Dr. Cobin’s book Bible and Government is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in quite some time. By questioning the necessity for civil government, Cobin hopes to provide an alternative to the incoherent statist nationalism that passes for most Christian political thought.
Although I ultimately cannot go along with Cobin’s willingness to dismiss the state as a potential force for good, his argument should not be lightly discarded. This is a meaty book by an astute and well-read author, not a cockeyed political harangue by some unqualified hack. At the very least, the book causes the reader to re-evaluate some basic assumptions about civil government. Why does it exist? Is civil government a Biblical requirement? When does the government do more harm than good? What is our Christian duty toward the civil magistrate?
Cobin identifies three categories of policy and uses them as guidelines for most of the discussion in the book.
First is reactive policy, “action by government designed to provide a social service that the market cannot provide well.”1 These would be national defense; the establishment and enforcement of basic rules of property, contract, and tort; and state actions of criminal justice. Even with Cobin’s leanings to a stateless society, he seems willing to accept reactive policy. Here it seems he is inconsistent — Cobin argues elsewhere that civil government does far more harm than good, and that it is part of “Satan’s kingdom,”2 but he would like to have a military and a court system provided by that government.
The second category is policyof inefficient public provision. When the government provides a good or service that could be more efficiently provided by the market, it is a policy of inefficient public provision. This would include the postal service, building safety inspection, firefighting, public utilities, the road network, and many other goods and services provided by the civil government.
Third is proactive policy, of which there are two types: 1) policy aimed at changing behavior, and 2) policy aimed at redistributing wealth. Cobin condemns both as categorically evil. Proactive policy of the first type would include environmental regulations, prohibitions on alcohol or drugs, offensive military operations, seat belt laws, and mandatory schooling. The second type would include welfare (including Social Security), unemployment insurance, subsidies to farmers, subsidies to researchers, and many student loan programs.
I agree with Cobin that market provision would be preferable in all but the reactive policy category. I see no Biblical warrant for the civil government to get involved in building safety inspection, drug prohibition, or many of the other things Cobin mentions.
Cobin’s criticism of these policies is entirely based on ideas of economic inefficiency. Efficiency means the benefits of a policy exceed the costs. Benefits and costs are subjective, however, and they vary substantially from person to person. To decide whether a policy is efficient or inefficient would require an insight into individual preferences which no government can possess. This makes Cobin’s boundary between reactive policy and inefficient public provision useless, because it cannot be determined by empirical tests of efficiency.
It is also unclear, from Cobin’s reasoning, why proactive policy is to be rejected. Proactive behavior-changing policy addresses “behavior that would otherwise be commonplace, normal, typical, and not harmful to others.”3 First of all, using “normal” to denote behavior that government should leave alone is problematic. Who defines normal? And how is it that behavior that harms others becomes the province of civil government (via reactive policy), while merely self-destructive behavior fails the test for government involvement? I find most of Cobin’s proactive policies just as abhorrent as he apparently does, but I arrived at my conclusions by a different route.
In the first few pages of the book, Cobin dismisses another Reformed Christian approach that relies on Biblical revelation to determine what civil government should do — theonomy (God’s law). But when it comes to finding a moral standard for government, Cobin’s efficiency-based approach is not satisfactory.
What if markets provide inefficiently for the unemployed, allocate farm products inefficiently, or produce inefficient levels of funding for students? Do all these “categorically evil” proactive policies become acceptable as reactive policies? On the other hand, what if some level of defense can be efficiently provided by markets or other social institutions, like the family? (How one determines inefficiency is a problem, as I have already mentioned.) Would these reactive policies then become policies of inefficient provision or proactive policies? It is a serious question. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a UNLV economist of the same tradition that attracts Cobin, has argued for “anarcho-capitalism” — a stateless society complete with privately provided defense and courts.
Apart from these problems, Cobin’s analysis of specific policies is quite good. Cobin is excellent in his treatment of the welfare state. Many Christians who criticize welfare programs are highly tolerant of the biggest welfare program of all — Social Security. As Cobin points out, Social Security is no different in principle from any other kind of welfare, and Christians should rely instead on personal saving, family, and the church (in that order). There is also a wonderful chapter devoted to the problems with government schooling.
Cobin’s central argument is that the state has so often been the enemy of Christianity that Christians should regard the state as generally dangerous. Anarchy, he says, would be preferable to the interventionist mega-state we now have.
“Christians should not glibly dismiss anarchy out of hand as the worst of all possible options. Indeed, it is ironic that they tend to do so,” Cobin writes.4 I agree that anarchy is preferable to many forms of idolatrous statism. Yet any attempt to reconcile anarchy and Christian ethics has difficulty dealing with large sections of Scripture.
Significant sections of the Old Testament provide instruction on what sins are to be considered crimes. Who is to execute murderers (Ex. 21:12), if not the state? Who will enforce the laws of restitution? Who will muster the army against invaders? The institution having this power is the civil magistrate. In the introduction, Cobin writes that “the biblical concept of governance, stemming from the family or tribe, may indeed exist without a state.” If the tribe punishes criminals and defends against invaders, is it not functionally a state?
Some of my most serious concerns about Cobin’s argument center on his discussion of Romans 13:1-7, in which St. Paul writes, “...the powers that be are ordained of God.” There is a chapter devoted to this passage and related passages in 1 Peter 2:13-17 (“Submit yourself to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake...”) and Titus 3:1-2 (“Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers...”).
Cobin contends that “good” and “evil” in these passages (e.g., “he is God’s minister to you for good,” and “he is…an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil”) refer to the twisted values and understanding of right and wrong found in Satan’s kingdom. By “good” and “evil,” Paul and Peter were referring to acts that the civil magistrate thought of as good or evil. The Greek word used for “evil” here is a weaker, more general term than the word used elsewhere in the New Testament. The command in Romans 13, as Cobin sees it, is to avoid punishment by staying out of the civil magistrate’s way. “Honor the king” means to offer superficial respect so as to stay out of trouble. Romans 13 does not (and here I agree with Cobin) give a command to obey unconditionally.
There are a few problems with this interpretation. If we are to obey only to stay out of trouble, what of Romans 13:5 — “Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake”? There must be more to the requirement than saving our hides. Cobin does a fair job of showing that being appointed by God does not necessarily mean that the civil magistrate is godly. Throughout history, God has appointed wicked men to do His will. But the passage in Romans refers to the civil magistrate as “God’s minister,” three times. Would a captain in “Satan’s kingdom” be referred to in this way?
For these reasons, I cannot fully go along with Cobin’s view of the state, though I do sympathize with his opposition to inefficient and proactive policy. I would favor a system in which the state were so small that it might appear anarchistic, to some. Many of the problems Cobin mentions occur with large states, which engage in power-grabbing and empire-seeking. Would the same problems with the state occur if civil governments were small and highly decentralized?
In spite of my reservations about some of Cobin’s arguments, Bible and Government is a needed contribution to Christian debate about the role of the civil magistrate. It challenges core assumptions Christians make about civil government, and should give us all pause when we consider relying upon the state to provide a peaceable and just society. In a time of growing nationalism and interventionism among Christians, this is a worthwhile read.
1. Cobin, p. 24.
2. Cobin, p. 88.
3. Cobin, pp. 27, 28.
4. Cobin, pp. 82, 83.
- Timothy D. Terrell
Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.