Government For Sinners: Checks and Balances (or He Tinkers With Clunkers)

Picture of AMC Eagle, 1987

The Whole Idea Was A Clunker

(The following is Part 18 in a series of excerpts from the book, With Christ in the Voting Booth.)

Though the Obama White House claims to stand up for the poor, one of its earliest big programs, Cash for Clunkers, helped car dealership owners and new car buyers, while making life tougher for the poor. The idea was simple. If you went to any new car dealer and picked out a new car to buy, the government would reduce the cost of the car by up to $4500 if you traded in your old gas-guzzling used car. This money was paid to the dealers by the taxpayer.[1]

There were at least two other problems with this plan. Number one, it only helped those who could afford to buy expensive new cars. The deal couldn’t be used on used cars, leaving out many buyers. Number two, the program required that the old cars be in drivable condition when they were brought in so that the car dealer could destroy them. Read that last sentence again. Yes, you read it right. The result was that we threw away over half a million perfectly reliable used cars, on purpose.

Now try to buy an inexpensive used car. It can barely be done. You’ll often find, like I recently did, that your choices are tiny little not-so-Smart-like cars, no bigger than a Cozy Coupe, or very expensive mid-sized cars. Not a luxury car, mini-van or SUV to be found. No bargains. The price of used cars went up sharply immediately.[2] So, who buys used cars? Mostly, it is not the rich.

Government by Sinners

Because we are sinners, we need government. But what kind of government is needed to restrain wicked men? Perhaps your first answer would be a strong central government: one able to respond quickly and forcibly to put down the threats of anarchy, rebellion or chaos caused by a nation of sinners. As a wise mother wouldn’t allow her children to run with scissors, a wise governor knows that people are not to be trusted with too much freedom. Since sinful behavior has at its root a sinful mind, you say, a good government should be able to control the very mindset of its citizens through education in order to have a civilizing effect.

The ideas above might combine into a workable philosophy of government were it not for one nagging question: If those who govern sinners are likewise sinners, who will govern the sinners doing the governing?

Scriptures include several warnings about abusive, intrusive government, the most famous being the one when Samuel warned Israel about the perils of demanding to have a king like the nations around them:

And he said, this will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive-yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day. I Samuel 8:11-18:

While determining the ideal size of government—measured in tax rates or government spending as percentage of the Gross National Product (GNP)—is beyond the scope of this book, a couple of observations are in order. First, the king that the Israelites had asked for would soon become the king that would bring them great tears. Second, this king would take the best of their stuff, and the best of their people and he would make them slaves.

I used to think Samuel’s warning meant that God was opposed to Israel having a human king, but my pastor has corrected my thinking on this. He reminded me that Jesus was and is a human king. Therefore it is not the humanity, but the impiety of kings that presents a problem. The greater sin was that the Israelites did not want God to rule over them and wanted to be ruled like the pagan nations around them. They thought that the earthly king could take the place of God, fighting their battles for them (1Sa. 8:20). But they soon found that such reliance on a king would be ill-placed. He would not be able to protect them if God was against them, and the king himself would often turn against the best interests of the people.

The lesson for the Christian is plain. Do not put your trust in governors to protect you or provide for you. Any politician who makes such grandiose claims is misleading you, not leading you.

Checks and Balances

The idea that all men are depraved was woven into the very fabric of our Constitution. And while some argue that the document established our government, its primary purpose was to restrain it. Two means of limiting the reach and power of government were utilized: Checks and Balances, and the 10th Amendment.

Checks and balances were not implemented so that just in case one branch of the government happened to get too much power, the others could keep it in line. The idea of an encroaching government was no mere hypothetical. The Constitution was written under the assumption each branch would actively seek more power for itself and must be checked. Children are often taught in the public schools the concept of checks and balances. What is often missing is the reason such a thing is needed: We are sinners, who by nature desire to rule over others.

Government by Prescription

Dangerous medicines that present the risk of misuse are prescribed by licensed physicians and distributed by licensed pharmacists. The prescription tells the patient how many pills to take, when to take them, when to stop taking them, and whether they must be accompanied with the intake of food. The patient is not to “make it up” as they go.

Think of government as God’s necessary medicine to keep a nation of poor sinners from killing each other or robbing each other blind, and the U.S. Constitution as one prescription of how that medicine might be dispensed. Government is a treatment for what ails us, but it is not a cure. Just as the moral law cannot save the sinner, neither can the civil law save a nation. Our founders understood the great risk of overdose this medicine of government presented. The U.S. Constitution included the directions necessary—if followed!—to prevent such an overdose. Most importantly, it stated the limits of how much government was allowed. The medicine was not intended to provide nutrition, comfort or entertainment for the patient.

Because government is run by sinners, there is always the risk government authorities will misuse their power, therefore another means of limiting the power of federal government was included in the Bill of Rights: the 10th Amendment. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

While the concept of checks and balances sought to distribute and balance the power between the three branches of government, the 10th Amendment, the last of the so-called bill of rights, was designed to limit the scope and jurisdiction of the federal government.

Sadly, it seems that both Democratic and Republican presidents feel compelled to create new programs every year and announce them during the State of the Union address, creating an ever bigger and bigger government. Other budget items are debated by Congress and the people, but rarely does anybody ask whether or not the program is even within the jurisdiction of the lawmakers as granted by the Constitution. Therefore we slowly slide down the path to a welfare state or socialism.



[1] http://www.cashforclunkersfacts.com/bill-faq/

[2] http://www.autotrader.com/research/article/car-news/117835/used-car-prices.jsp

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