The growth of government seems unstoppable. How should we respond?
“Government has become ungovernable; that is, it cannot leave off governing. Law has become lawless; that is, it cannot see where laws should stop. The chief feature of our time is the meekness of the mob and the madness of the government.”
What a perfect description of what we find happening today, especially as we witness Statist overreach when it comes to the Rona. But those words were penned around a century ago by G. K. Chesterton. He died in 1936, and if he were alive today even he would be shocked at how much more accurate his words have turned out to be.
At breakneck speed governments are expanding in scope and power, and it seems the masses neither know nor care. As but one case in point, the other day I noted how Victorian Premier Dan Andrews extended his emergency powers for four more weeks.
Well, that escalated quickly: now he is calling for them to be extended for the rest of the year – for eleven full months more! This Socialist Left tyrant is clearly drunk on power. But he is not alone, and we see this happening all throughout the West.
Sure, we expect tyrannical and despotic regimes to run roughshod over the rights and liberties of the people, as various bloodthirsty dictators grab all the power and control they can. But this is supposed to be the free and democrat West. We were meant to be doing things differently here.
In times like this we are in desperate need for a bit of historical perspective. We need to remind ourselves that limited government and the sovereignty of the people was once the ideal, and something most folks believed in passionately and aimed for.
This understanding of the past can be achieved in various ways. A philosophy or political science major in university for example can take a class in political philosophy, or the history of political thought. Or one can simply read up on the relevant literature. Here I want to recommend and discuss just two books on this matter.
Back in 1987 Robert Higgs wrote Crisis and Leviathan. The subtitle explains what it is about: “Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government”. The first 2 1/2 paragraphs will suffice here to let you know where he is coming from:
We must have government. Only government can perform certain tasks successfully. Without government to defend us from external aggression, preserve domestic order, and define and enforce private property rights, few of us could achieve much. Unfortunately a government strong enough to protect us may be strong enough to crush us. In recognition of the immense potential for oppression and destruction, some consider government a necessary evil. Ludwig von Mises, an arch-libertarian but not an anarchist, disputed this characterization. “Government as such,” he declared, “is not only not an evil, but the most necessary and beneficial institution, as without it no lasting social cooperation and no civilization could be developed and preserved.” Like all who inherit the Lockean tradition, Mises believed that a strong but limited government, far from suffocating its citizens, allows them to be productive and free.
For more than a century after its formation the United States had a government that approximated, perhaps as well as any actual government ever did, the ideal envisioned by Mises: strong but limited. Despite major shortcomings, especially its oppression of blacks and Indians, the government created a political and legal environment conducive to rapid economic development, fostering what Willard Hurst, the eminent legal historian, has called a “release of energy.” Inventiveness, capital formation, and organizational innovation flourished as never before. Specialization and trade increased prodigiously. During the nineteenth century the nation became the world’s richest and freest society.
The nation’s second century, however, has witnessed a decline of the commitment to limited government and extensive private property rights. In 1900 the government still approximated a minimal state. Americans did not practice pure laissez-faire—no society ever did—but they still placed binding constraints on government and allowed relatively few projections of its power into the economic affairs of private citizens. That long-established restraint has largely dissolved during the past seventy years. Government now suffuses every aspect of economic and social life; it may now, as Warren Nutter said, “take and give whatever, whenever, and wherever it wishes.”
Before proceeding to my second recommended volume, I may briefly need to discuss and explain the term ‘Leviathan.’ It of course refers to the politic treatise by the same title written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. The use of the term in that book in turn was based on what is found in the Hebrew Scriptures, notably the Book of Job.
There Leviathan is a sea monster, often used symbolically to refer to the enemies of ancient Israel. Hobbes had argued for a strong centralised government with all power given to the sovereign. This was the only way to deal with anarchy, the state of nature, he argued.
My second book also utilises this term. I refer to Slaying Leviathan, a brand-new book by Glenn Sunshine (Canon Press, 2020). His volume is somewhat broader and is written from a Christian perspective. The subtitle makes clear his aim: “Limited Government and Resistance in the Christian Tradition.”
In it he traces how political theory has evolved over the past 2000 years, and how Christians have interacted with the State. In just under 200 pages, his historical overview is admittedly brief, but one comes away with a good grasp of how things have developed over the centuries.
One main point of the book is that there has always been a tradition of the church seeking to keep government in check – of not allowing the State to become the sole source of power, as people like Hobbes had envisaged and argued for. This was even found back in the early church where resistance to the Roman imperial cult and idolatry were resisted by the early Christians.
The Protestant wing of the church especially had much to say about these issues. The magisterial reformers, following much of what had gone before, accepted the role of the State as God-given. The more radical reformers – the Anabaptists – however, were strongly anti-State in all regards.
But the Reformers also had to deal with the State when it turned against God. How far is submission and obedience to government to extend in situations like that? They developed a “resistance theory”. That is, Luther and others wrote about when and why resistance to the State would be necessary. There is a place for civil disobedience, they argued.
Sunshine devotes several chapters to Continental and British resistance theory, and the differences between the two. He writes: “The consensus, beginning with Luther’s Torgau memorandum (1530), was that when the king broke the fundamental laws of God or of the kingdom, the lesser magistrate had the right and responsibility to lead resistance against the king. In Britain, resistance theory went in a more radical direction.”
(Luther died in 1546, and in 1550 his line of thought was further developed in the Magdeburg Confession.) As to the British proponents of this, consider just one of them, Christopher Goodman (1520–1603), an exile from Queen Mary’s persecution of Protestants, who wrote on this theme in 1558. Says Sunshine:
Goodman’s treatise argued that although it would be best if resistance to tyranny were led by the lesser magistrates, if lower officials failed to take that responsibility, the common people could rise against the tyrant. Further, Romans 13 only applies kings who reward good and punish evil, as the text itself shows; it does not apply to tyrants who punish good and reward evil. In fact, since tyranny comes from Satan, to obey a tyrant is to rebel against God. Far from being a sin, resistance to tyranny is therefore an obligation in the sight of God.
The book goes on to cover legal and political thinkers such as Grotius, Suarez and others. John Locke and his Two Treatises of Government (1689), along with the Founding Fathers and the US Constitution are also covered. He ends his book with these words:
We are witnessing government regulations interfering with even the most basic religious activities, including dictating when and where we can worship and even what we can and cannot do in our free exercise of our faith, while not holding secular groups or even the government itself the same restrictions.
If the state can insinuate itself into religion, is there any area of life that can truly claim to be independent of state regulation? Government regulations dictate what can be taught in public schools, determine accreditation for non-government schools, determine what we eat or drink . . . . the list goes on and on and gets more and more specific. And in some areas, the government actively encourages people to report on their neighbors for violating the rules.
This is not a lifestyle of a free people. This is soft totalitarianism.
This is how Leviathan is reborn.
Yes quite right. As I mentioned, it is imperative that we regain a sense of history. For hundreds of years the ideas and ideals of liberty and limited government lie at the heart and soul of the West. But today we are witnessing the sudden and thorough erosion of such important social goods.
We must act now before it is too late. And reading important volumes such as the ones I discuss here is part of how we join the resistance.