A few years ago, a good friend of mine decided to buy an old country campground, enlarge it, restore it, and invite inner-city children to use it. It was, for him, the beginning of a nightmare that would last for years.
In order to proceed with the camp, numerous permits, clearances, and approvals were required by an astonishing number of government agencies. These ranged from a County Planning Commission to the state’s Historical and Museum Commission to the Environmental Protection Agency to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Absurdity was the order of the day. For instance, my friend was required to get a permit to cross a “wetland” with a truck. This “wetland” was a damp area some 18 inches wide; the only time it was actually wet was during heavy rains. In order to cover the wet patch with boards required various permits, which delayed the project nearly three months.
In the end, the various government bodies delayed the project for two years and cost my well-meaning friend millions of dollars.
Now, understand—my friend got his zoning and construction permits at the outset. This was a case—all too common today—of regulatory agencies making it almost impossible to do anything because they have overlapping jurisdictions.We saw the same thing with Hurricane Katrina. The left hand—the federal government—did not know what the right hand—state and local governments—were doing, and vice versa. The result was everyone stumbling over one another and doing nothing.
This paralysis was predicted some 40 years ago by French theologian Jacques Ellul. Ellul foresaw the Information Age and the media’s need for a steady flow of information to feed the populace. Media would, therefore, gravitate to covering centers of power. Politicians would be willing accomplices, because they would gain fame and clout.
All this happened, and created what Ellul predicted: the idea that every problem has a political solution. This, he warned, would lead to increasing dependence on the state. The result: programs piled upon programs, agencies upon agencies, and the whole structure of government become so unwieldy it could hardly function. We would end up mired in bureaucratic gridlock.
Meanwhile, the intermediate structures of society—church and civic groups, which are absolutely essential to prevent an all-powerful government from taking over—begin to wither away. Government becomes increasingly intrusive, and a form of paralysis sets in. Private initiative is destroyed.
There is a profound Christian question at stake here. Scripture says government has just two objectives: to preserve order and do justice. How did we get from that simple function to a government that requires 18 different permits before you can build a new bathroom—or expand a campground for needy kids?
When we go to the polls in November, we should beware of any candidate promising that government will solve all our problems. We need to work to keep government doing its right roles and no more, because if we do not, it will eventually cease to function at all.
As my friend will testify, we have come perilously close to that today.