent on these programs, it becomes almost impossible for elected officials to reform them, even in the face of fiscal ruin. That's why we must support policies and politicians that deal with this looming disaster honestly, and do whatever we can to explain this problem to our fellow Americans.

We should have a strong defense as part of a limited government since defense is one of the things government is limited for. One reason to limit the tasks of government is so that it can focus on its most important jobs. Defense, like all other expenses, is subject to budget constraints. But we should oppose attempts to weaken our military and defense capabilities, and reject claims that supporting the military amounts to nationalism and militarism. In a fallen world, protecting life and liberty requires that, at times, we take up arms against aggressors. Pretending otherwise is naïve, utopian, and ultimately, unjust. This is why we need a government strong enough to protect and maintain the rule of law, but limited enough not to violate it.



Much of this material was adapted from the New York Times bestselling book INDIVISIBLE: Restoring Faith, Family and Freedom Before It's Too Late, co-authored by James Robison and Jay Richards.