BRYN MAWR, July 10, 2006 – Things are progressing smoothly for me here at the Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar. Our daily schedule includes four major lectures from seminar faculty, each with built in small group discussion time as well as Q&As with the presenting faculty.
One of our first activities was to try and self-identify in terms of our view of the role of government (if any). I identified with the endorsement of a limited government, whose main role is to provide for the defense of the nation and the administration of domestic justice. In addition, however, I do not dismiss out of hand any role for the State beyond these two activities. Indeed, in agreement with the political conclusions of the Chicago School and Hayek, I do find there to be a legitimate role for the State with regard to certain kinds of public good.
I would articulate this as being in broad accord with a sort of sphere sovereignty envisioned by Abraham Kuyper and those who followed him, specifically with respect to the divine authority invested in various social institutions. This perspective is not unique to Kuyper, however, and I think finds expression and support from a wider and more diverse range of sources. These include writers like Lord Acton (see yesterday’s post for a representative quote), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the reformer Wolfgang Musculus.
The government is a social institution with its own specific and unique mandate, and therefore has an important albeit limited role. My current sense is that the government is responsible for having some concern for the public welfare in cases of extreme and urgent need. The proper relation between the government and the other spheres of life, however, is characterized best I think in terms of the government as the institution of last and temporary resort. The principle of subsidiarity is helpful in articulating just how these relations might work.
A final reflection: it is important to understand the role of a Christian political philosophy and how it relates more broadly to a Christian world-and-life view. Take Lord Acton, as an example. He writes,
Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.
Broadly speaking, we might say then that for Acton the purpose of government is to promote and protect liberty, as man’s highest political end. But this end is itself penultimate, and is to be used in service of other, presumably even higher, human ends (e.g. those of civil society and private life). This points to the necessary relationsip between liberty as a political end and what we might call virtue as a higher human end. That is, freedom is not simply an ultimate end in itself, but must be used in the pursuit of virtue, which finds its authoritative and greatest manifestation in the Christian religion.
This quote from Acton also sets the stage for a topic for tomorrow, Christian theology and anarchy. But my thought for today is that classical liberalism is not itself a complete and adequate world-and-life view (for Christians especially, but really for anyone else either), but rather can in certain forms be consistent as an applied political philosophy with Christianity, and which does not even begin to make claims about the highest human ends.