In this, the third of an eight-part point/counterpoint-style debate, Brock Lawley and Theo Warner continue by considering the purpose of government from their respective positions. Secondly, Theo and Brock also respond to each other’s articles from last. Next week, the debate continues with an article entitled “Poverty: Cause and Solution.” Next week will also include a response and rebuttal to this week’s articles. Your comments are appreciated.
We can define the purpose of government in general terms, such as to ensure justice, or to provide for the common defense. Such general terms are not controversial. Where Conservatives and Liberals depart is to what extent our agreed-upon generalities are manifested in specific policies, government programs, and laws. As a Liberal, I maintain that if we are to take the purpose of government seriously, the government that would follow would be necessarily expansive. For Conservatives, government — founded on a Biblical ethic — must be kept as small as possible. That said, I think a small, Conservative government would necessarily fail to fulfill its purpose.
I will offer two brief examples.
In the phrase “to ensure justice,” there is an automatic inference to basic government functions, like punishing the guilty through some sort of fair system of laws, a transparent and fair judicial system, some democratic system of legislation, and a system of incarceration that in commensurate and appropriate to the criminal offense. On this, Conservatives and Liberals do not depart. It’s worth noting that from these modest governmental functions, government would be already more vast than a contemporary conservative would desire.
Nevertheless, Liberals would also see something insufficient in these modest government functions and that something of the purpose of government is not being met. For example, if the government exists in part to punish the guilty by incarcerating criminals, then the implication would seem to be that incarceration is a just response to crime. And while no Liberal would ever suggest that the guilty ought not be punished, the Liberal concern is that incarceration does nothing to eliminate crime from our society and is often a cause of crime. It would seem to a Liberal that punishing the guilty only with incarceration is not a thoughtful response to crime and does not befit a complete meaning of justice, which government is tasked to ensure. In terms of a specific policy that a Liberal might support and a Conservative might oppose would be programs of rehabilitation.
We are also acutely aware that justice supposes that laws should be created to prohibit people from injuring other people — that seems basic and modest enough to satisfy a Conservative. But, Liberals also recognize that there are many sorts of injuries that people can inflict upon their neighbors. For a Liberal, it follows from the purpose of government that there should be building restrictions so that architects and engineers do not injure the inhabitants of the buildings they build. Or, so that building owners do not injure the tenants in their buildings. These restriction make it such that buildings do not easily catch fire and if they do, fires do not easily spread. Far from endorsing such restrictions, Conservatives have historically argued that such restrictions impose upon the freedom of people who own building (even going so far as to wish the privatization of the fire fighting force.) It seems like the wrong concern to me and it seems contrary to justice.
Below, Brock Lawley and Theo Warner offer their responses to last week’s article: “A Vision of the Past”
Brock’s history is wrong. And misinformed. And off-topic.
Brock’s initial point was that the “first American colonists” came to the New World to “realize their faith” and to build “a freedom experiment upon the same Biblical ethic.” First? St. Augustine was certainly not an experiment in freedom. The Jamestown Settlement, the first English settlement, was actually a commercial enterprise, sponsored by the Virginia Company. Brock probably is referring to the Plymouth Colony and while they certainly came to the New World to realize their faith, they were not engaged in an experiment of freedom. Trading one state sponsored religion for another is not freedom. Religious freedom must be pluralistic. And “Biblical ethic” upon which this “freedom experiment” was based? The Plymouth colony’s Biblical ethic lead them to believe in distinct social roles for men and women, and the subordination of women. Put to a contemporary vote, such an ethic would hardly be free or Biblical.
Brock’s mentions the French Revolution; his point is that its explicit secularity caused its violence. There are similarities betweens the French and American Revolutions which include secularity. America’s religious composition, however, was far more pluralistic, making an American antagonism towards the political authority of religion far more muted. Likewise, the American monarchs were on another continent. The French Revolutionaries had to contend with a more homogeneous religious composition and a local monarchy. I think context is important in appreciating the violence of the French Revolution, far more so that secularity itself, while it is morally wrong to execute an entire class of people, as the French Revolutionaries tried. But, Brock probably doesn’t realize that most revolutions make this mistake. And most revolutions consume their leaders. Religious revolutions, such as those of the Protestant-Catholic wars in England, are not less bloody.
Brock writes that “freedom cannot endure unless based upon moral foundations,” and that, “America’s belief in freedom for all men is grounded in her spiritual heritage.” The two statements do not cooperate because a moral foundation need not be spiritual and not all spiritual heritages are moral. I do not detect a real relationship between a “spiritual heritage” and the freedom of our founding. The exception might be the religious belief that government ought to be secular. And were Brock right, who cares? Liberalism can be theistic as much as Conservatism can be atheistic. Does Brock even realize the topic of this debate?
Like most people who read Brock’s article last week, I wonder why Brock mentioned of dialectical materialism. His dislike of communistic tyranny is commendable, but tyranny is not Liberal. Such a dislike does make Conservatism’s case. And neither has Brock.
Brock equated Liberalism to checkers and Conservatism to chess, a metaphor which no one has been able to figure out. Until now. I retort with a Brockism of my own: “Conservatism is like reading Sherlock Holmes to a Cuban in German… backwards. You can’t do it twice!”