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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Runaway Government and the Lust For Power

Feb 2, 2021

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.

Image of Slaying Leviathan: Limited Government and Resistance in the Christian Tradition
Slaying Leviathan: Limited Government and Resistance in the Christian Tradition by Array Amazon logo

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.

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14 Responses to Runaway Government and the Lust For Power

  • Good Article Bill, thank you.

  • Thanks Bill, an informative article as always

  • Very informative and helpful for the exact time we live in …..I am revisiting the book of Acts and the response of the disciples to various challenges/restrictions put to them

  • Well done, again, Bill!!
    re G.S. Sunshine’s ” … government regulations … dictating when and where we can worship and … while not holding secular groups or even the government itself the same restrictions.” :

    Not only is Government ‘permitting’ per se, secular groups such illegitimate licence, but also Government now purports both to:
    [A] establish ‘religious beliefs’ and mandate State Religion behaviours required to be performed – and also solemnly accorded ‘witness to’ as being truth – by institutions and their members, and also
    [B] empower [ie ‘weaponise’] secular forces to enforce mandated behaviours required by that newly-established State ‘religion’.

    Before readers conclude this view to be exaggerated, please consider : “If gender identity is wholly a social construct, based on feelings, not science, then it is a “belief” comparable to a religious belief. ….. By imposing a state-established ‘belief’ on society, the state is violating the right of citizens to freedoms of thought, conscience, belief and religion, as set out in the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [1966].” Quotes extracted ex “The Little Grey Book on Sex and Transgender” Ch 5 Transgenderism: A New State-Established ‘Belief’? p 73/4 [Patrick J Byrne, 2019].

    This is the path to the abolition of the civil and political equality of all citizens, and thus the abolition of the most basic human rights, and the path to state tyranny.

  • James White did a great talk a couple of years ago on Luther and the dangers of sacralism that ties in very well with Slaying Leviathan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2qJl1wWlKc
    I have done some thinking on this topic and intend to read this book to provide further clarity.

  • Thanks Bill.
    I agree with what you have written above, and I would also add how the Huguenots in France also developed their very similar theory of resistance, following the great massacre of Huguenots in 1572. An anonymous Huguenot published a treatise, “Vindiciae contra Tyrannos” (A Defence of Liberty against Tyrants, 1579), which inter alia asserted not only the right but the duty of the lesser magistrate to lead resistance against a tyrant who usurped the laws of God and oppressed church and state. The ideas of this treatise influenced Samuel Rutherford in his treatise “Lex Rex” (1644), and in turn the treatises, sermons, and pamphlets which circulated in the American colonies prior to their revolt in the 1770s.
    My question is this: what form should resistance take in our present situation? We have a premier (or premiers) who violate God’s laws, make laws (such as the one passed last night in the Victorian Upper house) for the benefit of homosexuals and “gay” activists, for abortionists, for unscrupulous medicos, etc., but penalise the righteous in every way possible. My own view is that Andrews’ government has lost all—and I mean all—legitimacy and must be resisted outright, not merely disobeyed in this or that point. However, unlike the Huguenots and Scottish Covenanters (and the American patriots for that matter), who took up arms in their resistance, we should resist in ways other than armed conflict. But in what ways? I propose this as a point for urgent discussion, as this tyrant will soon be coming after us, and I fear that you and your website will be near the top of the hit list.

  • Great questions Murray. Questions we all must deal with. I discuss your questions here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/02/05/we-are-all-criminals-now-in-victoria/

  • The best way to resist is to vote the Andrews Government out at the next election. We live in a democracy which may not be perfect but….If the people of Victoria stick with the Andrews Government at the next election then here us another truism: they will get the Government they deserve.

  • Thanks John. But Victorians voted him back in in 2018 with an increased majority! The Lib opposition was weak as water. And by the time the next election rolls up late in 2022, all conservatives could be in prison by then! Given that only 2 – ONLY 2 – Libs voted against the diabolical ‘anti-conversion’ bill last night, all sensible conservatives and Christians will rightly have to ask: Why in the world should we vote for this mob? They are useless. They are simply pale imitations of Labor and the Greens but with a slightly more free-market approach. The way it is going, Labor will waltz back in in two years’ time. Until we get some decent opposition, we are doomed to have this dictator for life.

  • Extreme leftism uses social justice as a mask to being about bigger government. In their pursuit of social justice and equality or inclusion, it often means more and more curtailment and restrictions on freedoms and liberties. By and large, this is playing out in most Western nations. There is an explosion of state expenditures and more government to micro manage society’s advantages and disadvantages. In their pursuits of equality, they actually inflict tyranny. Also, people are yearning to be looked after which means governments get bigger and people accept loss of freedom and civil liberties for safety (COVID-19).

    The leftist progressive policies actually always fail which leads to much bigger government expansion. Family breakdown for example leads to an explosion of state expenditures. Victimhood as virtue also leads to enormous number of fake jobs and grievance mongering.

  • Perhaps we can learn from the persecuted church in China & many other countries- forming small groups who worship pray teach & support the other members. The Holy Spirit gives us opportunities to share the “reason for the hope within us with gentleness” Opporuities even when in prison.
    Easy for me to say of course.
    Blessings Ian Kilminster

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