August 21, 2014

Charles Hodge and Me on Romans 13:3

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

I’ve discussed Romans 13 in pretty detailed fashion here.  I poured a lot of time into that post and have updated it several times since it was first written.  I still go back to it often, just to mentally clarify things in my head.

I was looking through Charles Hodge’s commentary on Romans recently and, upon reading his thoughts on the 13th chapter, it sparked more thoughts.  Regarding the 3rd verse, Hodge writes

That is, government is not an evil to be feared, except by evil doers. As the magistrates are appointed for the punishment of evil, the way to avoid suffering from their authority is not to resist it, but to do that which is good. Paul is speaking of the legitimate design of government, not of the abuse of power by wicked men.

To reiterate, Hodge is saying that a government that is fulfilling its legitimate design is not an evil to be feared.  That is, he qualified “government” in the first sentence with the phrase “legitimate design” in the final sentence.  What is this “legitimate design?”  The answer to that is summed up in Hodge’s phrase “the repression of evil.”  This is all very theoretical, of course; for looking across the history of governments –whether monarchies or aristocracies or democracies — one can scarcely find a government that is restricted to the duty of “the repression of evil.”  All governments expand themselves, in some fashion or another, beyond this in at least two ways.

The first is when the government itself acts in evil ways.  How are we to judge whether a government acts wrongfully?  I see no reason why we should not apply to the government the same moral standard to which God holds all people.  Whenever the government takes without permission, this should be called theft; whenever it arrests someone for speaking freely (used to be this was a common practice in Soviet Russia –and now Americans are seeing such practices more frequently) it should be called kidnapping.  And so on.  If the State was held to the very same set of commandments that the Lord has given to all men, I’m not quite sure it could exist in the same way as we conceive it.  In fact, I do think that a civil government held to the same standard as all people would take the form of Rothbard and Hoppe’s Propertarian-Libertarian society.

The second is related to the first, but is more specific.  When the government either declares to be good what is actually evil and when it declares to be evil what is actually good, it is then acting beyond its so-called “legitimate design.”  A real world example of the first case is when it allows the Federal Reserve to artificially expand the money supply by creating more credit in the system, which is simply both legalized counterfeiting and theft (it steals the purchasing power of those who currently hold their wealth in that currency).  A real world example of the second case is when the State outlaws the employment of a willing worker by restricting his access to the labor market based on the fact that the wage agreed upon by employee and employer is unacceptable.  This is known as “minimum wage policy” and it has helped to drive up the rate of unemployment in economies around the Western World.

In all the above, not only is the government expanding beyond its “legitimate design,” but it is also becoming the “evil doer” which it was supposedly supposed to restrain.  Such is the nature of a government that either does what is inappropriate for the individual citizen or allows others to do what is inappropriate for the individual citizen.  To help keep things clear in my political philosophy, I have made the decision to call legitimate government “government” and to call any government that has expanded beyond this a “state.”  For more on the distinction between government and the state see this post.  I’ve also written the following:

If the purpose of civil government is to play the role of punisher against the criminal, then an institution that systematically corrupts law, distorts property rights, and institutionally and systematically monopolizes the activity of criminality –by stealing, murdering, and coercing the masses– cannot be said to be civil government.  Albert Jay Nock was famous for noting that the government protected against theft, fraud, and other forms of property rights breaches, while the State was an institution of plunder which sought to systemically expropriate all who were not part of the political class.  Contrary to Karl Marx’s bourgeois/proletariate class struggle, Nock’s understanding was that it was the political class who lived off of the rest.  The State (as differentiated from government), then, is the enemy of society, not the rich by virtue of their wealth alone.

I am wholly convinced that a government that behaves in a way consistent with the Ten Commandments will be private (as opposed to public –which I consider socialist), competitive and built on the free market (as opposed to being a monopoly on the service it provides), and subject to the very same law as all others in society.  The nature of this “law,” of course, will be debated; but it is my contention that Austro-libertarian legal theory provides the best outline by deducing a legal code from the starting point that individuals exclusively own (vis a vis other human beings, given that God is the ultimate owner of all things) their bodies and their property.

So then, back to Hodge.  Since there is no government that adheres to these ethical standards, it should follow that there is no government currently (and there only a handful of exceptions across the span of history —here is Tom Woods and Gerard Casey on ancient Ireland and here is Hans Hoppe on medieval Europe) that is restricted to its “legitimate design.”  And if that is true, it should follow that Hodge’s statement “government is not an evil to be feared,” since he qualified it as discussed above, is inapplicable today.

At any rate, I still hold to the opinion that we ought to be subjected to the State and agree with Charles Hodge that whether living under a monarchy or a democracy or Hitler himself, we ought to “turn the other cheek.”  Not because the ruler is good, for clearly he is not, but rather because the kingdom to which we belong is not of this world.  Being sojourners, we await the coming of the true king who will eradicate evil rulers like Nero and Ahmadinejad and, since the NSA prowls, Prez 43 and 44.  I’ll end with some Gordon H. Clark:

The Christian answer is that the state is not a positive or unconditional good. […] The state is an evil not only because of the abuse of power by the magistrates, but also because it interferes with freedom and introduces an unnatural superiority among men.

Clark also says that the “existence of the state is a partial punishment and cure for sin.”  While I cannot for the life of me agree that the state cures sin, it is certainly agreeable that the state is punishment.

Come soon Lord Jesus.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com