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Men not angels: Why limit government

Letter to the Editor

“I used to rule the world, seas would rise when I gave the word.” A decade-old tune recalls life’s inevitable irony: A man might seem in godlike control of everything—the master of his fate, the captain of his ship—but unforeseen sea changes force every mortal to either humble himself or be humiliated.

The song’s narrator laments gaining wisdom too late: “One minute I held the key, / Next the walls were closed on me, / And I discovered that my castles stand / Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.” Although the British group Cold Play released that song with its mixed metaphors and Biblical allusions in 2008, the message is perennially true: Fallen man still tries to play God.

History records countless coups to displace God and put man on that divine throne. The twentieth century saw Nazi Germany—Hitler’s flopped promise that his ruthless racist reich would last 1,000 years—and Soviet Russia’s and Communist China’s brutally enforced “experiment” which, rather than ushering in a utopian classless society, instead demonstrated just how demonically absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Even at a personal level, if we say we never play God, then we deceive ourselves, according to beloved Apostle John. Our American founders didn’t think mortal people were either perfect or perfectible in this life. Diminutive James Madison, to whom we owe a huge debt for much of the U.S. Constitution and its ratification, expressed eloquently why we need government—and why government must be checked—limited in its scope, purpose and power: “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary” (Federalist 51).

Whenever we mortals vote for policies or politicians we’re not ushering in Heaven; we’re choosing tradeoffs, not unrealistic unlimited feel-good free goods and services—but government limited to protecting rights which, as Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence—are endowed upon us by our Creator.

Gary Altman



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