Tuesday, May 5, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, May 5, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Will the Pandemic Mean a New Era of Big Government? What’s Revealed in that Big Question
Is the COVID-19 crisis going to bring about a completely transformed shape of the United States government? That is a question being asked by many and on both sides of the partisan divide. Republicans are asking it, Democrats are asking it. Informed and intelligent Americans are asking the question, where is our government going? And the size of government, the expectations of government, the proper role of government—these are all huge questions and of course they are huge questions Laden with vast worldview importance.
When you consider government, Christians have to begin from Genesis 1, go to Genesis 3, and then to Romans 13. What do I mean? Well, this is how you do biblical theology. A mandate for government is found in Genesis 1, it's found in the dominion mandate where human beings made in the image of God, male and female, are given responsibility to take dominion and to rule, to co-rule in God's creation here on earth, damming up rivers and building things and establishing cities. That's all within that mandate. And that takes some kind of organized effort and organized effort, the creation of some kind of societal unit means some kind of government.
But beyond that you then have to go to Genesis 3 and the fact of sin, the reality of the fall and the understanding that nothing is now as it should have been in the garden. In the garden government would not have been necessary to restrain evil because there would have been no evil. But outside of the garden, east of Eden, well, government becomes not only a protector, government can sometimes become a threat. And that's because government, like every other part of human endeavor, is corrupted by sin.
But like other important parts of the creation mandate, even as it is affected by sin and negatively so, it is also all the more important. That's made clear as you jump to the New Testament, to Romans chapter 13 where the apostle Paul speaks of government and its assigned responsibility, and in particular the responsibility of government to punish the evildoer and to reward the one who does right.
So that's just a biblical theology framework for our thinking about government in the contemporary context. But boy is the contemporary context getting interesting. The front page of the Wall Street Journal in recent days, an article by Gerald F. Seib and John McCormick. The headline: “Coronavirus Means the Era of Big Government is Back.” Similarly, an opinion piece that ran over the weekend in the New York Times by Michelle Goldberg, a very liberal columnist, with the headline, “Is a New New Deal Coming?”
Well, hear you're talking about hopes and fears, and you're also talking about a very long argument in American history. Let's talk about that argument. The argument began in the founding era, and it began very early, even during the administration of the first president of the United States, George Washington. It became defined as a war of the Washingtonians or the Hamiltonians versus the Jeffersonians. The Jeffersonians became the modern Democratic party. The Federalists basically died out, but they were then replaced later by, at least in terms of argument, the Republican party, the first president of which was Abraham Lincoln. The longstanding argument between the Jeffersonian Democrats and the Federalists was about the size and role of government. The Federalist, by definition, just think of the name, believed in an importance for the federal government that the Jeffersonians fought at every turn. You might say that there have been twists and turns in the American story since then, of course, but the argument simply continues.
There have been some very important turning points in American history. Early on in the American experience, the Jeffersonian tradition was backed up by the Jacksonian revolution. That was the political movement, a populous movement that was brought about by president Andrew Jackson.
But then especially as you come to the Civil War, one of the great issues that was central to the Civil War was the legitimacy of America's national government, it's federal government. And the end of the Civil War meant that the federal government was here to stay, and not only that, for the first time in American history, Americans have become used to the idea of a federal government that operated as a national government and they began to shift their identity to a very clearly national identity.
Another turning point would be the administration early in the 20th century of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, a progressivist, believed in a very big government, an expansive government, a government that he acknowledged would be outside the mandate of the US Constitution.
That's why that argument we often talk about related to the Constitution, whether the Constitution has to be interpreted by its text or rather understood to be, as Wilson and others argued, a living document, which means it can be meant to say whatever they wanted to say, those arguments go back in one sense to the beginning of the Republic, but they certainly accelerated in the 20th century.
The next turning point would be, after the Great Depression, the new deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and that was the period in which the federal government for the very first time really developed a financial relationship with American citizens mostly by means of the social security program. At that point, there was a financial relationship established between the federal government of the United States and individual citizens. The revolutionary character of that is probably lost on most Americans living today.
There are a couple of other very important turning points in American history in the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st century. They have to do with the Great Society as it was declared by Lyndon Johnson, an effort to take the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt with its massive expansion of government into an even more massive expansion of government, into a modern more European style welfare state. The end result of that was that the federal government did multiply its spending on programs, but it did not multiply its effectiveness.
The next turning point was the presidency of Ronald Reagan elected in 1980. Reagan was elected on an explicit Republican platform of limiting the expansion of government. Actually, President Reagan ran on a platform of shrinking the government, but that turned out to be impossible. The most that was politically possible was limiting the expansion of the federal government. But it was Ronald Reagan who famously said that the scariest words in the English language are these: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you."
But then we come to the next turning point in American history for our consideration, and that is the very time in which we live, the Coronavirus crisis. Because the American national government and the states, but in particular, America's national government has undertaken efforts to try to preserve the economy, they go beyond anything politically imaginable just a matter of a few weeks ago. And furthermore, if someone could have looked into the future from say, February of 2020, and seen the fact that it would have been a vast bipartisan vote that would have gone through trillions of dollars of federal spending, no one would have believed it. But that's actually what's happened. The big questions being raised right now are these, is this a sign of the future of the expansion of the American government? Is the Coronavirus an interruption in an otherwise rather stable historical period or does it effectively change everything?
Seib and McCormick writing that front page article for the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper that historically is very concerned about the expansion of government wrote this: "The crisis has not just been a public health emergency requiring a sweeping response, but also the cause of the most searing economic pain since the Great Depression, summoning forth a multi trillion dollar government intervention into the economy." But the authors go on to say, "Much of today's new government activism will recede over time along with the virus. Yet conversations with a broad cross section of political figures suggest there is little reason to expect to return to what had been the status quo on federal spending or the prevailing attitude toward the proper role of government."
Now, when you consider historical perspectives here, just think about the Civil War. In order to fight the Civil War, President Lincoln had to vastly expand the powers and the size of the federal government, including a massive army, but the army was just one indication of the growth of the government.
By the time you get to the Second World War, the very same thing had to take place. But the precedents were there in the First World War, with the federal government presuming to be able to draft soldiers and them into action and also insert itself into the engines of industry and machinery and factories, the business world. All of those precedents were set in the early 20th century, but during the Second World War, everything exploded to a size unprecedented in American history.
But how do we get to the current partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats and why? Interestingly enough, looking at the Democrats, did they switch jerseys midcourse? The Democratic party, as established by Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues, was a party of small government. It was a party that favored agrarianism, small farms, saw democracy is distributed rather than concentrated, fear of the federal government of any considerable size or power.
That was Jefferson's own Virginia tradition. But Virginia produced both traditions, both the agrarian tradition of the Democrats then for small government and the more Federalist tradition that was represented by George Washington himself to some degree and the Washingtonians beyond him.
But through the course of the 19th century, the Democratic party actually moved in the opposite direction, and it was the Democrat Woodrow Wilson who became the great prophet of an expansive government. It was Democrats, most importantly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, who were the agents of the most intentional expansion of the federal government in the 20th century. You still have the same argument now amongst Democrats, they see an expansive government as a way of bringing about the social change they prefer for the society they want to produce. They see an ever larger and more expensive federal government becoming an engine for the redistribution of wealth, and that's a major issue of the Democratic Party's concern.
The Republican Party has had the opposite concern going back at least to the 1950s, even though some of those Republican presidents weren't as small government in their philosophy as you might've thought. That's why Ronald Reagan was considered a great course correction for the Republican Party back to its small government roots. On the Republican side, the great concern of conservatives has been that government threatens to become what Thomas Hobbes called, Leviathan, an ever growing beast that consumes liberties along with the economy. Furthermore, especially in the late 20th century, Republicans became absolutely convinced that state intervention in the economy came as a suppression of economic energy and human flourishing.
Thus, the Republican party has favored decisions made by the market to decisions made by the government. And furthermore, by the time you get to president Donald Trump, there is tremendous concern about the ever expansive administrative state. By the way, there is no question that the United States government is now represented by a vast administrative state. That is simply a matter of fact. The question is, do you think that administrative state is generally benign or malign? A force for good or a force for evil or at least a threat for evil?
Who Will Get to Define the Next Era of the American Experiment? It’s a Big Issue Beneath the Headlines
The most interesting aspect of this front page article in the Wall Street Journal is the fact that in the context of the pandemic, all the rules appear to have changed. You had both Republicans and Democrats falling over one another, trying to get to the point of adopting three massive efforts to try to infuse cash into the American economy. We're talking about trillions of dollars of cash. As you go through the third of those efforts, it is now representing, in calibrated figures, more than the United States has ever spent as a national government on many of its wars put together. World War II can't be put in that. But as you're looking at most of the other wars fought by the United States, including the longest war of all in Afghanistan, they have all consumed less economic energy than what Congress has distributed by means of these legislative efforts supported by the White House, by the way, to try to sure up the American economy in the face of the pandemic.
So what's happening within the two parties? Well, on the Democratic side, the great energy right now is towards seizing the opportunity to expand the federal government in a way that cannot be reversed. For example, the Wall Street journal article John Della Volpe, who is the polling director for Real Clear Opinion Research and he's also at Harvard University's Institute of Politics. The point that this observer was making is that the crisis is expediting a move towards a more progressive Democratic party agenda. That is to say, it has activated and given momentum to the left wing of the Democratic party that was already largely in control of the party that was already trending far left.
The interesting thing is that some of the very ideas that were considered far left in the Democratic Party just weeks ago, aren't considered far left anymore, but rather mainstream in the party as it exists right now. There really isn't much of a question about whether or not the progressive liberal wing of the Democratic party is in control. For one thing, the highest ranking Democrat in government, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was already basically on the left wing of her party, pragmatic in making some deals, but ever pushing towards the leftward direction.
On the conservative side, on the Republican side, there are some very interesting arguments, but the arguments have not yet reached fever pitch. You can count on this, they will. In the Republican Party, a new Reaganite movement emerged in 2009 known as the Tea Party Movement, and it brought about a good deal of discipline in the Republican Party on spending bills, especially trying to avoid the federal government taking on more and more debt, which after all, was just a tax on future generations, also endangering the American economy.
But the Republican Party has never been absolutely in agreement on these issues. And so the Freedom Caucus was established in 2015, this is only 2020, but 2015 now seems like a generation ago. It is also interesting to note that President Trump sends mixed signals on this issue. He isn't a small government Republican, after all, he was a Democrat much of his life. He did not run on an effort to try to, in any systematic way, reduce the size of the American government. But on the other hand, he did run against the administrative state.
But President Trump, along with the Republicans in Congress, have been energetic in trying to spend as much money as possible right now to infuse health into the American economy when it's under unprecedented strain due to the Coronavirus, basically an economic shutdown.
This likely comes to Republicans as at least to two different lessons. One is the lesson about the necessity of permanent government to some extent. It becomes very clear, looking at the context of the pandemic, that there are certain responsibilities that only the federal government, the national government of the United States of America, can undertake. That's why we have the Centers for Disease Control. That's why we have a pandemic response team in the White House. That is why we have federal policies. That's why we have a federal system. In the same way that we need a federal system for air traffic control, we also need a federal system when it comes to many matters of public health. And you're likely to see Republicans enthusiastic along with Democrats about creating future stockpiles of all kinds of medical needs simply to be ready to respond to a pandemic faster than the federal government has responded to the current Coronavirus crisis.
But you're also likely to hear amongst Republicans, great concern about the expansion of the federal government, about so much money now being distributed by that government, about deficit spending that will add, monumentally, to the national debt. You're going to be hearing a lot of questions as to whether the government, having stepped in, in the midst of the Coronavirus will ever step out? The historical record isn't good.
But I mentioned that opinion piece by Michelle Goldberg. She really is on the left of the Democratic Party. She clearly wants one of the results of the Coronavirus to be the opportunity for a new New Deal. That means rewriting the social charter and the size of the federal government in light of the Coronavirus and taking the opportunity to basically push not only the Democratic Party, but the entire nation to the left on these issues.
Goldberg sees the Coronavirus as an opportunity to push for liberal agenda such as a universal basic income, something that was advocated by Andrew Yang just a few weeks ago, a candidate for the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nomination, but an idea that back in January didn't gain much traction. But Goldberg says, "Now's the opportunity," and to the Democrats she says, "Seize the opportunity." Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, Goldberg's point is that this is a crisis that must not be wasted.
Similarly, the second ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, James Clyburn of South Carolina, told members of his caucus a few weeks ago that in the midst of the Coronavirus, one of the stimulus bills was, "A tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our vision." Now, let's note on both sides of the aisle, that's the language that reflects the seizing of an opportunity. That is why politicians become politicians and winning politicians stay in office. That's just finding a politician doing what politicians do.
But the interesting thing to note here is that in the midst of the pandemic, this action, this energy is on the left. I never agree with Michelle Goldberg very much, but I do agree with the way she ends her column in the New York Times over the weekend when she said this: "The biggest battle in politics now is over who will control that project,” meaning the rebuilding of America, “and whom it will prioritize."
She's right. That's going to be the biggest battle in American politics. Who gets to define what is to be the future shape of the American government and the future character of the American experiment? The worldview issues could not loom larger. And the political debate is going to get hot. But it's going to take some time after the Coronavirus to figure out exactly where this argument goes, but the future of the nation and the futures of our grandchildren will depend upon how those questions are answered.
There Is Nothing More Expensive Than ‘Free' — A Basic Fact of Life Exposed in the Rent Strike Movement
Finally, today I want to look at another rather fascinating issue. This has to do with threats about rent strikes in major American cities. What is a rent strike? It is when those who are renters refuse to pay the rent to landlords. It's a huge issue in cities such as say, New York City where you're looking at the largest rental community in the entire United States. In New York City alone, 2.2 million rental units.
This article in the Times by Matthew Hague and Conor Dougherty tells us, "As unemployment soars across the country, tenants rights groups and community nonprofits have rallied around an audacious goal: to persuade the government to halt rent and mortgage payments without back payments accruing for as long as the economy is battered by the Coronavirus."
Now, this takes me back to when I was, say, a nine-year-old child. I believe I was in the fourth grade. My parents were going through a rough period, money was tight. And so I found my way to my parents' checkbook and I wrote them a check for a million dollars. I thought that would cover it. That's how money is made. You simply write it on a check and somebody gives you a million dollars. I thought I was doing a very noble thing, giving my parents a check for a million dollars. It evidently didn't strike me at the time that if it were that easy, everyone would be writing these checks endlessly. My parents patiently gave me an early lesson in economics, including where the money comes from that is represented in a check. Those of you who've ever actually written the check.
Really ever since that point, I've been trying to figure out how an economy works, and once again, even as in politics, in matters economic, it is simply a matter of open worldview consequence. Everywhere you look, there are huge worldview implications of economic theories, of economic policies, of any kind of intervention in the economy or the lack of intervention in the economy. I, based upon Christian biblical presuppositions, want to favor an economic system that respects and rewards public property, that leads to human flourishing by unleashing human endeavor and entrepreneurial spirit. That means, looking at economic systems, I tend, based upon my biblical presuppositions, to look for a small government when it comes to the economy and a big unleashing of human activity with reward for labor very clearly indicated.
The biblical worldview tells us that we should have a very clear linkage between labor and income or reward, that we should encourage investment. Jesus even told a parable to that point, and that we should aim for stewardship and flourishing, which means expanding the economy, increasing human flourishing, leading to an alleviation of poverty. We want more people to have more, not less people to have less.
But this call for a rent strike really raises some of these basic issues. How would that work if renters say, "We're not going to pay the rent." Well, if they say they're not going to pay the rent, the consequences are actually huge because where does that money go? Well, it goes to a landlord. Who's a landlord? A landlord is someone who officially owns the property, although in the vast majority of the situations in a city like New York, it's actually a mortgage company or a bank that, in terms of the capital, really owns the building. The landlord is operating it as a business. But if the landlord can't pay the mortgage payments, then eventually the bank repossesses the property. Everything turns into an economic pit. It's a disaster.
Just like I wrote my parents that check for a million dollars, it makes sense to some at first hearing to say, yes, it would be to the economic advantage of those who are renting apartments simply to say, "We're not going to pay our rent," and it would be to the advantage of the country if government would say, "We're going to refuse to allow landlords to collect that rent. People are having economic problems. Simply stop collecting the rent." The problem is of course the banks won't stop collecting the mortgage payments and then the investors and the stake stakeholders in the bank won't let the bank management decide not to take the payments or not to confiscate the property if necessary.
It comes down to a basic matter, change it from rent to say, buying an apple at a grocery store. If you don't pay a fair price for the apple in the grocery store and the grocery store can't make a business, then guess what? The grocery store won't be there and you're not going to be able to buy the apple at all.
This gets to a basic issue that the biblical worldview understands. There is nothing in the long run, more expensive than free. Free has to be an aberration. If you're handed something free from the store, the store has to see it as in its interest to incentivize you to buy even more. No comprehensive business model over time can be based upon free, because free is not free. Free costs someone something.
And that takes us back to arguments about the proper size and role of government because there is nothing more expensive on planet earth than what a government declares to be free, because the government has to get that money from someone. It has to get that money somewhere. It will try to get as much money as possible from the living, but it will demand money beyond that and it will take it from the not yet born. That is exactly what is represented by the national deficit. That is what happens when the federal government borrows, not only billions, but trillions of dollars to spend in the present. It's borrowing that money from the future. It's taking that money from those not yet born or from those who are right now very young and unaware of how an economy works, and boy don't I understand how that comes together.
The stimulus bills that have been passed by Congress and signed by President Trump thus far came fairly easily. We're already at the point politically where the easy part is over. All of the debates in this point on are going to be hard and they're going to be hot, and it's going to be interesting to watch them together.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
The world certainly has changed in so many ways over these last weeks, but I'm thankful again to be able to tell you that Southern Seminary is ready to meet the challenge of training ministers of the gospel right now, even especially in the midst of this crisis. We stand ready to offer our Master of Divinity and Boyce College programs, our doctoral programs, fully modular or online. Our training is Trusted for Truth and it's ready right now. We're ready, right now, online for you.
You can join us as soon as May 11th for summer courses. We're introducing several new online courses and I'm going to be teaching one of them on current theological issues. It's going to be a lot of fun. You can find out more about this course and over 75 others at sbts.edu/summer. That's sbts.edu/summer.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.