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ap_us_capitol_ll_111223_wblogThere are many who complain that big government is the root of all our problems. If we could but rid ourselves of its intrusive presence in our lives, things would be much better. Many complain about the effects of big government but few look at its cause.

Big government does not just happen. In fact, big government, where the State enters into every facet of society, should not happen. The State exists to safeguard the general order which in turn allows the intermediary bodies of family, community and Faith to develop free from its control.

Moreover, most modern States are protected by constitutions which are supposed to restrain the powers and growth of government. But everywhere we look, we see that these limits have not been respected and ballooning bureaucracies thrive.

Obviously there are other factors at work that make big government possible. And if we are to resolve the problem of unrestrained big government, we must look for and address these causes.

The well-known conservative writer Russell Kirk makes a very interesting observation that gives us a clue as to what these causes are and how we might return to limited government.

Kirk writes: “beneath any formal constitution—even beneath our Constitution…lies an unwritten constitution much more difficult to define, but really more powerful.” This unwritten constitution consists of “the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution, but which nevertheless form the fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.”[1]

UnknownIn other words, we as a people have lost that vital link with the customs, manners, conventions and virtues that serve as a foundation for our Constitution. We have severed ourselves from our Christian roots, the natural institutions of family and community and the common law tradition that normally and naturally serve to temper and limit government.

It is this destruction of moral values, institutions and customs that makes big government possible. Without this “unwritten constitution,” a void is left, which allows big government to come charging in. We start losing our freedoms.

It used to be, for example, that families took care of their own. However, when the institution of the family was devastated by the sexual revolution of the sixties, it created a real problem of broken families and prepared the way for a false solution in the form of big government that rushed to fill the void and assumed responsibilities that did not belong to it.

It used to be that members of a community helped one another when problems arose. There was a sense of honor that prevailed in the community where families took pride in being honest and self-reliant. But with the decline of communities and the anonymity of the giant cities, people find no disgrace in asking big government to be the nanny of last resort and take care of their basic needs.

We once confided in God’s Divine Providence to provide for our necessities—to give us this day our daily bread. But with the secularization of society, many no longer know how to ask God to meet their daily needs even as they utilize their God-given talents, and instead look to government entitlement programs as a new kind of providence—hardly divine.

Part of the blame for the destruction of these institutions and customs can be traced to our culture of instant gratification. In my recent book, Return to Order, I use the term “frenetic intemperance” to describe a reckless and restless spirit of unrestraint that has long plagued modern economy and undermined social institutions.

Frenzied markets lead people to resent the very idea of restraint and scorn the spiritual, religious, moral and cultural values that are part of Russell Kirk’s “unwritten constitution” that normally serve to order and temper our life together in society and prevent big government.

What we need is a return to a framework of order that reconnects us with our Christian roots and our tradition of limited government. Much more than government programs,this order is truly the heart and soul of economy.

We need to rid ourselves of the now-dominant frenetic intemperance in the economy that is constantly throwing markets out of balance and replace it with a corresponding temperance.

This cannot be done by legislation, regulation or rigid planning. It is something that must be addressed personally by changing our frenzied and rushed lifestyles where instant gratification is the order of the day. It is a challenging shift in values that will put back in place the natural immunity systems of family, community and Church that will assure us of a society that is stable, healthy and prosperous once again.

Until then, big government will only get bigger.


[1] Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969), 168.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Truth and Charity Forum.

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8 replies to this post
  1. All that you write above is true. But what can the people do when the clergy has been asleep for 200 years?

    The Bible expressly delegates to PARENTS the duty to educate their children. When the push began, during the 1820s, to force children into public schools, why didn’t our clergy fight it and warn their flocks?

    Social security is monstrously un-Biblical – as well as unconstitutional – but didn’t the American clergy sign up for it?

    Our clergy today won’t speak out against un-Biblical and unconstitutional government – they support it!

    The People don’t think – they can’t think – they just go with the flow. So does our clergy. Those cowards won’t do anything which challenges Caesar’s total sovereignty on Earth. The World and all that is in it belongs to Caesar. So believe our worthless clergy.

    Is there a man among them?

  2. Ever since 1912, when the Federal Reserve System was established, the main instrument of big government has manipulated the American people, economy, and practically every aspect of our society. Even a former Chairman of the FRS declared that the biggest problem, indeed it could rightly be called the biggest criminal threat to our constitutional government (which has for all practical purposes ceased to exist due to the corporations, foundations, and trusts along with the interlocking boards of directors), is that very institution. they have brought us our recessions, depressions, inflation, etc. Clearly, the FRS is an instrument of control for forces hidden behind the scenes, forces no longer well hidden. After all, hubris abounds and people check to those with the power. Quigley’s (Carroll) writings mention the conspiracy and tell some of the leading figures in it, while others fill in the details.

  3. Returning to the original in order to restore what has been lost is a familiar theme. But as time goes on, such theme has as its advantage because of the disconnect we have today with what was the original. And so those calling for the return must also include what was original which, unless we have read up on and thought about, may or may not be true or may be missing some key ingredients.

    Let’s first remember that our Constitution, the written one that is, was in response to dissent a revolt. But the revolt that spurred the writing of our Constitution was not the American Revolution but Shays Rebellion. And the dissent that alarmed the writers of our Constitution targeted the financial elite here, not in England. We have a number of documents that give the context for the writing of our Constitution: Federalist Paper #10, the Constitutional Debates, and Henry Knox’s letter to George Washington. The result of the writing of our Constitution is that we had stronger, not weaker, federal government whose job was to protect the status quo.

    As for our unwritten Constitution, where do we go to confirm what is being claimed here? We do know this, that our Constitution was written for the European settlers only. African-Americans and Indians need not look to this document for help. In addition, the economy was more agrarian based than it is today which results in a completely different set of interdependencies which, in turn, might change how we define or view self-reliance. Finally, Christianity had a privileged position which it used to enrich its own. But such a position contradicts the 1st Amendment.

    So what to do about this unwritten Constitution. Should we use it to interpret our written Constitution? And if should, how about our nation’s courts? And who is the expert who can authoritatively determine what was in the original unwritten Constitution?

  4. The proper function of the State, in a democracy, is to do what the people want it to do. In an oligarchy, it is what the oligarchs want, and in a monarchy or dictatorship, it is at the whim on one man. Ultimately, without theoretical notions of minimalist or totalitarian regimes, that will be found true.

    As the author notes, sometimes what the people want is beneficial to present and future society. But, as Kipling noted in “Gods of the Copybook Headings”, we always get the government we deserve: Not what we would like, but what we have earned — for ourselves.

  5. But OUR Constitutional Republic was built on THIS foundation: That the purpose of civil government is to secure the rights GOD gave us (Declaration of Independence, 2nd para). Think of the ramifications of this amazing pronouncement!

    So how was the federal government we created in our Constitution to go about “securing” our God-given rights?

    The federal government is to secure our right to life by military defense (Art. I, Sec. 8, cl. 11-16); by protecting us from invasion (Art IV, Sec. 4); by prosecuting traitors (Art III, Sec. 3); and by laws against piracy and other felonies committed on the high seas (Art. I, Sec. 8, cl. 10).

    The federal government is to secure our property rights by

    * establishing an honest money system based on gold & silver, and by establishing uniform and honest weights & measures (Art I, Sec. 8, cl 5).

    * punishing counterfeiters (Art I, Sec. 8, cl 6).

    *making bankruptcy laws to permit the orderly dissolution of debtors’ estates with fair treatment of creditors; or the reorganization of financially troubled businesses for the benefit of all (Art I, Sec 8, cl 4).

    * issuing patents & copyrights to inventors and writers to recognize their ownership of their intellectual labors (Art I, Sec 8, cl 8):

    and so forth with other enumerated powers and requirements to secure our God-given right to Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    Since our federal Constitution is one of enumerated powers only, it is, of course, NOT the federal government’s job to secure ALL our God given Rights, just those appropriate for the national government of a federation of Sovereign States. Other God-given rights are to be secured by the States.

  6. A Constitution, whether (mostly) written like ours, or “unwritten” like the British, is never a “done deal” wherein one generation binds its descendants in perpetuity to service of King or Country. Those who so argue have misunderstood the dynamic of government.

    Here on this continent, we did not consider ourselves bound to obedience to the King, and so established a new Covenant among ourselves for our future safety and happiness. And each citizen must ratify that Covenant every moment of their lives. Should one generation, or one election cycle, fail in its maintenance of the status, it will suffer the consequences (or, radicals claim, reap the rewards).

    The simplest argument for the right of each generation to decide its own fate is found in the section which provides for Amendments to the written Constitution. If the Founders had not recognized the necessity of such an article, if they had not realized future generations would have to adapt government to their times, if they had not recognized that history Moves, they would not have included it, and would have left us with an interesting and revered fossil.

    It is not the enumerated powers as originally written down which are our guarantee of liberty and hope for prosperity, but the attitudes and sentiment of the living persons who “constitute” the nation. The Romans believed in Tribunes of the People as safeguards, and so asked, “Who shall guard the guardians?” In the USA, it is — for better or worse — the people who are the guardians of themselves. If they are virtuous, the nation will fare well. if the people have abandoned virtue, … we shall see what happens.

    • I suggest the real issue is whether there is a “right” and a “wrong” respecting the duties & powers of civil government; OR whether civil government may properly be treated like fashions in clothing – and changed and changed again according to the ever shifting fancies and whims of humanist man.

      Since God’s model for civil government is set forth in the Bible, I suggest that Fixed and Eternal Principles exist for establishing & maintaining civil government – and for measuring its faithfulness to God’s standards.

      Our Framers knew this – and so drafted a Constitution which was based on God’s model for civil government.

      But today, people no longer read the Constitution or the Bible, and so don’t know this. They have NO IDEA what those two Documents say. Besides, why should they care? They want to be their own gods, deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil.

  7. Looking at the replies above, especially the first one, let me say that there really are Christian clergy who are up to the job. The problem is that in many circles, we have created a Christian sub-culture in which ignorance is bliss. And I spent years there, so I’m not just repeating rumors. Let me give three examples.

    We have become adept at quoting others in areas in which we knew very little. In the early 1980s, pastors became overnight experts on American history. There was really cause for concern in the political sphere, but I found it difficult to talk with Christians about the details.

    Our modern Christian subculture is based too much on people coming in through the back door, on easy graduationism and easy ordinationism. I wanted to sit in on a dissertation defense at the seminary of a Christian university. I wasn’t allowed to, even though I was a science department head there. It was a closed defense. I had never heard of such a thing until then! My own thesis and dissertation defenses in chemistry at state universities had been open to the public, where anybody could come in off the street and challenge me.

    As a third example, I had to leave what had become my favorite denomination at the time. I decided to learn the Bible in its original languages, and the King James-only crowd thought I was some type of heretic. Never mind that I grew up with some Hebrew, and had studied Hebrew in the classroom in Israel for a year, where we did a bit of Hebrew Bible reading. How dare I second-guess the divinely-inspired translators from 1611! This denomination has fallen on hard times, and this is one of the reasons.

    Clergy first of all have to follow Paul’s command to Timothy to study. The pastor in colonial New England was often the most educated person in the community. Is he today? Dumbed-down academics is not the solution, real academic integrity is. Once we get the cobwebs dusted from our minds, then we’ll be able to understand these issues, talk about them, and do something about them. Until then, the river is carrying us toward the waterfalls.

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