There are many who complain that big government is the root of all our problems. If we could but rid ourselves of its intrusive presence in our lives, things would be much better. Many complain about the effects of big government but few look at its cause.
Big government does not just happen. In fact, big government, where the State enters into every facet of society, should not happen. The State exists to safeguard the general order which in turn allows the intermediary bodies of family, community and Faith to develop free from its control.
Moreover, most modern States are protected by constitutions which are supposed to restrain the powers and growth of government. But everywhere we look, we see that these limits have not been respected and ballooning bureaucracies thrive.
Obviously there are other factors at work that make big government possible. And if we are to resolve the problem of unrestrained big government, we must look for and address these causes.
The well-known conservative writer Russell Kirk makes a very interesting observation that gives us a clue as to what these causes are and how we might return to limited government.
Kirk writes: “beneath any formal constitution—even beneath our Constitution…lies an unwritten constitution much more difficult to define, but really more powerful.” This unwritten constitution consists of “the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution, but which nevertheless form the fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.”[i]
In other words, we as a people have lost that vital link with the customs, manners, conventions and virtues that serve as a foundation for our Constitution. We have severed ourselves from our Christian roots, the natural institutions of family and community and the common law tradition that normally and naturally serve to temper and limit government.
It is this destruction of moral values, institutions and customs that makes big government possible. Without this “unwritten constitution,” a void is left, which allows big government to come charging in. We start losing our freedoms.
It used to be, for example, that families took care of their own. However, when the institution of the family was devastated by the sexual revolution of the sixties, it created a real problem of broken families and prepared the way for a false solution in the form of big government that rushed to fill the void and assumed responsibilities that did not belong to it.
It used to be that members of a community helped one another when problems arose. There was a sense of honor that prevailed in the community where families took pride in being honest and self-reliant. But with the decline of communities and the anonymity of the giant cities, people find no disgrace in asking big government to be the nanny of last resort and take care of their basic needs.
We once confided in God’s Divine Providence to provide for our necessities – to give us this day our daily bread. But with the secularization of society, many no longer know how to ask God to meet their daily needs even as they utilize their God-given talents, and instead look to government entitlement programs as a new kind of providence—hardly divine.
Part of the blame for the destruction of these institutions and customs can be traced to our culture of instant gratification. In my recent book, Return to Order, I use the term “frenetic intemperance” to describe a reckless and restless spirit of unrestraint that has long plagued modern economy and undermined social institutions.
Frenzied markets lead people to resent the very idea of restraint and scorn the spiritual, religious, moral and cultural values that are part of Russell Kirk’s “unwritten constitution” that normally serve to order and temper our life together in society and prevent big government.
What we need is a return to a framework of order that reconnects us with our Christian roots and our tradition of limited government. Much more than government programs, this order is truly the heart and soul of economy.
We need to rid ourselves of the now-dominant frenetic intemperance in the economy that is constantly throwing markets out of balance and replace it with a corresponding temperance.
This cannot be done by legislation, regulation or rigid planning. It is something that must be addressed personally by changing our frenzied and rushed lifestyles where instant gratification is the order of the day. It is a challenging shift in values that will put back in place the natural immunity systems of family, community and Church that will assure us of a society that is stable, healthy and prosperous once again.
Until then, big government will only get bigger.
[i] Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969), 168.