All Commentary
Friday, September 1, 1995

The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology

Bad Policy Drives Out Good Morals

“Both freedom and virtue are under assault today,” writes Doug Bandow in The Politics of Envy, an applied integration of social conservatism and economic libertarianism. The root cause is a public theology of state worship. He posits that a conservative social order—intact families secure in communities characterized by low crime and cultural coherence—would be the dominant strain of an American life absent government intrusion. The result of his argument is an old-fashioned, principled case for classical liberalism, applied to a myriad of modern policy problems.

The direct relationship between big government and the decline of personal morality is not predetermined, Bandow argues, but a trend toward one reinforces the other. Men of weak faith turn to government to feed the old but forgotten vice of envy. In this context, envy means taking satisfaction in the financial and moral downfall of others, and acting through government to bring it about. It saps the strength of private initiative and institutions like the church and family, which in turn creates ever more social crises to be “solved” by government.

In this process, bad policy drives out good morals. The welfare state, regulations on enterprise, public schooling, drug prohibitionism, and a panoply of spending programs have overturned rooted cultural mores as well as made us poorer. Thus Bandow suggests this rule for government policy: first do no harm. In nearly every sphere the government has intruded, he shows, it has caused more problems than it has helped.

This is not only true in well-known cases like family policy; it’s true in agricultural and housing policy; in the international economic policy of the World Bank; the attempt to use foreign policy to create collective security; in the U.S. attempt to create and sustain a global empire to promote “democracy.” These policies strengthen the government and its connected interests, which is why they have their defenders, but are they good for society at large? Bandow demands that all forms of redistributionism and intervention be evaluated in moral and practical terms.

The strength of the argument derives largely from Bandow’s willingness to apply his principles so broadly, and not shrink from their conclusions. Thus it is not Bandow’s theory so much as its application which makes this book a compelling and often unpredictable read. He makes a passionate argument against the pro-choice view on abortion, for example, but also against the prohibitionists who oppose a legal market for drugs.

On environmentalism, he asks whether the many greens are engaged in protecting the earth or actually worshiping it. The questions reinforces the book’s theme, because, as he demonstrates, policies designed to “protect the earth” must rely on high levels of coercion. They are not only costly (Bandow reports that the Clean Air Act costs $40 billion annually) but also ineffective. Then he adds this twist. Because environmental ideology is religious at its root, and holds a view of man and nature that is alien to Western faith, people should consider “what spiritual theories they are in effect subsidizing” through environmental policy. If the government can’t subsidize churches, it should also be prohibited from “turning the new wilderness cathedrals into an established religion.”

So it is with national service programs which ultimately assume “that citizens are responsible not to each other, but to the state.” Bandow worries about “voluntary” programs because they “imply a unity of society and state, with work for the latter being equated with service to the former.” As he points out, one third of Americans now volunteer scarce time and energy to charitable projects that involve no remuneration. What national service promotes is service to the state, and this “service” necessarily challenges our loyalties to other institutions that mediate between individuals and government.

Neither does Bandow view the government as an appropriate means of stamping out vice, a type of coercion encouraged more by neoconservatives than by the much-villified Christian Right. As Bandow writes, many conservatives, “despite their verbal support for both traditional values and individual liberty, are as secularized and authoritarian as their liberal counterparts.” One need only think how neoconservatives’ efforts to create a national curriculum for public schools have backfired. They proposed it just in time for the Clinton administration to fill in the details. The result, as Bandow knew it would be, was an anti-education, multicultural mess.

But Washington’s conservatives are slow learners, even slower than its liberals. Somehow they are always holding out hope that this or that program will make the federal government work for them instead of the people across the aisle. This tendency is apparent even in the work of the new Congress (do we really need to expand the military budget?). Yet the problem of government which Bandow identifies is more fundamental: it is in competition with God for our loyalties.

The modern state embodies a counter-religion, one which rests on and reinforces immorality and social breakdown. The first step toward restoring both freedom and virtue is to dismantle it. “Should Christians Be Statists?” Bandow asks as the title to one section. The answer—rigorously argued—is no. []

Mr. Tucker is director of research at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.