Who Else Thinks the Role of Government Matters?

At the core of many political debates today (tactical or strategic) is the fundamental question, “What is the proper role of government?” Liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians… every political ideology assumes or has concluded something about the role of government. (See my recent interview with Thom Hartmann about a question that I wasn’t prepared for.)

The following is a re-post wherein I respond to an impassioned thinker/seeker. First the comment, then my response:

What are some of the main differences between Christian Objectivism and what any other Christian group believes? Does everyone here still attend church? What are some of the problems you have with what is taught there? Even down to specific phrases and lines of songs that are pet peeves. What misinterpretations contribute to typical Christian teaching clashing with Objectivist values or ideas? How much renovation is needed to make what is presented right now work with Objectivism? Are we talking about a few clarifications to something that is basically right on, or everything short of rewriting the bible? –notyourkindofworld

When I received this post, I was a bit daunted by the volume of thought required to answer your questions. I did see them, and I think they’re excellent. You’re right to expect a lot of mileage from these, especially in this forum. I didn’t intend to delay so long, but it took me a while to decide how to begin. First, I appreciate all of your questions. I’ll attempt to kick it off with the first question in your montage: “What are some of the main differences between Christian Objectivism and what any other Christian group believes?”
I’m not speaking specifically to “Christian Objectivism” because Beth has a well-thought-out framework with lots of distinctives, but I think there are several elements that Christianity and Objectivism agree on. I’ll err on the side of treading too lightly on this ground because not all Christians agree. In fact, I bet there is disagreement even among Christians who post comments here. The topic is the role of government. Ayn Rand believed strongly in limited government. The role of government is to protect the rights of the individual and the the Constitution protects the individual from the government. Any time the government takes an individual’s property (money) and distributes it (entitlements, transfer payments), or uses it for any purpose outside of the government’s valid role, she would throw the yellow flag: “Foul on the play!”
Many Christians appeal to the Sermon on the Mount as justification for the many philanthropic activities of the government that move us toward social justice. After all, our country’s socio-economic condition would be considerably darker without the government programs that are currently in place. Concern for the oppressed is unarguably a central gospel theme, but that is the role of the community of Christ-followers that the New Testament calls the Church.
I think most churches and denominations in the U.S. that call themselves Christian emphasize one of two principles: getting the message of the Gospel out and making other disciples (God-followers) OR ministries of mercy and fighting against oppression, resulting in social justice. Neither emphasis is wrong, but very few churches achieve a balance. Unfortunately, many churches today don’t agree that there should be a balance. I believe there needs to be a balance. The church community to which I belong errs on the side of “getting the message out.” Over the last half a century, more churches have arisen to the challenge of getting the message out than the challenge of fighting social injustice. One reason may be that the Church has been displaced by the government in this capacity.

In the Randian environment of limited government, entitlement programs would be eliminated. No doubt, a darker, more bleak condition would ensue. But the Church historically has become a light in the darkness, a beacon, a City on a Hill during times of despair. Sure, I’m concerned that the today’s Church (of which I consider myself a part) is not up to the task. But that doesn’t excuse us.
Even within the Church, reasonable people disagree. My worldview, one in which I constantly see Objectivism and Christianity conversing, supports limited government and a more active role for the Church in society.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

17 thoughts on “Who Else Thinks the Role of Government Matters?

  1. D’OH! I haven’t even read your whole post below, Mark…but I *gotta* pipe up on the statement above. I just *really* wish I had more than two minutes right now. So I’m posting this quick “assertion” to remind myself to follow up…if you don’t hear more from me on this within a few days (and you decide that you’d like to) then feel free to come lookin’ for my follow-up…
    Jim’s assertion: “Our country’s socio-economic condition would be considerably *brighter* without the government programs that are currently in place.”
    And I don’t just mean if the programs were operated differently, or by different people, or with greater “accountability”. I mean if they didn’t exist at all and if the money currently expropriated to fund them remained with those who originally earned it.
    I guess that was a “drive-by posting”…I’ll be back…!

  2. Thanks Jim. I’m sure I need to clarify. Stop me if I’m missing your point. The government’s entitlements (payments for unemployment, welfare, disaster relief, social security) are serving people in need. I understand that there are abuses, but there is also some relief. I don’t think the government should be in this role AT ALL. It is detrimental to our economic, social, and moral health. That said, I don’t believe a “cold turkey” solution would cause substantial pain in the near-term because the government has nurtured that dependence through the its [illegitimate] role as benefactor. I agree with your assertion that the country’s future is considerably brighter without the government’s inappropriate intervention. Without that support, the socio-economic condition of those receiving from the government would become grim, immediately.

  3. This is key to the reason I am looking for people like yourselves. I align with Objectivism on all things except for the topic of religion. The reasons I can resolve the “conflict” between Christianity and Objectivisms are:

    * It is irrational to think that God does not exist.
    o The proof is overwhelming that we did not create the universe.
    o Even if we were engineered by a more advanced race, someone had to create them as well.
    o Time does not create order out of chaos. In fact, it does the opposite. Therefore, someone had to bring order to chaos (after inventing order and chaos).
    * Religion, when perverted to gain pull, is no longer religion; it is a weapon.
    o Because men use it as a weapon does not invalidate religion.
    * Jesus was the most rational man in history, teaching common sense not to gain pull, but to invest his time into making the world better.
    o Can you name another person in history who has ever done such a thing?
    o I have trouble saying Jesus was virtuously selfish, though. He also did not choose his entire path and, in fact, asked God if he can be spared the horrible punishment because of the threat to power he represented. I’m still trying to work this one out in my head (and help would be greatly appreciated!!!)

  4. I understand that there are those who are more concerned with “getting the gospel out” while others are into the “feed the needy” type of things. Intuitively I see the need for balance but explain to me this social injustice thing. I hear from some about social justice but I never hear it even remotely defined. I know of a half dozen in my church who are big into this theme and all of them voted for Obama. I mean in the ideas of public policy how can you use government to better society? I am still waiting for my city to just fix the pot holes on my street. I can’t tell you how long we’ve waited and what means we’ve gone to for a simple piece of action such as a better road. HELP!!!

  5. Daniel — Great work. I appreciate the thoughts you’ve articulated. Thanks for sharing. On your last point, I think you were getting to Jesus’s motivation, whether he could be characterized as “virtuously selfish.” I felt compelled to share a brief piece on the spiritual dimension of the Objectivist-Christian Conversation. I’m posting it on my blog, and to this group, under the title, “The Spiritual Dimension of the Conversation.” I don’t expect it to be the last word, but if I’m missing your point, please let me know and I’ll try again. I’m interested to hear your thoughts.


  6. johnnywbread – Great comment. You’re right. Fighting “social injustice” needs some clarification. (Not to be confused with Obama’s infamous “economic justice.”) I think of what Jesus did in his ministry. His inclusiveness extended to the social outcasts of the day: the people that didn’t fit in because they were born into the wrong class, suffered some disability, or were otherwise disenfranchised and labeled a “have not.” Jesus reached out to them. There was no “entitlement.” Jesus’s favor was unmerited and reflected his grace, not the character of its recipients. I want to be identified with Jesus in his ministry. I don’t believe that the government’s role is to fight social injustice. That’s a mission of the Church.

  7. I’ll pipe-in on this one too.

    The Government is necessary for providing services that we cannot live without. For example, Firefighting, Police protection, etc (in fact, I even go so far as to say Health Care for this, but that is off-topic).
    Capitalism cannot work in any situation where the people have no choice but to buy goods and services. For ALL other things, the government should have no role. The trick is to decide what is crucial to living and what isn’t. For example, can we make a case that, because people die without food, that they are entitled to a three-course meal every day by the Government? At what level does a need become a luxury? Should our homeless shelters give out anything but bread and water?

  8. Daniel — Again, thanks for your thoughts on the role of government. I can see your point about the extent of government. The definition of “limited” in the phrase “limited government” needs some specifics.
    I would limit government’s involvement further by considering private sources of the services you mentioned. As an example, you mentioned firefighting, and others. It may not be necessary to saddle the government with this service. Consider how well volunteer firefighting companies execute their responsibilities. The business model for the company that handles my burglar alarm service could easily work for a firefighting company: a quarterly fee for service that covers what I need. Other private insurers operate on a model that would work for a firefighting service. With my insurer, I pay a premium and I hope a tornado doesn’t destroy my house. If it does, the insurance company makes good on my claim. If my house is spared, the insurance company pockets the premium. The variables in the service of fighting fires are different, but they’re not insurmountable. Thanks again.

  9. Mark,

    I see your point about volunteerism. The trouble is, and I think it is also one of the flaws with the Randian universe, is that just because a person is an industrialist does not mean they are ethical. Insurance claims are denied often up front in hopes that the person is too lazy to fight it. A private firefighting firm may give preferred service to someone who pays them more, which would eventually wind up poor service to their normal preferred service, possibly costing lives. Those people have no choice but to pay for those services and, when we take away the choice, it requires self control on the part of humans. Courageous humans have this control, like the industrialists in Atlas Shrugged. Unfortunately, the world has few of those left.

  10. Daniel — To your point, I think laissez faire capitalism is the optimal economic system, despite the unethical character of some individuals within that system. In that system, competition creates balance and weeds out the unethical, whose morality (Rand would argue) is unsustainable. I think that Rand’s answer to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” would include the absence of morality, or the wrong morality. Her “Morality of Life” points to the life of the Individual as the highest value. Objectivist Ethics argue for honesty and integrity because these ultimately support and enhance the life of the Individual.

  11. Just saw a great book review on a book about this. Book is called “Is the Welfare State Justified?” by Daniel Shapiro. He makes the case that the answer is no. Of course now I’ve done a drive-by post of a drive-by book recommendation. Back to the doggie pee for me!

    In the interest of people whose heads hurt when they have to read a bunch of dense commentary, here’s a paragraph that will allow you to skip the book, but know what it says. haha

    “Daniel Shapiro has written a refreshing, penetrating book. In it he questions whether a legal system that coercively redistributes resources helps the very people it intends to help. His answer is NO. And what is stunning about this is that Shapiro shows that under any plausible political theory the welfare state is problematic. There has been a consensus in academic circles that if you care about the poor you must support the welfare state. Shapiro shows that this is a non sequitur. Whether or not the welfare state helps the poor must be decided by the empirical sciences, not by abstract principles of philosophy. And Shapiro does a great job in displaying relevant social science to show that welfare programs are, for the most part, counterproductive. His scholarly treatment of health care is particularly impressive. The lesson for political philosophers is simply this: if you want to defend redistributive institutions, get your facts rights. Show why markets fail, don’t just assume it. This is a great effort that intelligently challenges the mainstream. Egalitarians from now on will have to respond to Shapiro’s arguments. Kudos to Cambridge University Press for picking up this book.” Fernando R. Teson

  12. Is the problem that the unethical are not being weeded out today because not enough of the industrialists follow the moral code of Objectivism? If so, what action should we take to influence the moral code of industrialists to solve the problem?

  13. Daniel wrote, “Is the problem that the unethical are not being weeded out today because not enough of the industrialists follow the moral code of Objectivism? If so, what action should we take to influence the moral code of industrialists to solve the problem?”

    Rand describes The Morality of Life, embodied by the producers in Atlas Shrugged, sets itself against the Morality of Death, which demands that man atone for the guilt of being human by sacrificing his mind, values, and happiness. The producers are motivated by positive values—life, happiness, achievement. Their exploiters are motivated by negatives—death, misery, destruction.
    Rand places any faith-based worldview in this category and Christianity is at the top of her list for several reasons. First, reason v faith, mind/body dichotomy, self v sacrifice, collective v individual.
    So, the problem is that there is too little room in the world’s present system for the men and women of the mind, without whom, there will be no creation of value, wealth, and well-being.
    “Did you wonder what is wrong with the world?” – John Galt in his speech.
    As John Galt announces the strike of the mind in Atlas Shrugged, he equates two groups of individuals: the mystics of muscle and the mystics of spirit. The former are those who force production from the men and women of the mind. The latter exploit with guilt and fear, by relying on a “higher form of knowledge,” born in the consciousness, that makes their wishes into absolutes.
    Rand views history as a dynamic between warring factions. Mystics of muscle and spirit have undercut the men and women of the mind to rule them by force. Having surrendered to their own judgment to avoid clashes with others, they regard the judgments of others as a power superior to reason, believing that others have a mysterious link to reality. To control reality, they must therefore control others, seeking obedience at all costs. Their goal is to control the consciousness of others as a means of getting control over reality.
    Problems exist to the degree that the world departs from the Morality of Life. Death is the only state that satisfies the mystics’ desire for exemption from identity and causality. Poverty, suffering, destruction, and death are the consequences of their moral code—and the real motive of the code. Mystics have defaulted on the responsibility to think, act, and produce; they feel envious hatred toward, and wish to destroy, those who have not defaulted.
    James Taggart is the classic hypocritical mystic, and so the epitome of what is wrong with the world. He doesn’t think for himself and so he doesn’t create value as a producer. His is a chaotic blend of physical force, skepticism, and the “wisdom” of the collective juxtaposed against Dagny Taggart’s Morality of the Mind. Taggart’s character and consequent actions illustrate what is wrong with the world that Ayn Rand describes in Atlas Shrugged. All this to say, I don’t think Rand’s heroes are the problem. The problem is that those industrialists that should be heroes are more like James and less like Dagny.


  14. “All this to say, I don’t think Rand’s heroes are the problem. The problem is that those industrialists that should be heroes are more like James and less like Dagny.” — exactly!

    How do we solve the problem? John Galt had a solution, but we do not have the means to shrug as he did. Since I was a child I had yearned for a magical land where I wasn’t hated for what I was capable of. It is the reason my favorite story is “Profession” by Asimov — George Platen wound up in that magical land too because they could not program his mind. His mind was on that produced and innovated; what the programming was based off of.

    I look around me and think, “The people I have met throughout my life could never make such things. Where are the people who make such things?” Then I realize that they are gone, somewhere, that they used to be here, but they have all left. Is there a valley that John Galt has built? Did they go there, or is the need to be great truly weeded out of our society to the point where we are too rare to meet? How can we build it? How can we save our lives?

    I’m really enjoying this discussion — it’s like an energy drink!
    And I am DEFINITELY buying your book!

  15. The role of government seems to be at the heart of the political debate. Republicans and Democrats, Liberal and Conservative would agree on everything else, if they could agree on the role of government. Do you disagree?

  16. This may be one of the most important distinctions between those who live by Reason and those who live by The Book – any Book, including the Most Sacred Books of Ayn Rand. When I ask "what is the proper role of government," I fall back on first principles, beginning with Man as a reasoning animal who must be left free to employ Reason to obtain that which he values. I ask "what is government?" and conclude that it is a monopoly of violent action. I ask "when may man use violence?" and come up with a very small set of situations – such as self-defense. Missing from this short list of moral uses of violence is any notion of beating people up and taking their cash to support the lifestyle to which I would like to be accustomed. If I can't do it, and you can't do it, a million of us can't delegate it to "authorities." At this point, many Christians say "give to Caesar what is Caesar's", and part ways with me. Objectivists say "our One True Government will collect User Fees, which are not taxes."

    But then I ask, if I have a dispute with my neighbor, and he and I cannot resolve it, may we turn to some other person upon whom we mutually agree? And the Objectivists then say "No, our government is the One True Ultimate Arbiter of all things Just." And at this point I reply, your Book has misled you. If you and I are both free to use Reason, it will sometimes happen that you and I will disagree about the reasonable course of action. It is unreasonable to bind us at all times to a Single Monopoly Provider of Justice.

    The Objectivist protests: But what if you disagree? And I reply that Reason works that way; sometimes reasonable people are unable to find perfect agreement. To be born with the faculty of Reason is not the same as being born Omniscient.

Comments are closed.