A Simple Argument for Good Government

The founders, probably not thinking about adding a “right to free alcohol and tobacco” to the bill of rights.

1. Small government is less likely to do evil to you than big government, so small government is better.

2. People who struggle through life encourage the growth of government.

3. Therefore, given (1) and (2), it is better to help people not struggle through life.

4. Two of the primary causes of people struggling through life are coming from broken homes and living life irresponsibly.

5. Therefore, given (3) and (4), it is better to discourage both of those things.

6. Government can choose to do things that limit broken homes and living life irresponsibly.

7. Therefore, given (5) and (6), government ought to actively seek strong families and moral, responsible living.

While most conservatives likely agree with everything, many libertarians accept premise (1) but reject the conclusion (7), despite agreeing with many of the items along the way.

This line of reasoning is one of the reasons I am a conservative myself, and not a libertarian. Large government is directly tied to the needs people have and for which they then petition the government to address.

A village in a valley that floods might petition the government for something they can’t build by themselves (a dam, for instance). A child who is practically abandoned by his parents due to divorce and subsequent demands on the parents needs help in many areas of life, and so the government steps in in the name of benevolence. An adult who engages in behavior which result in disease and a broken life needs government assistance. Big government thrives on human need.

What is better is not having policies which encourage the situation in the first place. Unfortunately, a large government wants to increase in size, and so doesn’t discourage the situation. A government can’t stop a valley from flooding by changing the laws of nature, but a government can certainly prevent divorces by making them hard to get instead of more simple and convenient than filling out warranty paperwork for a refrigerator.

Pre-Existing Conditions

President Trump recently signed a variant of Obamacare into law. Despite being pretty consistent with the law it replaced, many articles (and many comments responding to those articles) have brought up all of the old debate topics that popped up when Obama signed the original massive healthcare bill.

One topic in particular that seems to consistently divide people is insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions. If someone wants to buy health insurance but already has a medical condition for which health insurance would help alleviate costs, some argue that it is cruel to deprive them of the opportunity. Who needs it more, after all?

Answering this concern is straightforward and simple, and it’s a good lesson in how to respond to fuzzy emotional complaints (which are a terrible grounding for law). There are straightforward economic reasons that it’s actually impossible for health insurance to cover pre-existing conditions.

By “insurance”, I am referring to a system in which a large number of people pay money in proportion to some risk they may incur into a fund and out of which fund a small percentage of those people may withdraw money should they realize the risk accidentally. Paying money “in proportion to risk” simply means that some people are more likely to incur whatever risk the insurance hedges against, and so pay extra as a result to balance the flow of money in and out of the fund. The reason the risk must be realized accidentally is to avoid fraud.

All insurance works this way. Millions of people pay a car insurance company to protect their cars. Younger drivers, elderly drivers, and drivers with a history of traffic violations all pay more. More expensive cars also end up costing more, regardless of who is driving them. Thankfully, most people don’t get into car accidents, and so most of the people paying into the system never get anything out of it but peace of mind (or, in some places, the ability to legally drive their car). If someone goes out and bashes their car with a baseball bat in order to obtain a new one from insurance, their insurance company will decline the request; fraud would ruin the system.

Now imagine if suddenly, car insurance companies were required to cover cars which are already damaged. If you don’t have car insurance and you get into an accident, the car insurance company under penalty of law cannot decline you as a client. Nor can they hold you as a client indefinitely; you can always leave an insurance contract after a period of time. What would this do to the system?

Well, no one would buy car insurance until they got into a car crash. Why pay for something that does absolutely nothing for you? But can you see what this does to the equation? If 1000 people each pay $100 into car insurance each year and only 10 get into a car crash (we’ll estimate $10,000 as an average cost of each accident), then you have 1000 x $100 = $100,000 coming into the fund and 10 x $10,000 = $100,000 going out.

But if car insurance can be purchased on the spot even after a car accident to cover the car accident, 990 of those people won’t be paying anything. Why would they! They could get the benefits of insurance any time they actually needed them. The new equation is 10 x $100 = $1000 coming into the fund and 10 x $10,000 = $100,000 going out. $99,000 short to cover the expenses. The insurance company would foot the bill and would close. No company could take $99 in loss for every $1 of income.

This same analysis applies to medical insurance. No one would purchase medical insurance until they had a condition if it covered “pre-existing conditions”. This means that the only people paying into the fund are those who need to withdraw from it. You can hopefully see where this is going: “buying insurance” would cost as much, if not more, than paying out-of-pocket for all medical costs.

“But wait”, I hear you say. “What if the government also forced everyone to buy insurance?” This is exactly what they’d need to do. But now you’ve got an even bigger problem. First, in the United States, it is simply unconstitutional for the government to force citizens to buy a product or service. The Supreme Court, sympathetic to Obama, knew this. That’s why, despite Obama selling his Obamacare plan as something that would not raise taxes, the Supreme Court was forced to say that it increased taxes. Without forcing citizens to pay into the system, it would collapse.

But this isn’t the only problem, and it’s the reason the system collapses everywhere it is tried.

The more that insurance covers, the more expensive it is. That seems pretty straightforward. But the more it covers, the more expensive it also makes the services it covers. When insurance is used exclusively to pay for a particular service – and no one ever needs to pay out-of-pocket for it – that service increases in price. There’s no competition or bartering going on. The insurance company can raise rates and there isn’t much you can do about it.

This leads to a single-payer sort of system, where insurance companies simply can’t keep up with the demands of the government and are eventually just made into a government bureaucracy of their own. This costs incredible amounts of money (as it automatically raises the costs of services without limit), and is unreliable over longer periods of time and over populations with varied wealth and medical needs.

Much of this is beyond the scope of the problems with single-payer health care, but you can see already how it is all tied together, one problem necessitating a solution which itself becomes a problem, etc. The point is, any insurance which purports to cover “pre-existing conditions” isn’t insurance. It’s just an extra cost and added hassle on your way to paying the full cost of whatever service you want.

Can There Be a Truly Secular Government?

Can there be a truly secular government? It all depends on what we mean by the term secular, of course. The word comes from Latin saeculum, the span of time after which no one alive at present will still be living. Eventually, the church used it as a way of referring to worldly power, and this seems to have stuck. To be secular is to be distinguished from the church. On this older view, secular government is any that is not run by a clergyman. Clearly, these governments exist and have existed for millennia.

But this isn’t what most people mean by the phrase “secular government”. Usually, the idea is a government free from overt religious influence. It is this definition to which my question refers. This other conception of secular government includes the original definition but expands upon it.

The Wall

Lets look at the United States as a means to answering the question, since the United States and its constitution represent a major development in the modern notion of secular government. It has the quintessential “secular government”. I also live there.

The first amendment to the United States constitution reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The common understanding of this amendment is that it provides for a wall of separation between religion and government. But this notion of a wall originated not with the constitution, but with a letter by Thomas Jefferson.

As Daniel Dreisbach writes:

Jefferson was inaugurated the third President of the United States on March 4, 1801, following one of the most bitterly contested elections in history. His religion, or the alleged lack thereof, was a critical issue in the campaign. His Federalist Party foes vilified him as an infidel and atheist.

One pocket of support for the Jeffersonian Republicans in Federalist New England existed among the Baptists.

The Baptists had written the President a “fan” letter … chastizing those who had criticized him “as an enemy of religion[,] Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.”

In a carefully crafted reply, Jefferson endorsed the persecuted Baptists’ aspirations for religious liberty:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.””

Although today Jefferson’s Danbury letter is thought of as a principled statement on the prudential and constitutional relationship between church and state, it was in fact a political statement written to reassure pious Baptist constituents that Jefferson was indeed a friend of religion…

Jefferson, as president, clearly did not intend to mean what is often said of him.

Jefferson endorsed the use of federal funds to build churches and to support Christian missionaries working among the Indians.

The rest of the article is fascinating and highly recommended. But this is enough to make the point. The “wall of separation”, often used as though it has both constitutional power and refers to the modern notion of secular government, is a myth. We must also keep in mind that many of the states which ratified the constitution had their own state denominations. Clearly, the founders didn’t build a wall.

So what does the first amendment really mean?

A Christian Nation

Joseph Story was a supreme court justice in the 19th century. He was nominated for the role by James Madison, a man hailed as the “Father of the Constitution”. Joseph Story was both a scholar and someone with personal access to the authors of the constitution. Who better to author comprehensive commentaries on the document and its amendments?

His commentaries, not known by many today, paint an entirely different picture of the first amendment than we commonly see it today:

The real object of the [first] amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity [atheism], by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government. It thus cut off the means of religious persecution, (the vice and pest of former ages,) and of the subversion of the rights of conscience in matters of religion, which had been trampled upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age.

In other words, when reading the first amendment we should see the word denomination in the place of religion. It would give us a more accurate understanding.

This makes a lot of sense. The constitution is a document heavily influenced by the Christian religion, a fact we simply can’t get away from. The presumptions it makes about the value of human life, the fact we have something called rights (a topic I plan to study soon and write some articles about), and the sorts of rights we have all stem from Christianity. The concept of religious liberty is also a Christian idea.

Given all of this, the first amendment’s context becomes clear. It isn’t designed to provide for a pluralistic, relativistic society. Instead, it protects Christians from being pressured to join other denominations so that the Christianity in the hallway (to borrow CS Lewis’ metaphor) can be a unifying foundation for the entire nation.

Our House Divided

Can there be a truly secular government? Not in the modern sense, and the founders knew it.

Every law, every guiding principle of jurisprudence, every court ruling, every decision by a representative, judge, or executive is done on the basis of a worldview. Everyone has one. The alternative to politicians acting in accordance with their consciences is to have them act against what they believe is right, something I think we should all be concerned with should we ever see it.

This is not a simplistic view. A judge may act against his own intuitions when rendering a verdict because he wants to remain faithful to the law. But this isn’t an act of the judge violating his own worldview, because his worldview is the thing which holds the law higher than his own opinion.

What’s needed is a unifying force. Something which will keep everyone on the same page. It can’t be a constitution, because constitutions can be ignored. They’re just pieces of paper. It can’t be a sentiment, because sentiments change. It can’t be an army, because armies can’t change minds; they often can’t even change outward actions. It can’t be law, because while laws may cause behavior, they themselves are caused by something else.

A truly secular government, in the modern sense, is one which is free of overt religious influence. But everyone has a religion; everyone has a worldview. Everyone has beliefs about the world, about human nature, about the nature of the whole universe. These beliefs constitute his religion, and these beliefs are not private. There isn’t anyone alive who could participate in a truly secular government; he’d bring too much “baggage”. And if he decided to leave the baggage behind, he’d have nothing to base his decisions on.

The unifying force in America is Christianity. It always has been. When you understand the historical context into which America was born, you can see it clear as day. The founding documents are full of Christian assumptions. The guiding principles are Christian in character.

Religious liberty, protecting the weak and innocent, valuing life, learning of objective beauty, truth, and virtue; all of these things were based on the same Christian worldview that our constitution was. Is it any wonder, as we have drifted into aimless pluralism that all of these things have been lost along with the force of the constitution?

Without this force, we lose our national soul. I suspect it is already lost. We have nothing on which we can all agree as Americans, because our very fundamental assumptions about the world are completely divided.