Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Limited Government, I

In the U. S. political scene, so-called conservatives make much of the need for “smaller government.” I argue that the actual size of the federal government is not, per se, the issue or shouldn’t be. The principle that needs reviving is the importance of limited government, that is, governments whose authority is limited (and spelled out) and whose power is limited by other concentrations of power, by what we in the states commonly refer to as a system of “checks and balances.”

Now, I want to contend that Christians have strong reason support limited government. Let me be clear: I am not making the anachronistic claim that anything like modern democratic republics are foreseen in the Scriptures. They clearly are not. But several strands of the biblical witness, it seems to me, do show a healthy suspicion of concentrated and autocratic power.
Early Israelite life had no central government: tribes and villages settled matters by elders who consulted together at the village gates. Wise women seem also to have made their contributions. When more coordinated action was necessary, God raised up a judge–usually a figure who was part-prophet and part military leader.

The system was certainly open to abuse. A pro-monarchy strand of Scripture reflected in the editing of Judges itself recalls the time of the judges primarily as one of lawlessness and views the monarchy as the cure. But 1 Samuel 8 challenges the nature of concentrated power in a monarchy in extremely realistic terms. And there is a strong anti-imperialist theme throughout much of the rest of Scripture, despite the idealizing of David and projecting of a royal Davidic figure as the future Messiah. (Many scholars believe that one reason Jesus was reluctant to use the term “messiah” about himself was the association of the term with royal military conquerer figures.)

So, even though some strands of Christianity have been very pro-royalist, supporting the supposed “divine right of kings to rule” or blindly supportive of whatever autocratic government is in power, other Christian groups and theologians, with strong biblical support, have rightly pushed for limited government with checks and balances on power. A seriousness about the nature of human sinfulness has guided such folk–no one can be trusted with too much unsupervised power.

The best modern political arrangements that have incorporated such checks have been forms of democratic republics. In parliamentary democracies an important check is separating the head of state (e.g., the British monarch and her represenatives–usually a Governer General–in Commonwealth nations, or the President of France, etc.) from the head of government (a prime minister who leads the majority party in parliament). Parliamentary systems also have the check of being able to have early elections if a prime minister fails a vote of no confidence.

The U.S. system lacks those checks, but our Framers deliberately limited each branch of government to powers carefully spelled out in the Constitution, and gave each branch of government checks against the others–checks eroded by the idea of a “unitary executive” posited by the Bush administration which believes it is answerable to no one. An independent judiciary with the power of judicial review of laws for their constitutionality is essential–a judiciary which, as far as possible, is shielded from political pressures (once appointed). Constitutions which include “bills of rights” for citizens are also important checks as are forms of federalism (although smaller nations will need less of this) which work to prevent over-centralization.

Advocates of “small government” are certainly right to worry about the growths of bureacracies and over-regulation. But one has to ask about the purposes of government and recognize that some problems cannot be solved at less than national or even international levels. Those problems will take a large central bureacracy for those problems (e.g., threats to the environment, global human rights, etc.) Too often, those using the rhetoric of “small government” are simply wanting low taxes (not asking the purpose of the tax in question or the fairness of taxation burdens) or deregulation of businesses to the detriment of the common good. Many, for instance, are remarkably unconcerned with bloated military bureacracies or with concentrations of power in an “imperial presidency”–as long as the executive in question is of their party.

We need to insist on the checks and balances of limited government. In the next part of this series, I will talk about the tradeoffs between government power, concentrated business powers, and citizen powers, as well as the principle of subsidiarity.


November 28, 2006 Posted by | government | 6 Comments