The problem of scale with regards to the size and scope of government is an important and timely discussion in our modern world as we are seeing an endless growth to the state on both the national and international levels. Issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, racial tension, terrorism, and unequal distributions of wealth have provided justification for politicians and other elites to grow the state into an all-encompassing administrative bureaucracy intent on ultimate control.
From a Christian perspective, there has always been a conflict between the expansion of human government and God. The story of the Tower of Babel is a perfect example of mankind coming together in a unification effort to usurp God’s sovereignty over His creation. Protestant Christian eschatology runs deep with prophetical theories on a Satanic one world government taking control during the end times.
According to Philosophy Professor Donald Livingston, the scale of government has two strands of thinking in the political sphere. The first strand has its roots in the Classical world and the Greek philosopher Aristotle, while the second and more recent view is espoused by Englishman Thomas Hobbes. The fundamental difference between the two thinkers is mankind’s natural inclination toward government. Aristotle argued that man was an inherently political animal who organized for the sake of living a better life, while Hobbes believed that humans naturally existed in a state of anarchy and only came together for mutual protection. Aristotle’s political entity is small with a tribal or familial orientation and centered on the Greek city-state, called the polis. Hobbes’ government is large and ever-expanding, resulting in the monstrous Leviathan which inspired the title of his political treatise.
At heart of the issue with governmental scale is the trade off between liberty and security. In Aristotle’s polis and the republics inspired by it, man values freedom above all else. Seventeenth Century English poet and classical republican John Milton, who was a contemporary of Hobbes, said in his anti-monarchical 1649 tract Eikonoklastes: “For liberty of person and the right of self-preservation, is much nearer, much more natural, and more worth to all men, than the propriety of their goods, and wealth.”
As Hobbes’ state is based on the foundation of trading freedom for safety, once that precedent has been established there is no limit to the government’s expansion in order to keep people and their property secure, even at the expense of freedom. In his essay “The Very Idea of Secession” Professor Livingston argues that we must judge the Hobbesian state by its fruit:
“Hobbes said the modern state would be the scene of “commodious living,” and he was right. By releasing the energies of individuals, the modern state has created unprecedented material prosperity. But this should not obscure the fact that it has also been the most powerful instrument ever devised for destroying or suppressing traditional social authorities and substantial moral communities. And through its ever-increasing concentration of power it has proved itself…to be a greater threat to human life in the twentieth century than war itself.”
Bringing the discussion back to our own country, Livingston describes in a separate essay how the United States was founded as a small-scale state-based republic and in its modern-day configuration, after having transitioned from a Jeffersonian to Lincolnian federalism, is simply unable to effectively run such a large and diverse country without strong centralization. Even the states themselves today are too big for effective governance, and Livingston argues that secession, a dirty-word in today’s political climate, is the only remedy.
Overall, the scale of government is really only an issue if one values liberty and self-determination over personal safety and material wealth. If we give the state enough of our money and give up all aspects of our autonomy and privacy, it’s certain the Leviathan will someday figure out how to take care of the material needs of each and every citizen of Earth. For Christians and other individuals who value spiritual harmony over physical fulfillment, the expansion of earthly government does pose a problem that we will eventually need to confront.
David Keyt, “Three Fundamental Theorems in Aristotle’s “Politics”.” Phronesis 32, no. 1 (1987): 54.
Christopher Hamel, “The Republicanism of John Milton: Natural Rights, Civic Virtue, and the Dignity of Man.” History of Political Thought 34, no. 1 (2013): 36.
Donald Livingston, “The Very Idea of Secession.” Society 35, (1998): 45.
Livingston, “The Southern Tradition and Limited Government.” Modern Age 49, no. 4 (2007): 461.