The Great Fact

Posted on October 15, 2013 by


Once again the “Great Fact” was brought home to me in the morning sermon at my church. The Great Fact is not popular among non-Christians and not very popular among many calling themselves Christians.  Instead autonomy and self-interest tend to rule the day.  You could also say that many in the church as well as outside believe they aren’t quite as good as perfect but not quite so bad to be condemned.  By now, you may know what the great fact is to which I am referring. It is simply sin, in particular the sin nature, with which all humans are born and which all will carry with them until they die, to some degree or other.  The sin nature means not only that we commit sins, but that we are prone to do so because in our inner being we do not want to follow God’s way. Of course, not everyone expresses this nature equally. Some behaviors are worse than others in their consequences.  And some act badly more often than others.  But this “small fact” in no way diminishes the Great Fact. Not one human (excepting Jesus Christ) has ever been, is, or ever will be, perfect, that is, sinless. I said this wasn’t popular.  It isn’t good news, though it may lead people to Good News and to Christ.  But what is my aim here in the post?  I wish to say a few words about the implications of the Great Fact for thinking about politics and economics.

Let us begin with the simple but overlooked fact that there is no entity known as “government” except in a legal, formal or collective, short-hand sense.  Governments are populated by people.  Laws are made by people whose votes have somehow aggregated their individual preferences.  Decisions at the “street level” are made by people.  Regulations are issued by people, working in groups or as one person. Judicial cases are decided by people, either by one judge or collectively by several.  And voting is done by people.  There you have it.  People populate government.  People make decisions.  That is a good start, but so what?

Since people make decisions, and people are sinful to one degree or another, we might expect that decisions could be made that are bad, unjust, or stupid.  This is of course doubly true since in addition to a sin nature the Fall has also caused a distortion in our reason.  Yes, we can still use reason, as God intended us to do, and it can also be used correctly.  But often as not, as we begin the reasoning process in any given instance, we begin with unbiblical assumptions.  Or as we engage in the process, we misread the data because of a distorted worldview.  Or we draw wrong conclusions because we do not want to interpret or cannot interpret the information we do have through a biblical lens.  Combining sin nature and distorted reason presents a significant obstacle to the student of politics, one which an honest person cannot overlook.

Let’s think a bit more about it.

Looking first at the overall type of government that is best, does the Great Fact of sin help us design that best (though never perfect) government? Indeed it does. If we know that no individual is perfect and in fact that he or she might abuse power, though they also may not, depending on the individual, we would not tend to grant unlimited authority to one person. Even if that person were virtuous he will most certainly die or leave office someday, to be replaced with an unknown who may not be so virtuous. Of course this does not tell us exactly what kind of governmental institutional structure we should establish. But it does give us parameters for thinking about what would best address and minimize the potential abuses of power on account of sin. In fact we may go so far as to argue that minimizing potential abuse is only possible by maximizing division and diffusion of power by separating offices and enacting checks on each office. This of course is what the Founders suggested and what was ratified in the United States Constitution. Arguably the Founders did not go far enough, but perhaps they went as far as they could without jeopardizing the viable functioning of a government. There is after all a tradeoff.

Sin has relevance also as we think about the use of bureaucratic structures to implement and enforce laws. Bureaucracies are hierarchical organizational forms. They may be an efficient means to accomplish certain tasks. However in the public sector the output is frequently not measurable–no one knows how much is or should be produced–and cannot be priced. Rules are the normally chosen approach to reduce uncertainty in the face of these problems. In addition, the organization itself is essentially one not accountable directly to an electorate or to any other checks on its authority, once it gets its authority from a legislative body. This gives a bureaucracy a great deal of both power and discretion. But if people are sinful, what do bureaucrats seek in their self-interested moments? Research suggests their goal, since it cannot be a measurable output or profit, is maximization of their budgets, which in turn can be used for more hiring of people, better offices, higher salaries for members, etc. Once again the sin nature, allowing for genuinely virtuous bureaucrats on occasions, causes individual choices leading to both inefficient and unjust outcomes for the public.

In the realm of markets we also see sinful behavior, though as in any context, we also allow for virtue. But private individuals are no more sinful than public officials. That is a crucial assertion. Many have believed and still do that people in the private sector–mainly businessmen but also consumers–must somehow be driven by greed (a form of sin) while public officials are driven by the public interest. But sin extends to all people, no matter what the context. The question becomes then, even assuming the possibility of virtue and not discounting it, what implications does the presence of sin have for institutional design. In the private sector, even assuming greed (an unfortunate assumption and an inaccurate one), the nature of markets tends to diminish the opportunity to succeed in sinful behavior (if we also assume basic rule of law as well as a desire to satisfy consumers). But the public sector often actually fails because the sin problem is not accounted for in designing organizations. Thus, even if we have an equal number of “bad” people in each sector, the unchecked authority of public sector officials might produce more and worse bad outcomes than the market behavior of businessmen and consumers who must reckon with quality issues, prices and possibly falling profit. Incentives matter and even more as we consider the sin nature.

I realize this has been a somewhat long and tedious post. And even at that, it is overly simplified. But sin is a problem that must be faced in thinking about government. It is a foundational concept. Any Christian worldview of any discipline or activity must take account of the sin nature. Sin nature is therefore not only foundational but of the utmost importance at the outset of our thought process. But before I close I would add that we can only understand the sin nature fully as we go to the standard of knowledge for Christians, the Holy Scriptures. Our experience does confirm the Great Fact, but the knowledge and implications of sin nature are fully framed by Scripture. Sin is described for one reason, among many, as a warning to all humans who would believe they can create the Kingdom of God on earth without considering the unintended consequences. May we as Christians take heed of its warning in our thinking.

I recommend one among many possible works for the interested reader: Anthony Hoekema,Created in God’s. Eerdman’s, 1994, who surveys the entire scope of the Christian idea of human nature..