Let the Debate Begin: The Role and Reach of Government

As I have discussed in previous posts, government is a gift from God that offers many benefits to society. Most of us likely agree that a robust yet limited government is essential to create a safe and ordered society and provide for the common good.

But if government does so much good, why do we have such strong disagreements about its proper role and reach?

Effective government creates a community of mutual accountability and responsibility where everyone gives and receives. Government expects citizens to care for themselves and their families, to respect the life and property of others, and to contribute to the collective good. When everyone lives up to these responsibilities, society flourishes.

The problem, of course, is that even though most people do their part, others fail to live up to their responsibilities. Still others seem to fall through the cracks and get trapped in difficult, even despairing conditions. These are the types of situations that demand a response from political leaders. These are also the types of situations that lead to some of our greatest differences in opinion about what government can and should do.

One answer is for government to compel certain actions, writing and enforcing laws that require everyone to act in certain ways. We have grown accustomed to paying taxes to sustain the work of government, observing traffic laws that maintain public safety, and following the criminal code designed to protect life and property. We comply and expect the same from others. Those who violate the law are subject to punishment.

Although we find significant agreement that some laws are necessary to maintain a just society, we disagree about what kinds of laws are best and what role government should play. Many of our deepest political differences are about the proper range and scope of government. We disagree about which actions should be required and which should be voluntary.

We need to engage in such discussions and be willing to listen to opposing views as we think about what issues and problems government is best able to help address. I find it helpful to separate the discussion into two questions: (1) is this a problem government could address? (in other words, is this something government is well-placed to accomplish or provide?) and (2) is this a problem government should address? (in other words, is this something better left to individuals on their own?). We won’t all agree on the answers to these two questions, but they offer a useful starting place for a meaningful dialogue about our areas of greatest difference.

When evaluating the merits of various political proposals, it is tempting to ask how they will affect us, weighing what we stand to gain or lose personally. As kingdom citizens, however, we need to stop thinking primarily about how government appears to help or harm our own particular interests and instead consider more broadly how government can help secure the common good.