When Govenment is a Bureaucratic Babel

Heritage & History, On Conservatism, Politics, Rights Reason & Religion — By on November 1, 2010 at 12:00 am

When a man claims he can build a tower so tall that it reaches God, raise your eyebrows and ask skeptical questions. Beyond warnings against architectural hubris, the story of the Tower of Babel also says much about modern understandings of government.

Meredith Kline (1922-2007), professor of the Old Testament, in his book Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview writes that the story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is a lesson on man’s attempt to subvert God’s created order and purpose for the state. Kline explains that it is illustrative of the idolization of man “inspired by the spirit of human autonomy and omnipotence,” attempting to be like God and accomplish God-like things. This exaltation of man fueled his desire to become equal to God by building a city reaching heaven, thereby uniting heaven and earth. By this action, man was attempting to subvert the God-established order.  Instead of waiting for God to bring heaven to earth, man tried to change the state into a kind of salvific institution by bringing man to God.

The state is a benefit to all when it is in its proper place. But its intrusion in the economy, industry, and the lives of private citizens can have a variety of harmful consequences. For example: unemployment benefits during the recession. In many cases, government-sponsored charity has created a disincentive for people to return to the workforce when the unemployment benefits pay more than possible job options. Fewer people working means less output, which can actually contribute to the recession.

Another example of the government overstepping its purpose is found in the 2007 energy bill. It contained stringent efficiency requirements on incandescent light bulbs in an attempt to phase them out and replace them with more expensive but more energy-efficient bulbs. One common energy efficient bulb is the compact fluorescent bulb (CFL).  CFL’s, while energy-saving, can have consequences: exposure to mercury vapor is dangerous if the bulbs are broken and can cause migraines and epilepsy attacks. Some critics say CFL’s do not work well in colder temperatures, and thus will force Americans to use more heat (read: more energy). Their lifespan is diminished if they are turned on and off frequently. And economically, their impact is negative: a General Electric plant was forced to close its major incandescent factory in Winchester, Virginia. Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) had this to say: “Washington banned a perfectly good product and fired hard-working Americans based on little more than their own whim and the silly notion that they know better than the American consumer.” Rather than allowing the free market to find its own solutions for energy efficiency, government attempts to tell Americans what is best for them has led to a loss of jobs and a gain of harmful household products.

What do we expect of the city? How much faith ought we to place in public policy’s ability to improve society? Babel’s great offense was an attempt to extend its boundaries beyond the established realm; do we expect the state to bring heaven to earth? Beyond all that we may wish for the government to do lie questions of purpose and competence. The Tower of Babel is an essential story to remember this November. Whether you find yourself identifying with Kuyper and sphere sovereignty, or the principle of subsidiarity found within Catholic social thought, the primary questions we should be asking ourselves when deciding who to vote for are: what is the purpose of government?

Conservatism says that it is the place of the individual and the Church to cultivate virtue and perform charitable acts. However, many today would advocate that it is the role of government to be the virtuous actor; to feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and teach children right from wrong.  Have we not built a bureaucratic Babel when the responsibilities of the Church and the private sector are overtaken by government programs?

Having recognized that there is a specific and limited purpose for government, the next question to ask is which candidates best understand this purpose? These questions transcend the divides of political parties.

The principle of right order is an important one to draw from the story of Babel, according to Kline. Institutions such as the state and the family were not established haphazardly, but purposefully. No matter how well-intentioned an elected official might be, the city cannot save man. As much as we might wish for heaven on earth, all the dollars in the U.S. Treasury cannot bring it about.



  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    Wow, a shout out to Kline AND Kuyper in the same post. I’m impressed! :)

  • http://www.LearnBibleProphecy.com Jeff

    Good post. It also reminds me of the comments made at this blog (essentially reminding us that while we should vote and help direct our nation, we must also realize that ultimately God is in control). http://bit.ly/bUH3lm

  • dancingcrane

    I can speak to the harm of handouts. When my husband was full-time on a failing start-up, we needed help, and got it. Free healthcare, school meals for our kids, the works. Now that he’s gone back to paying work (thank God!), we’ve lost all that, we’re back to paying for everything we used to get free. How many people, faced with our choice, wouldn’t yearn to stay with the freebies?

  • Cosmiksheen

    It is completely absurd to use the Tower of Babel as a metaphor to describe governmental “interference” versus free market forces. This post reflects how far the so-called religious in the US have distorted Biblical symbolism in order to work in a social/political message. The analogy is totally misleading not-to-say misinformed. The symbolic meaning of Babel is entirely related to spiritual realities and is directed at the blindness of “sleepers” whose dreams and fantasies place them at odds with higher cosmic law. The state of the so-called “churches” in the US, particularly those of evangelical ilk with their incursion into politics and social “justice” issues reflects similar confusion and idiocy… the blind leading the blind up a dead-end street. Jesus’ call to awaken has been overstepped by sleepers who presume to “know” as they mangle and distort a gospel that is – and can only be – esoteric and personal with its tenets firmly aimed at personal transformation, beginning with the struggle to awaken. Sleepers who claim they know and can interpret Jesus’ gospel even as they advocate political/social action are deluded people who will pay a high price for corrupting the content and purpose of the gospel.

  • Anonymous

    It’s all so clear now! Sleepers! Damn sleepers leading the blind. So frustrating.

  • TheAbstractor

    I’m inclined to agree with Cosmiksheen, that this exegesis of the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis is a bit misplaced.

    There are two interpretations which I think may be better: First, that God’s plan for humanity was to settle across the whole Earth and bring it from chaos into godly order. The Babel regime, one the other hand, kept humanity at only one place doing only one thing. “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth,” said the people of Babel, but mankind spreading across the whole Earth was precisely God’s plan.

    Another, more ominous interpretation: God said of Babel “Now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” The problem, as God saw it, wasn’t that Babel thought was striving for some great feat that it could not reach, but rather that it would succeed in reaching that goal all to well. If you want to spin the Babel incident into a contemporary message, consider that humanity may very well be entering a technological singularity that could fundamentally redefine life on Earth and what it means to be human, or risk a catastrophic event that could end the world. Possibly, God did not want some singularity event to occur so soon in human history, and scattered the people of Babel to delay the occurrence, but admitted that a technological singularity is possible, and one could deduce, would be an eschatological event that would bring mortal men and our fallen world they inhabit to some end point.

  • TheAbstractor

    I’m inclined to agree with Cosmiksheen, that this exegesis of the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis is a bit misplaced.

    There are two interpretations which I think may be better: First, that God’s plan for humanity was to settle across the whole Earth and bring it from chaos into godly order. The Babel regime, one the other hand, kept humanity at only one place doing only one thing. “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth,” said the people of Babel, but mankind spreading across the whole Earth was precisely God’s plan.

    Another, more ominous interpretation: God said of Babel “Now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.” The problem, as God saw it, wasn’t that Babel thought was striving for some great feat that it could not reach, but rather that it would succeed in reaching that goal all to well. If you want to spin the Babel incident into a contemporary message, consider that humanity may very well be entering a technological singularity that could fundamentally redefine life on Earth and what it means to be human, or risk a catastrophic event that could end the world. Possibly, God did not want some singularity event to occur so soon in human history, and scattered the people of Babel to delay the occurrence, but admitted that a technological singularity is possible, and one could deduce, would be an eschatological event that would bring mortal men and our fallen world they inhabit to some end point.

  • the chaplain

    The state is a benefit to all when it is in its proper place. But its intrusion in the economy, industry, and the lives of private citizens can have a variety of harmful consequences

    I take it this means that you support a woman’s right to determine what to do with her body, as in, deciding for herself whether an abortion is the right option for her in particular circumstances. I take it you also support adults’ rights to choose whether to indulge in the social/recreational use of alcohol, tobacco or marijuana. And, I take it you also support people’s rights to marry those whom they love, regardless of sexual/gender orientation. Those are all personal matters with which the state has no business interfering, no?

  • http://YouMadeMeSayIt.com PhillyChief

    I’m curious what the author would consider as the “God created order”, how they know it, and what government’s role in it is. For instance, should we allow someone’s house to burn rather than have government intrude via fire fighters? What about those pesky government building permits and safety codes? Is it God’s created order to allow DuPont to dump chemicals into my water supply. If not, exactly who or what should or will stop them if not the government?

    “Have we not built a bureaucratic Babel when the responsibilities of the Church and the private sector are overtaken by government programs?”
    So in other words, it’s not the building of a Tower of Babel that you disagree with, but rather the choice of one over another. LOL!

    Btw, I’d like to know where unemployment pays more than having your job. Perhaps you should read some of the comments at the link you provided, especially that of Mr. Jim Bradley of Indiana. “…if not for the VA i would have nothing. we are losing our jobs to foreign countrys by the same leaders that you vote for. unemployment is “not” Well fair. At this time it is Life support. Gain more Knowledge before you make blank mind statement. 99.8% of the people on your wellfare plan are looking for work.”

    YouMadeMeSayIt.com

  • Jewish Girl

    A conservative limited role for government can only work with a limited localized economy and culture–where people can get jobs locally and neighbors were friends who took care of each other. This is why economists associated with the Family Research Council and like minded groups want to do things like internal tarriffs (to enable local Mom and Pop businesses to be competitive) low or no taxes for small busniesses incentives for individual home ownership to encourage town over urban life, and things which can encourage home based businesses. They have a Little House on the Prarie type vision. However, if your economy is sustained by exports and imports, if what happens in New York affects Peoria Ill , if people can and do travel easily to other states and if people in apartments do not know their neighbors limited government cannot work (at least not without leading to expoitative local cliques taking advantage of the lack of community culture).
    Incidentally this happened in the Old Testament as well. The Levitical laws were designed for localized agricultural communities which were made up of tribes related by blood ties –the only national government was a court. Although mutual defense among the Israelites was encouraged and praised, “national or peoplehood” feeling was not even universal, some tribes did not identify with the rest of Israel to help defend other tribes (see the Book of Deborah). A more nationalized government was actually discouraged by God, (see the book of Samuel) as unnecessary and damgerous because of their potential for the abuse of power (see Dutorotomy). However seven hundred years later, during the time of prophets, the economy of Israel had changed. Most of the books in prophets involve prophets from rural areas like Amos and Jermiah coming to enlarged cities and complaining that people were not implementing the religious values, which were easily applied in localized culturally homogenous agricultural societies, in the new commercialized urban areas where dog eat dog commerce existed causing permanent differences in social classes and people came into contact with other cultures and were influenced by them (for ex by imitating idol worship). The evangelists of the early and mid twentieth centuries followed the same format, They came from rural areas and denounced the sinfulness and lack of faith that accompanied urbanization and consumerism but they had little success long term success in making real changes in spite of the popularity of some of them because religious values which really presuppose a small economy cannot work in very complex, heterogenous socieities and economies.