During a question-and-answer session after a public lecture I gave on a college campus, a student asked me whether I am in favor of “big government or small government.”
I told her that I have a difficult time answering that question. A lot hangs on how we assess a government’s job performance. Most of us would agree that, at the very least, a state should provide a police force and military protection for its citizens. Maintaining streets and highways also seem to be a necessary government service. Attention also must be given to public safety measures: parents whose kids walk to neighborhood schools should be grateful for stop signs, traffic lights, speed zones, and crossing-guards.
I personally would add several other things to the list. I enjoy state and national parks, and I am glad there are laws preventing child and spousal abuse. I support consumer safety regulations. I enjoy museums and public radio. And even many of the most consistent “small government” advocates rightly insist on a government-sponsored “safety net,” to provide health care for the poorest and neediest of our fellow citizens.
In short, I find myself quickly going beyond the limits set by those who speak most loudly about “getting the government out of our lives.”
I acknowledge, of course, that there are legitimate arguments that can — and should — be carried on about many specifics. When can a given service be most effectively provided by non-government groups and agencies? When does a top-heavy governmental bureaucracy itself become a detriment to the common good? These are important questions that must debated.
The underlying issue here, though, is the question, What are governments for? What is their basic role in collective human life? In the Christian tradition, those who have argued for serious limitations on the functions of the state have portrayed government primarily as a remedy for our human sinfulness. Here is a concise statement along that line from one of the first books about Christian political thought that I studied as an undergraduate at a church-related college: God established governments, the author said, in order to keep “a large number of evil people working at cross purposes” from doing all the bad things that might otherwise be done.
Fair enough. Sin is real and it does need to be kept under control. But the Bible also points us to a more positive function of government. Psalm 72 is an interesting case in point. It uses a nurturing image in depicting good political leadership. A righteous ruler, it says, promotes justice, and will “defend the cause of the poor of the people.” The policies of this kind of leadership “shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.”
Obviously, it takes some work to decide what this may mean for our present situation. And the effort requires a good dose of humility. I have changed my mind on policy matters many times in my adult life — and I continue to argue these matters, not only with other people but even in my own mind and heart. The issues are complex ones, but we should work on them with the knowledge that God wants governments to nurture, to promote human flourishing in appropriate ways. That surely means that governments should not get so big that they hinder our ability to flourish as human beings — but neither should we want them to be too small!