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.