Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Proper Role of Government

I was in a meeting last night where Congressman John Shadegg made a surprise appearance. After speaking a few minutes, he took questions from the floor.

One person asked about the government's bailout of Bear Stearns (and note this commentary from Britain).

Someone else asked about the curret housing market and foreclosures. Shadegg mentioned his concern over the plan, currently in discussion, for the federal government to bail out the thousands (hundreds of thousands? millions?) of homeowners currently unable to pay their mortgages. He also commented on the Federal Reserve's recent lowering of interest rates to near-record lows.

What I wanted to ask the good Congressman - but didn't - was, "Is it the responsibility of government to manipulate the economy? What is the proper role of government?"

Whether we start with the U.S. Constitution or with Scripture (an even better place to start), I just don't see it. What I see in Scripture is pretty simple: punish evil and promote good. The government "is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13: 4). Government is also supposed to reward those who do good - or at least give approval to them: ". . . do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good (Rom. 13:3-4). [Read it all in context here.]

Sure, there are more duties than these, but these two are foundational; the Constitution lists a few more specifics - but just a few.

So where do our elected officials and their minions get the idea that government's job is to manipulate the economy? Perhaps from FDR's example during the Great Depression? Yes, the New Deal put hundreds of thousands to work. Yes, the New Deal helped get the American economy back on its feet - but only helped! Those were extraordinary times, which called for extraordinary measures.

So I leave the questions with you: "Is it the responsibility of government to manipulate the economy? What is the proper role of government?"

Let the conversation continue.

7 comments:

Jacob said...

That is a very valid question, and under our Constitution, there is no such power given to the federal government.

What is really tricky is the question of what to do with things like social services. There are many people who are now dependent upon such existence and so to pass legislation into law tomorrow eliminating these programs doesn't seem to be a very humane thing to do.

Regarding FDR:
When I was in college, it was the common consensus among the faculty, especially our free market-championing economics department, that the New Deal only prolonged the Great Depression and that only the WWII war-time economy brought it back out.

Eutychus said...

The common good, I believe that this idea has to come into play.
It is far too late now to reverse the governments control over the economy. Since day one of this Republic, we have allowed the government to tax. Taxation is certainly a control.
I remember three good points, the New Deal, the Chrysler rescue and in a New England Town the Selectmen and the Finance Committee decided to withdraw funds for providing meals and transportation for the elderly. They controlled the money, but 520 elderly town folks voted them down at a town meeting.

Kyle said...

It's important to realize that Rom 13, does not say what a government SHOULD DO or SHOULD BE, but rather tells us how God himself uses governments (agents of wrath). Remember that this book was written in the context of the evil first-century Caesars - men who could hardly be described as just or god-fearers!

I am pushed to ask that if we are to apply the Bible to every area of life, why do we insist on asking questions that the text feels no compulsion to answer? Do we christians not need to accept the fact that the Bible not only gives us the answers, but also must define the questions? When we ask questions (or demand answers from the text) that the Bible deems not to answer, are we even listening to the text at all?

The Bible is not concerned about proper government (except in the context of the OT theocracy), but about proper behavior of believers within a government (even wicked ones).

I pose another question. Since the text is silent on such issues, where would a christian go to invent a position on monetary policy?

Coffee Snob said...

Jacob: You mention the belief that "the New Deal only prolonged the Great Depression and that only the WWII war-time economy brought it back out."

When I said "the New Deal helped get the American economy back on its feet - but only helped!" I was trying not to give FDR's administration too much credit. And not being an economist myself, I didn't feel comfortable being as bold as your professors in actually blaming the length of the Depression on the New Deal. As an amateur historian, I recognize the role of WW II in actually doing the hard work of pulling the US out of the Depression (It's true tht most wars throughout history have had a positive effect on the economy).

Eutychus: Yes, taxation gives government control of the economy to a (large) degree. Maybe I'm splitting semantic hairs here, but is "control" the same as "manipulation"?

Jacob & Eutychus: I agree with youy both - the curren situation is what it is, and we're probably too far down the road to ever go back. But still, the question is worth asking: what is the PROPER role of government - not the current role.

It's kind of like discussing the difference between morals and ethics, between "what is" and "what ought to be."

Coffee Snob said...

Kyle: It seems to me that your argument is actually supporting my view.
First, you say that "Rom 13, does not say what a government SHOULD DO or SHOULD BE, but rather tells us how God himself uses governments (agents of wrath)." I agree that Rom. 13 says that God uses gov't. for this purpose. However, the very fact that God uses governments does tell us - at least in part - what the role of gov't. should be and what it should do. For example, they should punish evil-doers - that is what God has called gov't. to do (at least in part). Rather than gov't acting independently to punish evil, it exists for God to use as He punishes evil.

When you state that "The Bible is not concerned about proper government" in a modern context, are you saying that the current laws, policies, and practices of a government don't matter to God? For example, abortion in America, genocide in Rwanda, and human rights in Tibet don't cause God to weep?

And back to the topic of economic policy, Scripture certainly speaks to how individuals are to handle money. Is it reasonable to extrapolate those Biblical principles beyond the individual/family to society at large - specifically to the government?

Kyle said...

I'm rather perturbed here. I'm not sure that my points were engaged at all.

Rom 13 does not say what a government SHOULD DO or SHOULD BE but what it IS. It does not say that it SHOULD punish evildoers, but that it DOES punish evildoers. I doubt you wish to say that the 1st century Caesars (about which that passage was written) are examples of "good government," but nevertheless Paul calls them agents of God's wrath anyway. He does not say "if they do what God wants they will be God's agents," but that they are NOW (even in the midst of their wickedness) God's agents. He uses them in spite of their wickedness.

You say "Rather than gov't acting independently to punish evil, it exists for God to use as He punishes evil." There is NO SUCH THING as a government that can punish evil "on it's own," at least, that is no where to be found in Paul's letter. Go back and re-read the passage, and remember that he is talking about the Caesars.

I am not saying that social wickedness doesn't "matter" to God (which is kind of a red herring, really). All I said in my original post (and will say again here) is that God's priorities should be our priorities. The Bible is not a tool for us to use. It defines our categories and defines our priorities.

Now, about monetary policy, you are making my point for me. If the text limits it's commentary to how individuals are to care for their money (and, let's be honest - there are not a ton of passages on this) who are we to be making such extrapolations into the area of fiscal policy? We are repeatedly forbidden from doing this. To quote Paul again, "'do not go beyond what is written.'" 1 Cor 3:6b

The only way to have a Christian worldview is to allow the text to define the lens through which we view the world. When we go to it, demanding answers to questions that the text feels no reason to comment on, we cease to have a biblical worldview, because we are allowing the world to define our categories for us.

Eutychus said...

Coffee Snob and Kyle you both brought out a stimulating point.
“Romans 13 does not say what a government SHOULD DO or SHOULD BE but what it IS.” Taking that idea I ask, “How does Roman 12:2 apply?
Rom 12:2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, in order to prove by you what is that good and pleasing and perfect will of God.
John Murray (Commentary) lays out the fact that Romans 12:2 sets out the pattern of our behavior and I believe is the key here to Romans 13:1-7 (as it is in Chapters 12 and 13 of Romans). Consider then that if this is what the government IS, than what Paul is discussing should be our behavior.