At the Feet of the State
I am a criminal. I am not your ordinary, garden variety criminal. I have never raped, murdered, or robbed anyone. In fact, I am by nature and disposition a law-abiding citizen. I defend the state’s right to demand that its citizens abide by a minimal code of behavior. I believe the state must severely punish anyone who undermines the security and well-being of our society. I guess this places me toward the law-and-order end of the political spectrum. It is ironic, then, that over the past few years, I increasingly find myself outside our society’s laws. How has this strange state of affairs come to pass?
I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately because my wife and I spent the Christmas break remodeling our kitchen, and we did this work without getting a building permit. Most of the work we did would not have required a permit, but since we moved the sink and changed some wiring, we were technically in violation of the law. I object to building codes in principle, but I cannot claim the moral high ground asserting that our failure to get a permit was motivated by reasons of principle. Our reasons for skipping the permit were primarily pragmatic. First, we could not have done the project in such a short period of time if we had had to stop periodically for the requisite inspections. Second, inspectors impose silly and costly modifications. I know this from personal experience.
I helped a friend build a room in his garage. The building inspector demanded that the floor of this room consist of pressure-treated 2 x 6 joists enveloped in 6-millimeter visqueen and topped with pressure-treated half-inch plywood. The pressure-treated plywood was not carried by any local lumberyard so I had to special order it. When I was placing the order, the salesman who took the order asked what this wood was for. I told him what the inspector was requiring, and he responded, “Where are you building this thing, in a swamp?!” What the inspector demanded was clearly unreasonable. Since this sort of unreasonableness is the norm in our area, and since I didn’t want to subject myself to these additional hassles, I didn’t get a permit. But throughout the project I felt like a criminal, and I spent a great deal of time thinking about the fact that just twenty or thirty years ago my remodeling job would have been perfectly legal. Now that same act is a crime. Has the absolute standard of good and evil changed in the last few decades?
I realize that this question is unfair. Laws are not intended to be a definition of absolute good and evil, and it makes good sense that laws will change as the conditions change. Laws safeguarding a property owner’s rights to sunlight were not necessary before the development and use of solar energy, but now access to solar energy has become an issue and laws are appropriate. I do not dispute the fact that laws must change and that changing laws do not necessarily indicate that society has changed its standard of good and evil. However, the building codes reflect an important change—our society has developed a different attitude toward the state and its role in our lives.
The framers of our constitution had a great appreciation for the ability of government to tyrannize its citizens. They had seen and experienced the great power of the state unjustly turned against its own loyal citizens. They firmly believed that people, because they are sinners, are vulnerable to the corrupting influence of power. Therefore they were determined to restrict the power of the central government through a set of checks and balances, which they tried to safeguard in a written constitution. Their extreme caution with respect to the power of the federal government was further evidenced by their continued vigilance against the growth of state power.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since that time, and we have lost that healthy distrust of the state. The building codes reflect this change. I have never researched the origins of building codes, but I presume they were initially designed to assure that contractors would build sound buildings. This was considered necessary because most people who hire contractors to build something do not have the expertise to know whether the contractor is doing the work correctly. So the government was entrusted with the responsibility of making sure that contractors construct safe, sound buildings. The assumption that undergirds this development is that the public cannot trust contractors; the public can, however, trust the state.
How did our society become so trusting of the state? This attitude has developed over a long period of time. Recently, there have been a few noteworthy events that have encouraged us to look to the state to solve our problems. The Depression years convinced many of the saving power of the federal government. The Civil Rights movement sought, and got, government legislation to solve problems of racial discrimination. All of this occurred before I was old enough to be aware of what was going on, but during my lifetime I have witnessed a dramatic increase in trust in the state. This has resulted from a very unlikely situation.
I was not yet in college when the protests against the Viet Nam War first began. But I was a freshman when the Kent State shootings took place. This was the beginning of the end of the anti-war protests. I experienced enough of the anti-war atmosphere to know what was at issue.
One of the major themes of the anti-war movement was that people (for most anti-war activists the mental image of the “average person” was a college student) were powerless because they were outside the establishment, which ran the country. Disenfranchisement and mistrust of the U.S. government were fundamental assumptions of the anti-war movement.
However, by the time I was a senior, ex-protest leaders were running the student government, distributing over three million dollars per year of student body fees. Later, having seen their political efforts help bring an end to the war, some of these student leaders became politicians at the state and federal level, working to change society from within. These people, and others, learned a very significant feature of our political system—a small number of well-organized, committed people can have political influence far out of proportion to their numbers. In other words, they learned that the state was susceptible to manipulation. Lobbyists, PACs, legal challenges, stacking the judiciary, media exploitation—all of these techniques were available to any group aggressive enough to use them. None of these techniques were new, they simply had not been used so systematically.
Since that time we have seen a sharp escalation in the use of legislation as a tool for social change. Any number of activists have used the techniques developed in the late sixties and early seventies to further their particular causes—feminists, environmentalists, homosexuals, proponents of national health care. It is important to note that this approach to social change has become so accepted that even conservatives embrace it.
For instance even those who are opposed to abortion hope to solve the problem using the techniques developed during the Civil Rights movement and anti-war movement to pass anti-abortion legislation. We are all disinclined to ask whether the state could or should try to solve our problems—or if the state can solve any problem.
I vaguely remember reading about an incident that raises this very issue. Unfortunately, I don’t remember all of the details. It occurred early in this century when some farmers, who were suffering from a disastrous harvest, wanted the federal government to help them cover their losses. The president responded by saying, “You don’t need the government. What you need is theology.” When I first read this I was appalled by the heartlessness of the president. But he was asking a very important question: Is it good and proper for citizens to turn to the government to protect them from such forces? Since that time, the government has become quite active in buffering farmers from the forces of nature and the marketplace. But where the state has intervened, farmers are merely at the mercy of state policy instead of the forces of nature, and this is not an improvement.
If we look to the state to save us from the troubles of this world, we will be sorely disappointed. The state will turn on us and make our lives more uncertain than they were before. The development of socialism is an excellent example of this principle. Socialism became popular in the late 18th century France. It had been dreamed by utopian socialists and was embraced by silkweavers. The silkweavers were some of the pioneers of the industrial revolution. They were highly skilled, hard-working people, but they were extremely vulnerable to the market forces. Unlike farmers, who had long been at the mercy of the market forces, the silkweavers could not eat their own products in times of low prices. This created a great deal of insecurity. So they were attracted to the idea of having state protection from the caprice of the marketplace. Security has continued to be the main appeal of socialism, and yet the largest experiment in socialism, the Soviet Union, has produced a state that not only fails to protect its citizens, but it terrorizes them. If we elevate the state to the role of savior, it will become our tormentor. The state will always betray its worshippers.
The state is betraying the trust we put in it to make sure we have safe buildings. Over the years the building code has expanded its scope. It has expanded its authority far beyond issues of safety and quality; the code now decides issues of livability. The current building code in our area says that kitchen cabinets must allow a 36-inch opening for a refrigerator. The code requires that every habitable room be a minimum of 7 feet long and 7 feet wide. These are just two examples of how some bureaucrats somewhere have decided for us all what constitutes a livable house. Clearly, one could build a perfectly safe, sound house that violates both of these rules. Therefore the nature of the code has evolved. It now determines what kind of houses can be built. There is a cruel irony here—the code was instituted to insure that the contractor would build the kind of house the consumer wanted, but now the code insures that the consumer gets the kind of house that the state thinks is suitable.
It is sometimes difficult to imagine how a benign state like we have, which is closely accountable to the voting public, could turn on a portion of its citizenry and genuinely oppress them. A recent election in Oregon provided a glimpse of how this could happen. We voted on a measure requiring everyone to wear seat belts while riding in a car. An overwhelming majority voted in favor of this measure. Most voters undoubtedly reasoned that since wearing a seat belt is prudent, a law requiring this is a good thing. However well-meaning people’s intentions, there is a grave danger lurking behind this kind of reasoning. If voters consistently apply this kind of thinking, the majority’s notion of prudent behavior will soon become the law for all. The majority may decide it is not prudent to spank children. The majority may decide it is not prudent to home school children. They may decide that it is not prudent to rock climb. The law will become a description of the majority’s conception of ideal behavior, and everyone will fail to live up to it. Eventually we will all become criminals.
Fifteen years ago I was reading about the ancient Sumerian law codes. One scholar claimed that the laws were too detailed to be enforceable, so they must have been intended to describe ideal behavior. At the time, I thought this was a ridiculous suggestion offered by a dizzy-headed academician, but now I am seeing it happen in our laws. When we go to the polls to vote on measures like the seat belt law we no longer stop to ask ourselves the question: Should the state be invested with the authority to force everyone to conform to this standard of behavior? And yet this is the crucial question, not the virtues of wearing seat belts.
There are two trends in our society that give the question of the role of the state a new urgency. The first is the birth of a new morality. A segment of our society is zealously advancing a new moral code. With evangelical fervor they are trying to legislate their moral values as laws. Many of these laws deal with environmental issues, animal rights, gay rights, etc. (It is ironic that when these same people were in the political minority they continually protested, “You can’t legislate morality.” Now that they are threatening to be the majority, they seem to have changed their minds.) In many cases the laws they are advocating are contrary to Judeo-Christian moral values. Therefore the possibility that the law will require that we act against our conscience is increasing steadily.
The second trend is related to the first—there is a growing spirit of intolerance for those who do not accept the new morality. I recently saw a film on a TV news program showing animal rights activists following hunters into the woods banging drums and making a racket to scare away the deer before the hunters could shoot them. It is not enough for adherents to these moral values to simply refrain from killing animals, they are driven to make sure no one else kills them either—in other words, everyone must conform to their values. The time is coming when this self-righteous, crusading spirit will not tolerate dissenters like you and me.
I am only thirty-seven, but I am feeling old. Over the last twenty years the world has been turned on its head. My short life has witnessed a dramatic erosion of Christian values in our society. Since the justice and quality of government that a state dispenses is directly related to the spiritual well-being of the society as a whole, I fully expect to see our state bare its teeth in the near future. The government that we tend to see as the protector of the rights of its citizens will become a persecutor. As Christians we will be able to forestall this fate only by clarifying in our own minds the proper role of the state. Otherwise we will find ourselves swept along in the stampede to bow down at the feet of the state, and the state will step on us.
Copyright March 1991 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.