Acton Institute Powerblog

Is big government a near occasion of sin?

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It happens every day: The news tells us of some new government scandal. The executive branch uses dubious powers to circumvent the constitutional strictures of oversight. The judicial branch, in turn, creates law out of whole cloth and styles its invention the “law of the land.” The legislative branch exempts itself from its most onerous legislation but forces taxpayers to fund secret payouts to the victims of its members’ indiscretions.

Then there is the the fourth branch of government, the army of unelected regulators who translate vague legal language into exact (and often exacting) standards. Many of their number have a revolving door relationship with the corporations they are meant to oversee.

Public-sector corruption extends to the private sector, as journalists report on grifters who leverage their inside connections to “win” government contracts. They lobby regulators for specific kinds of enforcements and exemptions that artificially punish their competitors, increase their market share, and shield them from liability for their sometimes flagrant violations of the law.

If contemporary injustices weren’t enough, details regularly emerge of some decades-old misdeed the government perpetrated, usually against the poor or minorities. The government formally apologizes and launches a new program to atone for its old program. This is followed by a report months later about how the new initiative is failing is purported beneficiaries.

One would be tempted to confine this corruption to the United States, but if anything, the picture is worse overseas. In many governments – by no means confined to the developing world – the veneer of the rule of law flakes off at the lightest touch. The judiciary is formally corrupted. Prosecution focuses on the ruler’s enemies, and the verdict is never in doubt. Private businesses may be nationalized, or simply restricted to oligarchs willing to pay the leader both political homage and financial kickbacks.

Supranational governmental bodies, such as the European Union, add a further layer of corruption. Lax oversight of its grants and their remote origin in other nations provoke indifference over their distribution. Frankly, no one in Slovakia cares if its government is misspending French money. (After all, they could hardly do worse than the French.)

Why is it this way?

Put simply: Government corrupts, and larger government produces deeper corruption.

“To undertake the direction of the economic life of people with widely divergent ideals and values,” wrote Friedrich von Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, guarantees that “the best intentions cannot prevent one from being forced to act in a way which to some of those affected must appear highly immoral.” He elaborated:

There are strong reasons for believing that what to us appear the worst features of the existing totalitarian systems are not accidental by-products but phenomena which totalitarianism is certain sooner or later to produce. Just as the democratic statesman who sets out to plan economic life will soon be confronted with the alternative of either assuming dictatorial powers or abandoning his plans, so the totalitarian dictator would soon have to choose between disregard of ordinary morals and failure. It is for this reason that the unscrupulous and uninhibited are likely to be more successful in a society tending toward totalitarianism.

In other words, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man” (I Cor. 10:13). This demolishes what Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs calls “the Goodbye Lenin delusion”: the notion that socialism could work if only “better people” ran the system. The temptation to abuse power acts as the corrupting influence.

In Roman Catholic theology, the lure of big government may be referred to as a “near occasion of sin.” The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that occasions of sin are external circumstances that “either because of their special nature or because of the frailty common to humanity or peculiar to some individual, incite or entice one to sin.”

The Founding Fathers recognized concentrated government power as such a temptation at the framing of the Constitution. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51 that, since government is itselfthe greatest of all reflections on human nature,” it demands strict limits. “The great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Thus, they gave the federal government but few powers to regulate the nation’s economic life.

But scandal developed apace with the growing scope of the federal government. While few modern leaders have the character of the founders – just as few modern artists have the skill of a da Vinci – so too do they face greater temptations from a budgetary and regulatory structure festooned with special favors waiting to be auctioned off to the highest bidder every fiscal year. The more power lies in politicians’ hands, the greater the degree and amount of corruption. It is no coincidence that Transparency International’s global map of corruption perception and the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom look like virtual mirror images of one another.

Theologians agree the only way to avoid ethical pitfalls – either individually or corporately – is by avoiding the occasion altogether. A “very important precept of the natural and divine law,” wrote Pope Gregory XVI in 1832, “commands us not only to avoid sin, but also the near occasion of sin, as well.” A century later, Pope Pius XII recommended “flight and alert vigilance, by which we carefully avoid the occasions of sin.” Jesus spoke more frankly of amputation in this life to avoid incineration in the next.

The Founders at every turn advised the citizens to jealously guard their liberties – “the chains of the Constitution,” “a republic if you can keep it,” “eternal vigilance,” etc. However, the people can only restrain government from the near occasion of sin if they themselves are not barreling toward one or another temptation themselves. A people drowning in self-indulgence need the government to rescue them. (Think of Haight Ashbury at the ebb of 1967’s “Summer of Love,” or modern-day drug addicts’ children being raised more by school administrators and social workers than by their parents.) Moral atrophy unleashes a vicious cycle of expanded government, which tempts its administrators to corrupt the political process, leaving the people more helpless and dependent.

Big government, empowered by economic interventionism, is a near occasion of sin that only a responsible and virtuous people can flee.

(Photo credit: Michelangelo’s portrayal of the temptation and expulsion from Paradise, from the Sistine Chapel. Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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