How Prudent Public Policy Staves Off Leviathan

In a recent essay, I claimed that we need an understanding of biblical anthropology to adequately comprehend the agenda behind much of American public policy in recent decades. This anthropology declares that people were created in Eden, for heaven (Phil. 3:20), and the Preacher (Qoholeth) in Ecclesiastes states that God has “set eternity in [our] hearts” (Eccles. 3:11).

C.S. Lewis believed that unsatisfied yearnings in this life pointed to another world where these longings would be fulfilled. However, when these longings are erroneously injected into the realm of public policy, many negative and even catastrophic consequences happen in an effort to re-enter Eden.

Misplaced longings can cause those who govern to exercise utopian overreach in an effort to build heaven on earth. As a result, we all get worked over by the cherubim and the sword of justice that guard the Garden—symbols of what happens when naïve agendas in the public square collide with the real world.

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Overreach on the Right has happened in the realm of foreign policy (e.g., isolationism and “nation-building”), but there are no better examples of trying to re-enter the Garden in American public policy in the last fifty years than when the political class pursued not only an equality of opportunity for their citizens but also an equality of outcome.

The aforementioned essay cited, with other examples, Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty to illustrate this foolishness. In his commencement address in 1965, in discussing the civil rights revolution, Johnson confessed that he hoped to obtain an equality of result with his policies. This might work in the original Garden, but, in the real world, it was a train wreck.

When women received more government largesse for each illegitimate child, Uncle Sam became their “husband.” Fatherless households multiplied with catastrophic effects for the children of those households: dramatically higher rates of poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, lower educational achievement, poorer physical and emotional health, earlier pre-marital sexual activity and alarming rates of illegitimacy. Utopian overreach always leads to dystopian outcomes.

The question for practicing Catholics and other orthodox Christians is how to inoculate ourselves from the disease of political naiveté and make prudential judgments in the public square. This is by no means an exhaustive list but more like a conversation-starter: five smooth stones gathered from the wadi to slay the Goliath of utopian overreach.

Smooth Stone #1: Exchange utopian overreach for the Hope of Heaven.

If utopian overreach is caused by erroneously projecting our longing for heaven onto public policy, then projecting this yearning instead toward heaven will go a long way in rectifying the problem.

By doing this we trod the path of Jesus (Matt. 6:33), the Old and New Testament saints (Col. 3:1,2; Heb. 11:14-16) and all the spiritual luminaries throughout over two thousand years of church history. They were walking on a Bridge called the Hope of Heaven that stands between this present Vale of Tears and the future Beatific Vision.

This Hope played a major role in their sanctification (I John 3:1-3) and safeguarded them from the deception of buying into politically naïve schemes. They could defer political, economic, and social gratification in this life because they knew their hopes would be fulfilled in the next.

Many in the Catholic Left, Evangelical Left, and mainline Protestant Left have exchanged the Hope of Heaven for utopian overreach. This is evidenced by their support for policies that pursue an equality of outcome that have had such a corrosive effect on society in the West. They are often no more than the political Left dressed up in religious garb.

I’ve rubbed shoulders with some on the religious Left and know of their concern to not to be so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good: “You pie-in-the-sky types are insulated from all the injustices that are going on out there; you believe in the redemption of the individual but what about the redemption of society?” some of them ask.

C.S. Lewis debunks this kind of thinking in Mere Christianity with an observation that will sound counter-intuitive to many:

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on earth precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.

One could add to this list all the heavenly-minded Catholics who have led the way in building orphanages and hospitals all over the world; many devout Christians who marched for civil rights in America in the 1950s and ’60s; and, thirdly, many believers today who are out ahead in the arenas of charitable giving and volunteerism whose generosity has been chronicled in the seminal book by Arthur Brooks, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism.

Smooth Stone #2: Another way to inoculate ourselves from utopian overreach is to embrace a Tragic-Constrained view of history rather than a Utopian-Therapeutic view.

We find the former in Greek and Roman antiquity and in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Classics scholar, Donald Kagan, summed up the Tragic view among the ancient Greeks and Romans by quoting Thucydides who talked about “a human race that escaped chaos and barbarism by preserving with difficulty a thin layer of civilization” based on “moderation and prudence” growing out of experience.

Public policy is not so much about finding “solutions” to “problems,” because solutions, Thomas Sowell correctly notes, “are not expected by those who see many of the frustrations, ills, and anomalies of life—the tragedy of the human condition—as being due to constraints inherent in human beings, singly and collectively, and in the constraints in the physical world in which we live.”

No, public policy isn’t about “solutions” to “problems;” it’s about tradeoffs. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, David Mamet, had an epiphany while reading Friedrich Hayek’s book, The Road to Serfdom, in seeing that “there is a cost to everything … there are no solutions, only tradeoffs—money spent on crossing guards cannot be spent on books. Both are necessary but a choice must be made, and this is the Tragic view of life.” (Emphasis mine.)

In this world, equality of outcome in public policy is pursued with Sisyphean frustration.

A major premise of the Utopian-Therapeutic view of life is that human beings are basically good and that human nature is malleable. If people are basically good, then you can take money from taxpayer A and give it to Citizen B without Citizen B becoming dependent on this wealth transfer: they will only use the money for a brief time before they get back on their feet. This happens with some but not with others.

The Tragic-Constrained view understands that people are fallen and that there must be incentives for many on government assistance to jettison their dependency and become productive members of society. This is why welfare reform during the Clinton administration was able to dramatically reduce the number of those receiving assistance.

More recently, in 2014, Maine implemented a work requirement for ABAWDs (Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents) who received financial assistance. As a result, their ABAWD caseload diminished by 80 percent within a few months, declining from 13,332 recipients in December 2014 to 2,678 in March 2015.

Smooth Stone #3: Exercising prudence in the public square means practicing subsidiarity, a hallmark of Catholic social doctrine.

David A. Bosnich is on-target in saying that “this tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity that can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom.” And a safeguard to utopian overreach.

The Utopian-Therapeutic view of life often prefers a large centralized government where elites—who John Stuart Mill called “the most cultivated intellects in the country”—pull the levers of power for the public good. Unfortunately, this top-down model has utopian overreach in its DNA.

Bosnich notes that de Tocqueville

predicted that modern democratic government would degenerate into a huge, paternalistic state which would guide the individual in all of his affairs and insure that all of his needs were met. “For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

Sound familiar? Leviathan cometh and much of this is rooted in secularism: when people lose their faith in big “G” God, they often transfer their trust to little “g” government.

Smooth Stone #4: Wise public policy means that following the evidence and taking an inductive approach to issues is more important than party loyalty.

This modus operandi defines one more as a “classical liberal” and not as a party hack or someone who is captive to a particular ideology.

Facts are stubborn things (John Adams); we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts (Daniel Patrick Moynihan).

For example, you may pick up a newspaper or a magazine one day and read a negative article about economists who advocate a “trickle-down” approach to the American economy. This is defined by the writer of the article as giving “tax cuts to the rich,” who, after taxes, have more money to throw around, and spend it in a way that benefits the classes below them.

With his windfall from a tax return, a millionaire may have extensive landscaping done on his property and thus have his money “trickle down” to the working class. The writer of this hypothetical article goes on to present evidence showing that these economists are wrong about their theory.

The only problem is that these so-called economists are straw men. As Thomas Sowell says, “No such theories have been found in even the most voluminous and learned histories of economic theories, including J.A. Schumpeter’s monumental 1,260-page History of Economic Analysis.”

What is true is that some economists believe that sometimes tax rates can become so high that the higher earners will hire smart accountants to hide their money in tax shelters just as the wealthy did with tax exempt securities during the Woodrow Wilson administration. This leads to less taxable income and lower revenues for the government.

When tax rates come down to the right level, it changes the behavior of investors both before and after they get their tax returns. It’s not only about after-tax income flows. Money is brought out of hiding and put back in the private economy; economic output, taxable income, and tax revenues increase, and the safety net for the poor is made more secure.

Something like this happened when tax rates were lowered during the Coolidge, Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush 43 administrations. Charitable giving also dramatically increased in the 1980s which was derisively called the “Decade of Greed” by many with the Utopian-Therapeutic sensibility.

Smooth Stone #5: Wisdom in the public square means looking at public policy through a moral prism.

One thing I’ve observed about the immigration issue is that there are those on the economic Right who like open borders because the influx of cheap labor means a better bottom line. Then there are those on the political Left who like open borders because they see millions of people who need their assistance and will become members of the Democratic Party.

The first is motivated by greed; the second by power. The former is seeing the issue exclusively through an economic prism; the latter through a political one. Neither is looking at it through a moral prism. Searching moral questions need to be asked:

Can a country practice such a cavalier attitude towards the rule of law without disastrous consequences?

Scores of people from other countries have followed all the rules and waited years to immigrate here from say someplace like Senegal or the Ukraine. Is it uncompassionate to tell the undocumented that they need to go the back of the line?

Is open borders a fair policy when legal citizens are losing their jobs and seeing their wages driven down because of the presence of the illegals? Is this fair especially to the black community who are losing unskilled and entry-level jobs to the undocumented?

Low-skilled illegal aliens have high rates of welfare dependency. Is it fair for those who are here legally to pick up the tab?

Many other questions could be articulated and I’d be the first to admit that I don’t have every jot and tittle worked out on the policy of immigration. But we all need to move beyond naïve, feel-good slogans like “Build bridges, not walls,” and get down to the hard work of creating public policy that is both morally and pragmatically substantive.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock.)


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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