State power, State idolatry
In reflecting on politics this election day, I cannot help but notice that the moral advice given by Church leaders is often based on abstract thinking. I’ve offered this sort of analysis many times myself. What are the principles which govern a particular situation? Does contemporary government have the theoretical capability to do X or Y? Often enough, this sort of analysis will lead to a moral determination: The government should do X. Or, the government should not do Y.
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But once we understand the principles at stake, further prudential analysis is needed: Supposing X is a worthy goal, what are the consequences of attempting to implement X through government control? There is always a danger that no matter what the theoretical capabilities of government might be, the practical results of a particular effort will fail or even do more harm than good. For example, government has the theoretical ability to guarantee a certain base income to every person in a particular country, but any attempt to implement such a policy will likely be riddled with fraud, will dramatically reduce the incentive to do productive work, and will create a widespread dependence on government which results in large numbers of people voting primarily for increased benefits.
Moreover, at its root, such a program would have to be divorced from the productive human interactions which generate wealth, so that all pay would become eerily similar to the recent pandemic stimulus packages—money essentially manufactured out of nothing, a short-term benefit which always reduces in value over time. As in all socialist systems, a debased economy and more widespread poverty will always be the result, except for those who can “work the system” to their advantage. Of course, throughout the West, we already have massive numbers of voters who seek to turn government into the proverbial giving tree. This in turn fosters political parties which thrive on offering increasingly widespread “benefits”, along with uncontrolled debt which is mortgaged against generations yet unborn (should they even come to exist).
Two other examples, out of a great many, also spring to mind. At the theoretical level, any nation ought to welcome immigrants, and a sound government ought to be able to provide means of integrating them into society. Setting aside the question of groups of immigrants who are not predisposed to accept whatever is still sound in a nation’s general values, there remains another important practical problem. We already live in a culture which depends heavily on governmental provision of many benefits and services, including the norm of public education. Thus, because of decisions we have made in the past, welcoming immigrants becomes enormously expensive, easily overwhelming the infrastructures in place, which adds to the State’s “responsibility” for a growing body of poorer and less-established residents. It seems that it should be possible for a modern State to welcome unlimited immigration. But is it possible in a practical, realistic sense, given the dominant socio-political assumptions, not to mention conventional bureaucratic waste?
Or take something as starkly dramatic as the death penalty. In theory, any modern State should be able to incarcerate those who are found guilty of serious crimes. In practice, a modern society (such as the United States) which habitually looks to prison to neutralize offenders must deal with massive prisoner overload, soaring costs, and widespread corruption in a prison system that is taken for granted. Moreover, to be in prison is not necessarily to be prevented from continuing to do harm. Well-connected mobsters sometimes live in relative luxury in prison, buying privileges, and continuing to direct their criminal activities while “inside”. At what point does the bureaucratic weight of any social system itself become a practical argument against the theoretical argument that modern government ought to be able to protect society?
I am not taking any position on these complex examples. I do not know without more study of each issue how much of what a modern government “ought to be able to do” it can actually do in a manner which avoids undermining the common good in important ways. I would, however, offer a general warning that bureaucratic states (which all modern Western states are) have a habit of collapsing under their own weight, not least because so many citizens look more and more to government to provide many things that they would otherwise have had to learn to provide for themselves—from money to morality.
Historically, the results of this process have never been good, and have almost always been “stabilized” by a demand for ideological conformity. In our time, the limits of the modern bureaucratic state are clearly being stretched very near to their breaking points. It is hard not to imagine a future, after some inevitable period of significant disruption, in which society must again devolve into smaller units, governed more directly by engaged citizens who can match policies more quickly to conditions on the ground—also willing to leave much more to be worked out by non-governmental means. Such a future would be as good for intermediary institutions as it would be for both the social “usefulness” and the moral authority of churches. The principle of subsidiarity might yet make a comeback! But we are still trending, ever more disastrously I believe, in the opposite direction.
To State or not to State
Contrary to most socio-political rhetoric today, including a great deal of semi-official Catholic rhetoric, the primary social and economic questions today do not boil down to governmental policy questions. In many countries, including the United States, even the episcopal conferences tend to see their public purposes as oriented toward shaping law and government policy. Social health, however, does not derive from government. The purpose of government is not to create a social order, but to remove specific obstacles to the common good and to protect the common good as achieved by real people working socially toward valuable common ends. It is not too much to say that the effort by government to dictate and “create” the common good is itself a major enemy of the common good.
The values held by people living together in a particular region may be reinforced by just laws and good civic example, but those values cannot be created by government. They must derive from a shared vision of reality. Perhaps the gravest problem faced by the West today is the deliberate undermining of such a vision by the self-indulgent chattering classes which dominate so many of our institutions. It may take an economic collapse, a natural disaster, a far greater pandemic, or a widespread persecution to shake people sufficiently to second-guess their more or less deliberate refusal to accept the sources of such a vision. These are found in natural law and Divine Revelation, but they begin to be sought (despite many errors) only through an honest sense of human finitude—the dawning conviction that the most fundamental realities exceed our understanding.
We are in desperate need of descending from the heights of modern power, by which (if we narrow our vision) it may seem possible to accomplish anything we desire. Instead, we must look closely at what we actually have accomplished, in our own lives, our own families, our neighbors and our communities. What we will find is a huge number of seriously injured people, desperate for happiness, yet suffering from broken homes, addictions, pervasive intellectual confusion or darkness, illusory dreams—and often hovering on the brink of despair.
Or to put it another way, we may think it ought to be possible for an enlightened Western government to educate everyone for ultimate success. But if we strip away the reigning secular mythology, has this in fact proved possible? I repeat that there is a great danger in considering everything in the abstract, as if to decide that what ought to be in theory can truly be in practice, even assuming widespread acceptance of an ideal. To insist on a theory in the face of lived reality is the mistake of ideology. Every human construct has severe limits. Disaster ensues when we pretend those limits do not exist.
Sadly, our trust in modern States goes even beyond ideology. The problem is that we have come to think of them as sources of infinite power, able to accomplish every dream. Even way too much social analysis by Churchmen runs along these lines, always directed at a new political “solution”. We have already seen how modern States invariably restrict the Church’s far healthier charitable mission. Clearly, then, we must beware of modern States, much as, in the Book of Revelation, Babylon the Great was the symbol of ancient Rome. For States today have become yet another set of idols:
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them. (Ps 115:5-8; emphasis added).
What modern states do have, however, is universal, omni-present bureaucracy. As idols, modern states and their bureaucracies are the antithesis of Jesus Christ, who used his mouth, eyes, ears, nose, hands, and feet, and who was not afraid of straight talk. Our scope of action ought to be far more personal and effective than the impossible scope of the State. Our model must be not the Bureaucracy but the Person.
I will say it again on election day in America: Only Christ saves. And He does not do it through the power of the State.
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Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Nov. 06, 2020 8:29 AM ET USA
Fenton is right. The purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to restrain government from imposing onerous demands on citizens, not to award government "rights" or powers over those governed. Contrary to those who claim that the purpose of the U.S. government is to "take power and...rule" (Valerie Jarrett, 9 November 2008), its true purpose is to create conditions under which its citizens govern themselves by means of subsidiarity. A self-governing people is free to pursue life, liberty, & happiness.
Posted by: fenton1015153 -
Nov. 04, 2020 6:34 PM ET USA
We were given a limited government. It has become a limiting government. Power is always centralized and evil purposes always follow power. Our only chance is to return to limited government.
Posted by: reaveyms6579 -
Nov. 03, 2020 10:13 PM ET USA
Thank you for your very thoughtful essay on the limits of government to do good. Stresses engendered by ignoring those limits often lead to outcomes exceeding any good done by government.