The New Sectarianism in America
By Arnold Kling
the very reason most Americans find secularism a strange and useless term is that this country has never had a state religion.
I believe that America does have a state religion. I call it the religion of Unlimited Government. Those of us who dissent from the state religion believe in Limited Government. I will elaborate below.This continues the issue of religion, economics, and politics that I began in my post on four principles. I also discussed religion and ideology in my post on Robert Nelson’s book.
There is no one who will come right out and say they are for Unlimited Government. However, on each specific issue, from obesity to education to financial regulation, the believers have faith that government action would be moral and effective. The believers never accept an argument that government’s wisdom and morality have limits. Instead, they view any government failure as the unfortunate consequence of special interests, free-market ideology, or just plain evil people who manage to get into positions of power. For believers, government is “us” and those who believe in Limited Government are the dupes of a false religion.
In the end, I do not wish to claim that I know what the other side believes, because they usually hate it when I try to describe their beliefs. When I offered my generous interpretation of progressivism, some progressives liked it. But that was a post that did not attempt to describe their ideology. Instead, I described progressivism in Manichean terms, as a tradition that had believed in the good and fought evil. I am fine when I say that progressives are on the side of the angels, but actually defining what they stand for gets me in trouble with them.
So, either (a) the church of Unlimited Government has a doctrine, but I do not know what it is; or (b) the church of Unlimited Government has no doctrine, only a set of particular positions that happen to all lead to government power that is expanded, centralized, and placed in the hands of expert technocrats.
Those of us who believe in limited government are willing to come right out and say what we believe. We believe that government is indeed a menace, and that Constitutional limitations and/or social norms are required to keep it in check. We do not believe (or at least I do not believe) that markets work perfectly. Whenever people defend a position of Unlimited Government by attacking the theory that markets work perfectly, they are talking past me. The question for me is not whether markets are perfect, but whether government can work better. If you want to change my mind, convince me that government can work better than markets–in practice, not just in some theoretical world of benevolent technocrats possessing infinite wisdom.
If you are a European-style socialist, then this country must look like it is completely dominated by my religion of Limited Government. If you are not a member of either church, then you may see this country as being reasonably balanced between the religion of Unlimited Government and the religion of Unlimited Government. [Nick Rowe notes the “Freudian typo.” I meant to say that the non-members see a balance between limited and unlimited.]
But as a believer in Limited Government, I think I belong to a dissenting religion. I see the Church of Unlimited Government as the established church in the United States.
The seminaries of the Church of Unlimited Government may be found on college campuses. Incidentally, this represents a unique opportunity for Jews to join the established church. How different from Jewish history, where we were religious pariahs and restricted to low-status occupations. In the established church of Unlimited Government, a Jew can become a bishop!
Once the Church of Unlimited Government becomes established, the separation of church and state becomes quite difficult. The technocrats now rule by Divine Right, particularly when, as now, the Presidency and Congress are controlled by Democrats.
Even when Republicans were in control, they did not disestablish the Church of Unlimited Government. They gave us No Child Left Behind.
Over the past two years, the differences between the Church of Limited Government and the Church of Unlimited Government have sharpened. Hence, the Tea Party movement.
In my view, the Church of Unlimited Government is out of step with the key technological trend of the post-World War II period–the decline of the industrial age and the growth of the information age. The industrial age fostered large institutions and tolerated centralization. In the information age, large organizations are fragile. Hence, large corporations can quickly fail, and governments are increasingly inept. See the widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced.
One can view the financial crisis as the result of reckless behavior undertaken by the largest financial institutions, with regulatory approval. On the co-operative role of the regulatory establishment, see Ross Levine or my own Not What they Had in Mind. The aftermath of the financial crisis was the government’s attempt to revive firms that should have been allowed to kill themselves.
If there is a bottom line to all of this rambling, it is this: those of us who believe in Unlimited Government have a difficult task. Winning an election or two is relatively easy. Disestablishing a church is a lot harder.