What are the Principles of Good Government?
So much of what our government does seems contrary to all that's sane. The runaway spending, confiscating wealth from the productive and channeling it to the indolent are just some of the ways that our government appears to have lost its mind.
During confusing times like these, we must anchor ourselves to first principles. What follows are five basic concepts that are both derived from Christian theism and that are widely recognized as essential in advanced democratic societies. They are revelation, law, justice, constraint, and humanity.
Governments act contrary to these principles when they try to remove all symbols of religion from the public, when they ban prayers in government buildings and when their schools intimidate school children for carrying a Bible to school and reading it. Public officials need not promote religion, but they should support it and regularly acknowledge the God that is over government.
Revelation--The Divine Manifest
First, God has revealed himself along with His standards of morality. This fact is properly basic and should be assumed by every public official. The fact that God exists is not only an assumption that America’s founding fathers made, it's also the most rational position to take. A universe without a Creator leads to the most absurd conclusions. Furthermore, God’s existence is agreed upon by the great monotheistic religions of today. Even though there are great differences between the religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, they are largely in agreement about God’s standards of morality.
God gets to set the standards for morality because He is sovereign; all rulers are, first-and-foremost, his ministers. This changes the dynamics of political theory and practice because it puts all human authority under God. And if all human authority is under God, then those “ministers” are obligated to operate within the confines of his standards of morality as reveled in the natural law and in the Bible. And when I speak of "natural law" I am not referring to some ephemeral idea in the cosmos, but rather the law within us, sometimes what we refer to as "conscience." We have an awareness of right and wrong, just as sure as we are aware of the physical world.
Because God is sovereign, we are under obligation to submit to his authority. God's standards of righteousness come to us in the form of moral commands and prohibitions that we are obligated to obey. And this submission is just as much incumbent upon the lawmaker as it is the citizen: all lawmakers are obligated to uphold God’s standards of morality in the laws that they pass. Public officials should set the standard by submission to God's standards of righteousness and charging the people to submit to those standards.
Men are prone to making rules in order to exercise dominion over society. Some rules are “laws”, that is, they are official rules that embody the divine standards of morality, standards such as do not steal or do not kill. Lawmakers are to secure God’s standards in the laws that they make, upholding the principle of lex rex—the law is king.
If there's no God, we are left with rex lex: the king is law. We are left to the mercy of the Hitlers and the Pol Pots if man is a law unto himself. Lex rex conforms to what we already accept in advanced western democratic societies: that public officials are servants, not masters; they are the caretakers of the laws, not the final sources of law. The father of the common law, Henry de Bracton said that the king was under God and under the law, because “the law makes the king.”
Since God has revealed himself and laws are his standards of righteousness, public officials have the authority to exercise power against those that provide an affront to these standards. That is, they have the power to administrate justice, the punishment of the guilty for crimes committed and protection for the innocent from criminal acts.
After the savage attack on America on September 11, there were many news reports about the event and America’s response. One common refrain that I heard went something like this:
Is our response to the terrorists just or is it revenge?
The fact is that the state serves as an instrument of revenge against those that commit criminal acts against its citizens. While we should not seek personal vengeance for wrongs committed against us, the state has no such restraint and, as a third party, should act as an agent of vengeance against brutal acts such as rape, murder, and kidnapping. Now, this may be contrary to what you've heard—after all, many of us have been taught that we should not seek vengeance and there is some truth to that. You and I have the power to forgive, one of the greatest moral powers known to man. And we should exercise that power against wrongs done to us personally. But a state is a corporate entity; it cannot offer “collective forgiveness” or “forgiveness by proxy.” Sometimes the state tries to do this, but when it does, it is malfunctioning.
If a woman has a child that is brutally killed in a drive-by shooting, the state should not come to that mother and say “we’re going to forgive the attacker and so should you.” No, the state should tell that woman “we will do all within our power to catch your child’s murderer and punish him for what he did.”
When the state brings force on people for criminal acts and it protects the innocent from the criminal acts of their neighbors, then justice has been served. Our public officials do not determine what is just. Both we and our public officials are morally obligated to serve justice. When your elected officials and law enforcement officers punish the criminal and protect the innocent, they have served justice.
Government officials also serve justice when they act as an arbiter to settle social disputes in a fair and dispassionate way. A government is being just when it settles disputes fairly by hearing and settling cases regardless of the social standing of the citizen. Rich and poor alike can have their case heard and settled based on the law. Justice then is served when all can approach the law to have their cases settled fairly.
Constraint--Limitation under Law
Not only must government constrain the guilty, it must also constrain its own power. Because public officials are agents of God, they are necessarily constrained in the use of their physical power. King David cannot use his power of office to covet after his neighbor’s wife and then use that power to kill the husband. Ahab and Jezebel cannot covet Naboth’s vineyard, plot to bear false witness against him, and take possession of his vineyard. While these rulers possessed the power to kill their subjects, we still can say that what they did was “wrong” because the rulers have a prior commitment to exercise their power under God's standards of righteousness. If all that we have is rex lex, then there is little we can say against the powerful exploiting the weak.
Perhaps one of the greatest insights by some western political theorists is that citizens will live better lives under peace and prosperity if their governments are constrained by institutional limits. In the United States, this is done by a constitution which separates the power of law across regions and within the government.
Because the state is an instrument of physical force, it often possesses a hubris that it can solve most of our social problems by coercion and regulation. But this is an illusion. The power of the state cannot raise morally responsible children or create a market to sell products. In fact, the state cannot create any moral standard; it can only support those standards that already exist. Therefore, anytime the state ventures into a new area that it has not touched before, there should be a social assumption that the state should not intrude into that area.
As a rule, our historical experiences tell us that the maintenance of a free society requires a dispersion of power, not only within the government, but also across society. Government should not rob citizens of their power to defend themselves and their families. Governments that do so wrongly believe they can defend their citizens at all times or they are so apathetic that they do not care that they are defended.
Government is also constrained in that it is not to stand in the way of man’s charge to exercise dominion over his world. While I do not ascribe to “Dominion Theology,” there is a recognized connection between control and responsibility. People should be able to have significant amount of freedom over those areas for which they are responsible. Excessive government regulation is likely to encourage a diminishing of responsibility. Public officials must avoid the tendency to use their power to try to fix everyone’s problems. Government officials hold office primarily to see that good laws are passed that will assist law enforcement in catching criminals and defending the weak.
Humanity--Justice with Dignity
Governments exist to serve the people; the people are not in the service of the government. Ours is a nation that possesses a government and not the other way around. For that reason, the assumption should be that all powers not explicitly given to government by God is either exercised by the other institutions of authority or held my men in their individual capacity.
Public officials should take care to treat the people within their territory with respect. The people are not the “masses”; they are not “clients.” They are not the “subjects” of social science experimentation. They are creatures created in God's image. They are citizens. They have rights, some of which are divinely required. Public officials should take care not trample on the rights of citizens. Public officials that view the American people as morons or fodder for their programs are not fit to govern. Yes, some people are consistently morons and all of us do stupid things sometimes. But there is a dignity that we are to accord all people because they are special; they are God's special creation. Public officials should treat them that way.
Today, these principles are being woefully neglected. However, if we possess the moral courage to act rightly, we will witness a dramatic decline in violence and the return of a more just society.
© 2013 William R Bowen Jr