Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Government and Representation

James W. Skillen


November 4, 2011
by James W. Skillen

This article is excerpted from an essay originally published by the Center for Public Justice in the Public Justice Report in December 1994, after Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40  years. This was the third in a series of articles articulating the fundamental principles of the Center for Public Justice.

A recent article in Britain's Economist (Nov. 12) reporting on the last November's American election said, "All political structures are threatened by popular cynicism, distrust and the longing for more direct forms of citizen action. Revulsion goes wide and deep."

Strong language. But do Americans really long for more direct forms of civic action? Voters managed to act quite decisively last November to elect enough Republicans and to throw out enough Democrats to shake up Congress and put Washington on notice. Moreover, thousands of interest groups, many supported by citizens at the grass roots, maintain direct access to legislators in Washington and state capitals. Why then all the cynicism and distrust?

Opinion surveys during the election showed that most of those voting Republican also wanted diminished government in Washington, or at least less expensive government. […]  But the real question is: what should government be doing at each level, and how should it act with the authority needed to uphold justice rather than merely to broker the demands of competing interest groups?

The Office of Government

[…] Government is a God-ordained office of accountability. This in itself does not answer the question of how much or what kind of responsibility government has, or how its responsibility should be divided federally or among different branches of government. But it does say that government is ultimately accountable to God, and its authority to uphold justice is a trust from God rather than a mere expression of popular will. Consequently, government is not free simply to do whatever the people want…Government is called by God to establish, enforce, and adjudicate just public laws for the wellbeing of the commonwealth.

Rather than falling back on cynicism, distrust, and revulsion, citizens should turn their critical attention to the reasons why government is failing to do justice. We should be seeking deep reforms rather than superficial antidotes. Term limits, balanced budget amendments, the line-item veto, a moment of silence in public schools—these are not serious enough to melt away cynicism and overcome distrust of government.

If the most recent American election portends a growing popular debate about the proper task of government, then we should be very thankful for the election's outcome. Christians should jump at the opportunity to participate in a much-needed debate about the proper calling of government, which has been ordained by God for a complex society such as ours. But if the only debate that now occurs is a squabble over who will be able to cut government spending the most, or who will be able to hold onto a bigger share of the diminishing American pie, then we will be worse off than before.

If, for example, in order not to touch Social Security expenditures, Congress tries to balance the federal budget by eliminating rather than reforming relief programs for the poor, then we will not see greater justice flowing from "less" government. If, on the other side, in order to protect the jobs of public school teachers and public social service providers, governments refuse to institute reforms that could improve education for all students and allow greater room for non-government service agencies to help the poor, then public justice will not be upheld simply because "more" government is retained. If government enacts tax cuts that merely help the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, then it will not be fulfilling the demands of its office. If government at any level continues to take tax revenue for purposes that thwart family responsibilities, personal initiative, and religious freedom, then it will not thereby promote justice but will only use its superior force for evil.

The only way the American people can overcome their distrust of government is by holding government accountable to its high calling of justice rather than demanding benefits or tax relief (or both) that force representatives into the position of merely playing off competing interests against one another. The divine office of government cannot be satisfactorily filled by interest-group brokers. It does not matter whether the special interests are pleading for more or for less government. Government is an office required to rise above pay-offs, bribes, and special-interest pleadings to uphold a just public order for all citizens and for the well-being of the Republic as a whole.

—James W. Skillen is the former President of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”