Acton Commentary

Does Government Know Best?

At the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok last month,United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan questioned the commitment of theUnited States to fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. His criticisms centered on the failure of the United States,as he sees it, to contribute part of the $15 billion it has earmarked for thefight against AIDS to a U.N. administered “superfund.” “The global fund is ready to go,” said Annan . “If individual governments begin to setup their own initiatives, they start from scratch, it takes longer, the moneythat they hold will not be spent for a long time.”

The Bush administration has defended its use of the AIDS money,citing national sovereignty and the right to use its own money as it seesfit. The irony should not be lost,however, that the federal government often manifests the same attitude withregard to domestic affairs as the U.N. does in international affairs.Government administrations often work under the implicit assumption that ifgovernment isn't doing the work, then the work isn't getting done.

This is the case with education, as federal funding ofschools has continued to balloon under the Bush administration. The Bushcampaign touts “historiclevels of funding--President Bush's overall Fiscal Year (FY) 2005 budgetrepresents a 49% increase for elementary and secondary education since FY2001.”

A sound Christian understanding of the role of the stateviews government not as an end in itself but as a means to serve the commongood. The nature of government is penultimate: the good of its citizens shouldbe placed before the good of government's institutional interests.

Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper outlined theproper role of government more than a century ago in his presentation of theidea of “sphere sovereignty.” The state, Kuyper said in his Free Universityspeech of 1880, “must provide for sound interaction among the various spheres ...and keep them within just limits.” But the sovereignty of each sphere (theindividual, the family, the church) has an authority of its own, which“descends directly from God” and which the state “does not confer butacknowledges.”

When the federal government makes the de facto claim to be the only valid source of a social good,whether healthcare or education, it oversteps its role as facilitator andarbiter between institutions of civil society, displacing these institutionsand tyrannizing their rightful authority. There is all too often a fundamentallack of recognition by governmental officials of the critical role that privatecitizens and civil institutions play in the well-being of a healthysociety. Private institutions andassociations have much more freedom to integrate such important matters asfaith and learning, and are more directly accountable to parents for theeducation they provide than governmental schools, which are more tightly boundby court rulings and institutional regulations.

One of the unintended and unfortunate consequences ofconcentrating power in government bureaucracies is that corruption becomes muchmore commonplace, since authority has been centralized and consolidated into asingle institution. This has mostrecently been made obvious in the scandal just now coming to light in theU.N.'s oil-for-food program in Iraq. Governmental bureaucracies tend inevitablyto monopolize power, placing decision-making authority in the hands of a fewofficials, who can all too often be turned by bribes or personal greed.

Moreover, governments tend to enlarge over time. What wasonce the safety net, the last resort of yesteryear, becomes the baselineentitlement of tomorrow.Governments are entirely dependent on the productivity of theirpopulations for their income, and all too often a critical line is crossedwhere the size and scope of governmental power interferes with the healthyfunctioning of a society.

The United States is certainly well within its rights torefuse greater participation in an inefficient and bloated internationalbureaucracy. But by the sametoken, federal policymakers should more clearly recognize that governmentdoesn't always know best. For the greater good of society, government officialsshould embrace more fully the critical role of mediating civil institutions.

It is for these reasons that British historian Lord Actononce said, “There are many things the government can't do - many good purposesit must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannotfeed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. Itcannot convert the people.” BothMr. Annan and Mr. Bush would do well to realize this truth. In doing so, the activities of boththeir governments and their constituents may well be blessed.