Acton Institute Powerblog

An Analogy for Good Government

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Riffing off of Lord Acton’s quote on liberty and good government, I came up with an analogy that was well-received at last month’s inaugural Acton on Tap.

In his essay, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Acton said the following:

Now Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together; but they do not necessarily 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.

I tried to think of an image or analogy that captured what Acton meant by “good government.” Perhaps not surprisingly, I came up with a sports analogy.

Fans of various sports, basketball for instance, know that the best games are typically the ones in which you do not notice the referees. Yes, the referees are there, making calls when appropriate. But they do not become the center of attention. They are not the ones putting the ball in the hoop. They are not making a spectacle of themselves. They go about their duties and are at their best when they are not noticed. The referees are not the center of attention; instead, the focus is on the players and the game.

"Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." (Westminster Shorter Catechism)
'Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.'
Good government is like that. It protects liberty as its highest end, but it is a liberty that is used in pursuit of other ends, what Acton calls “the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” Foremost among these is religion, and they are ultimately oriented to and subsumed under what the Westminster divines identified as man’s chief end: “to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”

In this analogy, good government is like the referee that calls a fair game and does so in a way that does not produce a slanted playing field, or favor one team over the other. Good government is at its best when it is not the focus and is not grandstanding for attention.

Keep that in mind over the next month while you’re watching the NCAA tournament (and hopefully watching the seemingly-perennial Final Four run from the Michigan State Spartans, this year’s Big 10 co-champs). And be sure to mark your calendars for the next Acton on Tap, Tuesday, March 31, featuring Rudy Carrasco.

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.


  • almond603

    that is a helpful analogy. but, my question is, when does it become proper to say that business (in your analogy – the players) are, for lack of a better word, bullying the government (the referees) to change the rules of the game (or at least ignore the rules of the game)? maybe an example could be the changing of what is defined as “organic food” by the government through the influence/force of big corporations. putting aside the fact that some small farms can’t afford to go through the loopholes of what can be called organic food, as big corporations look for cost reducing measures to participate in a market that has been unfriendly to them because of the costly measures that must be met to produce organic produce, they have in turn pressured the government to reduce regulations on what can be called “organic” and have in effect created products that aren’t “organic.” the referee must step in and say that that is not what organic is (or in your analogy – that is not what basketball is) but, the problem is, both teams are participating in what SHOULD be called wrong practice (as far as organic produce is concerned) but the government (referee) must make themselves known in a big way to overcome this but it is impossible due to the size and clout that businesses have.

    we now have a situation where the government has not made the rules, but the corporations have. much like, to use your analogy, the NBA has different rules than the NCAA (take traveling as an example of differing degrees of “rule interpretation) because the players have had such an impact on the rules, and not the referees.

    but then again, yours was an analogy that I may have taken to far. for that I apologize.

  • Almond, what you’re describing still fits his analogy (assuming you simplify reality and say that referees are also the rule makers instead of just enforcers). I’d say it’s when one team, through either bribe, beg, or blackmail, encourages the referees to interpret the rules or change the rules and make calls that favor them. I don’t know how or when you would ever consider that “proper”, but I’d blame the referees as the source of the problem more than the teams.

    I’d also disagree and say that while the corporations have influenced the “referees” to their unfair advantage, the government still makes the rules, not the corporations. Businesses aren’t ideologues. They are opportunists. So when they see that government is making rules that can either advantage or disadvantage them, they feel they must have a say and influence those rules in their favor as much as possible, especially if their competitors are already advocating for rules in their own favor.

    Continuing the analogy, it’s like if the referees have made it known that their preference is up for sale. So all teams, not wanting to be put in a significant disadvantage, attempt to get the referees on their side. The solution isn’t to just blame the teams for trying to avoid being at a disadvantage, but the referees who are prostituting themselves and their power, to the highest bidder.

    By eliminating the granted benefits of their power and returning the referee to its proper role of ensuring nobody infringes on other players’ rights, they have no more wares to sell and thus the teams can return to focusing on playing the game instead of trying to influence the rule makers.

  • almond603

    but the problem isn’t that the players rights are being infringed upon. the problem is that audience, or the rights of the consumers of business are being in infringed upon. with my example, the one who is suffering from the increasing leniancy of organic food laws is not the businesses, or the government, but the consumer. they are the ones that are led to believe that they are eating organic food, when in reality, there is little “organic” about it.

    I suppose the problem with the analogy lies in the absence of lobbyists. perhaps they can be the “agents” of the players. lobbyists are the ones that pressuring the government to decrease restrictions and laws on certain things, in this case organic food. yes, it is from the bidding of the corporation, so they are still to blame. but it is the lobbyists that are the one making sure that the government is ruling in business’s favor.

    I agree with you, though that the government is also at fault for “prostituting” themselves. but business cannot be let off the hook so easily…

  • MaryAnn

    The problem is too much government interference in the game. Business, large or small, will do what it needs to do in order to work with or get around government interference. Large businesses collude with the fed. gov’t to the detriment of small businesses. The purpose of business is to make money; the constitutional purpose of government is to help create the atmosphere in which all business can do that. For decades, gov’t has been increasing it’s control of businesses, large and small. Hence, today, we have gov’t owning car companies, insurance companies, and it’s grab at the health and energy sectors of our economy, and the gov’t picking the companies it wants to succeed and which will fail. America has not enjoyed a “free market economy” for over 100 years.