Arnold Kling  

The New Sectarianism in America

Why U.S. Budget History is Not... Max Borders on Subjective Valu...

Richard Cohen writes

the very reason most Americans find secularism a strange and useless term is that this country has never had a state religion.

I believe that America does have a state religion. I call it the religion of Unlimited Government. Those of us who dissent from the state religion believe in Limited Government. I will elaborate below.

This continues the issue of religion, economics, and politics that I began in my post on four principles. I also discussed religion and ideology in my post on Robert Nelson's book.

There is no one who will come right out and say they are for Unlimited Government. However, on each specific issue, from obesity to education to financial regulation, the believers have faith that government action would be moral and effective. The believers never accept an argument that government's wisdom and morality have limits. Instead, they view any government failure as the unfortunate consequence of special interests, free-market ideology, or just plain evil people who manage to get into positions of power. For believers, government is "us" and those who believe in Limited Government are the dupes of a false religion.

In the end, I do not wish to claim that I know what the other side believes, because they usually hate it when I try to describe their beliefs. When I offered my generous interpretation of progressivism, some progressives liked it. But that was a post that did not attempt to describe their ideology. Instead, I described progressivism in Manichean terms, as a tradition that had believed in the good and fought evil. I am fine when I say that progressives are on the side of the angels, but actually defining what they stand for gets me in trouble with them.

So, either (a) the church of Unlimited Government has a doctrine, but I do not know what it is; or (b) the church of Unlimited Government has no doctrine, only a set of particular positions that happen to all lead to government power that is expanded, centralized, and placed in the hands of expert technocrats.

Those of us who believe in limited government are willing to come right out and say what we believe. We believe that government is indeed a menace, and that Constitutional limitations and/or social norms are required to keep it in check. We do not believe (or at least I do not believe) that markets work perfectly. Whenever people defend a position of Unlimited Government by attacking the theory that markets work perfectly, they are talking past me. The question for me is not whether markets are perfect, but whether government can work better. If you want to change my mind, convince me that government can work better than markets--in practice, not just in some theoretical world of benevolent technocrats possessing infinite wisdom.

If you are a European-style socialist, then this country must look like it is completely dominated by my religion of Limited Government. If you are not a member of either church, then you may see this country as being reasonably balanced between the religion of Unlimited Government and the religion of Unlimited Government. [Nick Rowe notes the "Freudian typo." I meant to say that the non-members see a balance between limited and unlimited.]

But as a believer in Limited Government, I think I belong to a dissenting religion. I see the Church of Unlimited Government as the established church in the United States.

The seminaries of the Church of Unlimited Government may be found on college campuses. Incidentally, this represents a unique opportunity for Jews to join the established church. How different from Jewish history, where we were religious pariahs and restricted to low-status occupations. In the established church of Unlimited Government, a Jew can become a bishop!

Once the Church of Unlimited Government becomes established, the separation of church and state becomes quite difficult. The technocrats now rule by Divine Right, particularly when, as now, the Presidency and Congress are controlled by Democrats.

Even when Republicans were in control, they did not disestablish the Church of Unlimited Government. They gave us No Child Left Behind.

Over the past two years, the differences between the Church of Limited Government and the Church of Unlimited Government have sharpened. Hence, the Tea Party movement.

In my view, the Church of Unlimited Government is out of step with the key technological trend of the post-World War II period--the decline of the industrial age and the growth of the information age. The industrial age fostered large institutions and tolerated centralization. In the information age, large organizations are fragile. Hence, large corporations can quickly fail, and governments are increasingly inept. See the widely-unread Unchecked and Unbalanced.

One can view the financial crisis as the result of reckless behavior undertaken by the largest financial institutions, with regulatory approval. On the co-operative role of the regulatory establishment, see Ross Levine or my own Not What they Had in Mind. The aftermath of the financial crisis was the government's attempt to revive firms that should have been allowed to kill themselves.

If there is a bottom line to all of this rambling, it is this: those of us who believe in Unlimited Government have a difficult task. Winning an election or two is relatively easy. Disestablishing a church is a lot harder.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (19 to date)
SydB writes:

You are way off in the weeds and in the heart of "Studies" now. Why is it that you tell people they should not take "Studies" courses in college yet you preach it here everyday?

In the present case, you have identified secular regulation with religion, without justification or argument, and then have a grand old time bashing the straw man you've raised up before the audience.

At the same time, you ignore the nationalistic "one nation under god" brand of civil religion that does exist in this country and has been espoused and furthered by those you've supported, e.g. the GOP. (See Martha Nussbaum for more details).

Randy writes:

"Disestablishing a church is a lot harder."

In history many religious faiths have been abandoned when they fail, and this faith will be no exception. But populations are religious by nature. They will not abandon faith - they will turn to a new faith. So, how to create a faith based in personal responsibility and property? There is an example from history. It was known as the "Protestant Work Ethic".

Nick Rowe writes:

"If you are not a member of either church, then you may see this country as being reasonably balanced between the religion of Unlimited Government and the religion of Unlimited Government."

Freudian typo? ;-)

MKS writes:

Secularism is indeed a religion. Read Humanist Manifest I (1933) and Humanist Manifesto II (1973) and the later versions. In these statements of blind belief, the "church of unlimited government" has its guiding document.

Government is somewhat like fire; it is good only when limited. A fire can be very beneficial in a well-built fireplace, but it is alarming on the furniture and curtains. The Constitution is a very well-built fireplace, but we have let the fire of government get out of that fireplace for many decades now, and it is causing great damage to our nation.

Philo writes:

The simple dichotomy--Unlimited vs. Limited Government--won't do. There are indefinitely many possible degrees of government power; the extremes would be having (1) *all* decisions or (2) *no* decisions made, and carried out or enforced, by government ((1) is suggested by the term 'unlimited'); but hardly anyone embraces either extreme, and there are indefinitely many positions in between.

The most useful simple dichotomy for current discussion is probably More vs. Less Government--more or less than we currently have in the U.S. (taking a limited, nationalistic view). There are about equal numbers of people in each camp, and the debate between them seems to have some immediately practical relevance.

Aside: what a wonderful shot at Jewish leftist opinion-leaders--calling them "Bishops of the Established Church"!

William Barghest writes:

Why are all governments inept? It seems that some governments are more inept than others (singapore >> greece >> iraq), and that those which are less inept will eventually outcompete those which are more inept. Perhaps it just takes more time than for business entities, which permits more slack. As the world becomes wealthier and more technologically capable, does this give governments more or less slack?

Frank writes:

You ask to be convinced that government can work better than markets in practice, but you are well aware of what many progressives regard as the principal general demonstration of this: the social market regimes of northwest Europe. Over the course of many decades, social democratic policies have either eliminated or greatly reduced the severity of a number of social problems that are still serious in the U.S. (You couldn't film "The Wire" in Stockholm, etc.) Therefore we need not take very seriously arguments, based almost entirely on U.S. experience, purporting to show that this is impossible.
Of course you are familiar with this story, and know the great psychological as well as intellectual importance it has for many who disagree with you, so perhaps you have explained systematically why it does not convince you. If so, could you remind us where? If not, you might wish to do so.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

Obama constantly says that more or less government should be decided based on whether a particular element of government works or not.

I don't see the problem in such stark idealogical terms. You yourself see the same patterns develop among Republicans with limited government ideologies. The problem these Republicans have, and even someone like Obama has, is that even when convinced something doesn't work, it is extremely difficult to end a program.

It isn't ideology, it's the legislative dynamics that are the problem.

Sam Schulman writes:

You might - we all might - do well to read Dan Okrent's new book on prohibition, "Last Call" - which explains that this country has indeed had a state religion - a kind of Protestant uplift - that manifests itself at times in an unstoppable way, as it did with the imposition of prohibition, which I never understood until Okrent's explanation of a mass Protestant/woman's-rights/pro-Income Tax movement driven by intense piety. Our state religion comes and goes, but it is always associated with government intervention for our own good. The Church Militant is always in favor of unshackling government - and Okrent (who is no conservative) shows how female suffrage, the federal income tax and possibly intervention in WWI was driven by the Anti-Saloon League and its allies.

marko writes:


In fact, you probably could film "The Wire" in Sweden, most likely in Rosenborg, part of Malmo. Off course, that is not really representative of Sweden, but neither is Baltimore representative of USA.

Jim Ancona writes:


Another "Freudian typo" in the last paragraph.

blighter writes:

I agree with Frank's trenchant observation about the amazing demonstrated success of the social market regimes in scandanavia.

To see the undeniable success of those policies in reducing social pathology, one need only compare the astounding results of the Swedes in Sweden with those unlucky enough to be subject to the cruel tyrannies of the unfettered market in the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism.

Why, just today David Brooks himself pointed out the striking divergence. In Sweden, the poverty rate among Swedes is a tiny 6.7%, when calculated in a comparable way to the US poverty stats. In the US, by contrast, Swedish people are burdened with an intolerable 6.7% poverty rate, a situation crying out for government action.

Thankfully, we've finally passed health care reform in the US, so the longevity gap between US Swedes & Swedish Swedes may finally begin to narrow -- Swedish Swedes used to live only 2.6 years longer than the average American back in the pre-social market dark ages but now, after more than a generation of life under the very best in progressive governance & health & welfare policy, that gap has bloomed to an absolutely shocking 2.7 years. What is the value of the extra 0.1 years that their social policy has bought them? It is well-nigh priceless.

Yup, I agree with Frank. The benefits of the social market systems developed and deployed to best effect in the Scandanavian countries are indisputably superior to more limited government, free-market oriented ones. Comparing the relevant statistics alone makes it very clear just how true that is; you don't even need to point to shows like "The Wire" that highlight the enormous problems people of nordic descent deal with every day in this benighted country...

Brian Clendinen writes:

I like this post and 100% agree other than that there are only two major religions. I do think you are right the belief in Government as the provider of all is the prevailing religion in the U.S. and crosses the spectrum of various religious beliefs people profuse to follow. Some religions like environmentalism it is a foundational belief, others tend to ignore it, while others tend to send mix singles about it, while other are 100% against the idea.

On one side is the Government is my provider, they will provide safety, food, housing, and bail out my investments if they get really bad or if my company is poorly managed. They are my Insurance when bad things happen and should teach my kids in the way so they can live and be productive for the Government (Obama said they this week right?). In turn the Government will insure my kids health care, education, and a Job. If anything bad happens it is the governments fault or other peoples fault for not letting the government take care of it. These other people make decisions that cause bad things are false Gods. This evil therefore the government should try to change them or make them go away. All things good come because the government said let it be and it therefore was. In turn all I have to due is pay homage to our elected leaders give my tithe and all decision making to my Godly government. I must follow the moral code my government teaches me I must follow otherwise I become the reason bad things happen because I did not listen to the God.

On the other side is my God or me which is my provider and insures the above. Sometimes we need government to insure my Freedoms or so I can live for my God but it needs to be based on principles which defer to my Gods inquire, history or my personal belief. Or to put it another way the opposite minority religion is "government is a necessary evil which we need but it needs to be careful controlled and its power limited."

Loof writes:

When religiosity is based on feeling of absolute dependence (Schleiermacher) it’s a good idea to first ask oneself what your “I” and heartfelt “We” group is religious about. This helps avoid pointing a forefinger at others as if a teacher that is really projecting onto others as a preacher.

The unconditional feeling of nationalism is much ado about religiosity of the absolute state, though unlimited, ever bigger, government is this false god’s right hand as unlimited, ever bigger, business is its left hand.

And, by god, they do work well together!

Charlie writes:


You have this strange desire to put people in not very useful sub-groups. A very small percent of Americans are represented by religions of limited or unlimited government. Individuals differ on a continuum across many different dimensions.

It's almost like your strong emotions on certain issues blind you from your Hayekian intuitions. You basically just imposed a top down order on what is in reality a diverse, decentralized system that can't at all be represented by only two sub-groups.


wreaver writes:

@Arnold Kling said,

"Instead, they view any government failure as the unfortunate consequence of special interests, free-market ideology, or just plain evil people who manage to get into positions of power."

A friend of mine who grew up in communist Eastern Europe tells me that the communists used to call these people: "the wreckers".

Joe Marier writes:

The wreckers! now where have I heard that before?

Oh yeah...

Curt Doolittle writes:

Like others said here, the state religion is Democratic Secular Humanism. Unlimited Government is simply a sentimental expression of a strategy expressed in the Humanist Manifesto.

Dave writes:

I'm not sure the Tea Party movement totally understands "limited government". 57% of them hold a favorable opinion of George W Bush, who didn't exactly slash government spending. I don't think these are quite the libertarian crusaders you would like them to be.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top