Striking the Best Balance: The Strengths and Limits of Government
Monday, September 24, 2012 at 05:38PM
Amy E. Black in Role of Government

As has been the case throughout our discussion in this forum, the opening essays have offered constructive food for thought. Much like the ongoing presidential race, the essays reflect divergent views on the proper role and size of government. In my response to the initial postings, I will first offer some thoughts on the role of government and then consider a few specific claims made by my conversation partners.

A Few Reflections on the Role of Government

After centuries of trial and error, we have come to something close to a consensus: a well-run government is vital for quality of life. Too little government leads to chaos and entrenched poverty; too much government control leads to fear and oppression. The key to good government is finding the right balance between too weak and too strong.

My view of government’s role begins with the belief that government is one of God’s gifts to his creation. Like all human institutions in our fallen world, government is far from perfect, but it has essential purposes and functions that help us to survive and thrive. Paul’s famous passage in Romans 13 reminds us that all authority is ultimately from God and therefore demands our honor and respect. As followers of Christ, we are first under the authority of God and then under the authority of our government. Of course our allegiance to God must always come first, but we are called to submit to those in authority and pay our taxes.

Properly-functioning governments rely on mutual accountability. Governments and their citizens are accountable to one another, and all (whether they admit it or not) are ultimately accountable to God. A good and effective government therefore creates a community of mutual accountability and responsibility where everyone gives and receives.

Government has several essential functions. It maintains the “rule of law” to create clear boundaries for how people can live and work together peacefully and provides “public goods”—those basic goods and services that are beneficial to many people, meet significant needs, and are available to everyone equally. All modern democracies recognize the need for upholding both free markets and a regulatory state; they differ over how to balance these competing interests. Finally, government helps sustain private institutions such as schools, churches, and families that are essential partners for building and maintaining a robust society.

Good government creates an environment in which most of its people will be able to thrive, but it also meets the basic needs of those who cannot care for themselves. Families, churches, and other community institutions have essential roles in caring for the needy. But these systems sometimes fail, and some problems and conditions are so deeply rooted in the structure of society that government is likely the last but best resource to address them.

Reflections on the Initial Posts

Eric Teetsel’s essay raises some important questions, but it also poses some problematic ones. I was troubled by Eric’s question: “If it’s true that government has resources we don’t have, isn’t that because government took them from us?” I would reframe the question, “Isn’t it true that everything we have comes from God?” I believe we can and should debate tax policy, but such debate should begin with two premises: (1) Christians can and should pay their taxes out of obedience to God (Rom. 13:6, Matt 22:21), and (2) all of “our” resources ultimately belong to God, so we should be generous stewards of what he has given us.

It is wise to test the efficacy of government programs and encourage public policies that steward federal dollars well; wasteful spending is bad policy. But those of us who have been blessed with much should be more willing to share from our abundance, both by contributing to the common good through taxation and by giving generously to churches and charitable organizations working on the ground to meet people’s needs.

I agreed with many of Steve Monsma’s critiques of libertarianism, but I was troubled by his initial statements: “this position adopted by the Romney-Ryan ticket is not traditional conservatism, but libertarianism” and “the key issue in this election is . . .liberalism versus libertarianism.” I grant that many in the Republican party have moved toward libertarianism in recent years; key factions like the Tea Party have created enormous internal pressures to veer in this direction. Romney’s message and positions clearly point away from tax increases and toward smaller government. But he is not a classic libertarian; indeed, he was one of the most moderate Republican contenders in the primary.

I am equally concerned by those of the president’s critics who decry him as a socialist. Obama is charting a path toward a larger role for government, but that does not make him a socialist. The November election offers two sharply contrasted views – one seeking a smaller role for government and one seeking a larger role, but both presidential tickets are within the mainstream of American political ideology.

Much of the discussion of the role of government is framed as if it were an all-or-nothing debate. I share Steve’s concern that we aren’t debating many of the core issues related to the size and scope of government that need to be discussed and heartily concur with his conclusion that “What is needed is a thoughtful discussion of where government is working well and where it is not, where government action is needed and where it is not.”

David Gushee rightly notes that our debates over the role of government have grown tired. He provides a helpful analysis of some of the failures of capitalism, demonstrating ways that government policy may help correct some of its flaws. I’d like to see a more robust discussion, however, of the dangers of unchecked government that he mentions in his final paragraph.

The reality of life in a fallen and broken world is that everything is tainted by sin. Individuals will fail. Institutions will fail. But we have to find a path forward and look for the best (albeit flawed) options. As followers of Christ we should weigh the policy alternatives offered in this election, looking for the right balance of individual and collective ways we can be agents of restoration and help secure the common good.

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