Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Can Leviathan Be Tamed?

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.”
Philippians 4:8-9 (King James Version of the Bible)

One of the great benefits of the past few months of rehabilitation from open heart surgery has been a renewed appreciation for the gift of life. It really is good to be alive! Another has been the opportunity to spend large blocks of time thinking, then re-thinking the great issues of my times. Time away from the media spin doctors, contemporary culture, and the pressure of common sense has been quite medicinal.

One of the things I’ve become very aware of since December has been the enormous influence our mass media, culture, and public opinion exert on us. The ability these institutions have on us is pervasive and often pernicious. They often shape our opinions so that they conform to standards we would never reasonably accept if we took the time to think about whether or not the standards we so readily accept are right or that conformity is healthy.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Robert Higgs’ Crisis and Leviathan (Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. Two things have become clear to me in the reading. First, I believe Professor Higgs is correct in his notion of the ratchet theory. Briefly stated, Higgs believes that one of the prime movers in the growth of government over time lies in government response to a crisis. A war, for example, warrants a government stepping in and often stripping citizens of fundamental rights. The pretext for the expansion of power used by political leaders at such times is that the powers to be exercised are necessary to protect the nation’s citizens. The thesis seems reasonable at the time of the crisis and few citizens complain, believing that government is acting in their best interests. Then, when the war ends or the economic crisis passes, government’s power wanes ever so slightly, but never back to where it was when the crisis began. The other thing that accompanies the crisis is a shift in public opinion, or ideology. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the United States was far more conservative in its outlook than it is today. That is not to say that there isn’t a form of conservatism alive today, but it is to say that today’s conservatism is far from the conservatism of Edmund Burke or our Founding Fathers. A couple of hundred years ago conservatives held to notions like the value of individual liberty and limited government. Today, when airwave conservatives decry liberal ideas like the welfare state they don’t necessarily mean to limit government. Government must be fashioned to suit their ideology in the same way government from the left must conform to the ideology of the leftist. The end result is that government becomes more and more powerful. The government may be left of center or right of center, but one thing is certain. It has been, and is becoming more and more powerful with each inevitable crisis.

My interest in Higgs’ work lies less in his theories of government than it does in the ideological shifts he sees taking place in the public square over time. As I think about the enormous changes in ideology I’ve seen in my lifetime many questions come to mind, particularly as they apply to matters of faith. The most important of them for me is whether “American” religion has shaped ideology or whether ideology has re-shaped religion and un-pinned it from its historical moorings. At a personal level I find my self asking – “How much of my faith is historically rooted and how much of it has fallen prey to the whims of politicians, media ideologues, or the pressure to conform to the rapid changes taking place in ideology and culture?”

Seeking the answer (or answers) to that question will take some time, but I am certain about one thing. Along with the shifts in ideology have come coarseness, stridency, anger (sometimes rage), and hate. It has happened at almost every point along the current ideological spectrums, including religious thought. The debates and public discourse have become mean spirited.

In his work, Higgs doesn’t hold out a great deal of hope for the future. Future crises will come and that will mean, as he sees it, more and more power over our economic and social affairs being taken by government. Whether that government is conservative or liberal in its character is far less important than the fact that government power will continue to increase. As Higgs put it in his conclusion, “Can such an outcome be avoided? I think not, but I hope I am wrong. Americans have been brought to their present inauspicious circumstances by, above all else, changes in the prevailing ideology.” (Crisis and Leviathan, page 262)

What does all of this mean for people of faith? What role should we play in this social drama? Have prevailing ideologies re-shaped our notion of public responsibility? Have they re-shaped our faith? If so, how do we extricate ourselves from the trap?

1 comment:

diana said...

You have put your rehabilitation to good use.
An interesting essay.I agree that over the years, debate has become meaner. This is Diana from Israeli Uncensored News