The biblical stance on the size of government


[The article is an excerpt from my book, “Rescuing Religion from Republican Reason.”]

Fear of Totalitarianism

Humans in the 20th century witnessed something the world had never quite seen before – the totalitarian state. While other powerful governments in history have muscled their way into their citizens’ lives, modern technology enabled Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to control every aspect of those lives. For example, the Soviets assigned every citizen a specific job. Career choices were not allowed. They told people where to live. They worded every radio broadcast their people heard and directed every movie they saw, all in an attempt to control their thinking. Their society sounds like something from a horror movie. But it was real.

Naturally, Republicans accuse Democrats and moderates of being like Nazis and Soviets any time they attempt to implement a solution to protect Americans from big businesses. Sometimes they’ll go as far as to frighten people into thinking Democrats actually have a master plan to create a totalitarian America. Less extreme Republicans simply accuse the Democrats of promoting big government, merely implying that Democrats desire to control every aspect of American life. Once Republicans establish this mindset of fear in gullible Americans, they offer salvation to their followers by means of the opposite extreme – small government.

Sayings like, “The government that governs least, governs best,” establish in the minds of voters that small government is righteousness; it’s a morality. If it is indeed a morality that is one and the same as Christianity, then the Bible should consistently show God condemning government power. However, when God placed Joseph in a position to instruct the Pharaoh of Egypt, Joseph commanded the government to exercise significant power in the name of feeding its people, and God didn’t object. In Gen 41:34-36, he said, “Let Pharaoh take action to appoint overseers in charge of the land, and let him exact a fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven years of abundance. Then let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and store up the grain for food in the cities under Pharaoh’s authority, and let them guard it. And let the food become as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish during the famine.”

God had given Joseph the power to interpret the Pharaoh’s dream so that Joseph could warn the Pharaoh, implement a plan to save the people from starvation, and then bring his family to Egypt to save them from starving, too. To accomplish this, the government had to take the farmers’ crops, so they could set enough aside for the coming famine. This taking of food was a powerful act of government. A modern Republican or libertarian would label such an act as big government overreach, if not totalitarianism. If Joseph had been a libertarian, like Ron Paul, he would have let the people starve in the name of liberty and small government. God, however, was unconcerned with these false moralities; He was concerned with the well-being of people.

How Big Should Our Government Be?

If we want to establish the most righteous size of government, it makes sense for us Christians to look to God’s nation of ancient Israel for a comparison. Our initial gut response might be that God’s government was much smaller than ours, because His nation was a primitive, agrarian society. However, that point is subjective. It all depends on how we measure the size of government. If we count the number of government workers, only 0.7% of the U.S. population worked for the federal government in 2010, compared to an average of 1.0% from 1954-1991.  How does this compare to the Bible? It’s hard to say. It’s unlikely, however, that the number of law enforcers, judges, tithe collectors, etc. made up much less than one percent of the population.

If we measure the size of government by how much it taxes and spends, our government is similar in size to ancient Israel. God’s tithes for ministry, festivals, and the poor totaled 23.3% of income. Plus, God required leaving food behind in the fields for the poor, and He prohibited selling food to them at a profit. So that probably brings the wealth redistribution total to about 30% of income. As of 2010, America taxed 24% of its output,  so that’s a lower percentage than what the Israelites had to share. And keep in mind that the Israelite number doesn’t include expenditures for the military and the functioning of government. It is merely the percentage of wealth redistributed for the common good.

If we measure the size of government by the power it exerts over multiple aspects of people’s lives, God’s government was larger than ours, because He ran a one-religion nation. His laws controlled sexual behavior, diet, appearance, and rituals of worship in addition to business conduct, property distribution, and injury retribution. In a multi-religion nation like ours, legislation can only control the latter.

Some might argue that our government has more surveillance ability than that of ancient Israel, and that’s true, but that ability does not increase government power in any practical sense. Stable governments of all sizes throughout history have always had the ability to make and enforce laws and to throw people into prison or have them executed, even if it was for nothing more than questioning or opposing the decisions of those in power. If anything, our government today has less power than past governments, thanks to video and photo surveillance conducted by common citizens that broadcasts brutal acts of government and law enforcement officials to the world and incites people to react against them.

God never speaks about “size” of government in the Bible. This is probably because such an argument is of no value. In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God holds the nation of Israel responsible for making sure it follows all of His laws, statutes, and ordinances. He then gives plenty of details as to how He’ll punish them if they fail. God’s focus is on justice being served, regardless of how many people or laws it takes to make it happen.

Likewise, our focus should be the same. The size of government is irrelevant. Focusing on it simply distracts us from the issues at hand. There are good laws and bad laws; there are good regulations and dumb regulations. We should seek to pass good laws and get rid of harmful ones (or prevent their passage). If lawlessness increases, then the size of law enforcement must increase. If street crime increases, a larger police force is needed. Likewise, if corporate schemes increase, more regulations and inspections are needed. If America’s businesses weren’t so corrupt, we wouldn’t need so many regulations. We need big government to fight big greed.

When we seek to pass good laws that protect the powerless from the harmful effects of corporate greed, Republicans try to distract us by accusing us of making government bigger. They know that if they can make us fear big government, “we the people” will vote away the only power we have by turning our government over to them. They will, in turn, strip away regulations, so the corporate wealthy whom they represent will grow even richer at the expense of the innocent.

When Republicans realize that they can’t scare enough people into believing that Democrats want to implement a totalitarian government the way Stalin and Hitler did, they argue that “big government” regulations are bad for everyone. In other words, if we don’t let big business have its way, our economy will suffer, prices will rise, and jobs will disappear. Next week we’ll refute several of their arguments.