Acton Institute Powerblog

What Government Can’t Do

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NJ Governor Chris Christie: “Today, we come to terms with the fact that we cannot spend money on everything we want.”

Lord Acton: “There are many things the government can’t do – many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • David Murphy

    There are many things the govt can do. One thing is quite fundamental. It provides the legislative framework within which all activity happens. So the basic premise of this forum is deeply flawed. For example, in black and white, your gun control legislation, or lack of it, the USA has decided through its government, unlike in western Europe, that guns are quite liberally available over the counter for sale. This then has a knock on effect on other areas of activity within the USA: you do not have to look far. Similarly, the government establishes the whole framework of financial and hence commercial and economic activity within its sovereign territory. The principle ingredients are: it alone has the power to levy taxes; it alone has the power to establish the base bank rate of interest; it decides the proportion of credit the private banking sector can extend as a ratio of its assets; it alone controls the currency; it can establish price controls and competition policy in any market. In Labour it can establish minimum wage levels.
    In terms of enforcement, most governments (and this is despite the gun ownership in the USA and your first amendment where the principle of a line of protection against government control is often used) aim for a monopoly violence. EG it is more OK for a police officer to beat up a black person on the streets of Los Angeles than it is for a white vigilante to do the same. It is more OK to allow the troops to shoot dead students at Kent University than for one deranged student to mass murder in a local cinema. In the UK, not one police officer has EVER been criminally charged – let alone tried and found guilty – despite well over a thousand suspicious deaths of individuals in custody.
    On information. It is illegal for a member of a public to open or interfere with another persons mail. Yet laws are in place that allow even your local authority (local council) to pry into your banking information, medical records, your post and your electronic mail. Every aspect of your personal and private data can be surveilled without court order in the UK by the most low level officers and employees and with only the flimsiest of reasons: we suspect that person of being involved in crime or the planning of crime. It is that vague.
    The whole notion of what governments can’t do or should not do, is a smokescreen for Tea Party rightwing politics.