Zion and the State

Like many Americans, I traveled last weekend. It wasn’t a horrible trip—about six hundred miles each way, all but about three blocks of it on big four- and six-lane highways. It was around 18 hours of driving and two and a half days of visiting friends and family. It was a good trip, and I will probably do it again. Family is important.

I can only do this, of course, because the federal government spent 35 years and hundreds of billions of dollars to create the most extensive and impressive engineering project of the 20th century: the US Interstate Highway System. Most of us take this system for granted these days, but there was plenty of opposition to it in 1956. Without the strong endorsement of a popular president—Dwight Eisenhower, who saw it as a national defense imperative—it would likely have never received the funding required to make it happen.

This is pretty much how democracy is supposed to work. The Founders gave us a Constitution designed to make it possible for us to have the society we want—as long as enough of us want it for a long enough period of time. Limits on taxation and spending are, and were designed to be political, not structural. Read Federalist 30-35. It’s all there.

So what does this mean to those who want to do stuff like help people, make sure that people have food and health care, and build Zion? What, in other words, is the role of the state in building the Kingdom of God? A popular answer in Mormon circles these days is “none at all.” Zion is about being pure in heart, they say. The government can’t make people good, they say. We cannot rely on the state to build Zion.

It is absolutely true that we cannot use the government to make people pure in heart, compassionate, or selfless. It does not follow, however, that we should use government to create a society that is as far away from Zion as a society can be. In the absence of actual Zion, the next best thing is something that looks kind of like Zion. When “no poor among them” is not an option, we should work on “fewer poor among them.” The fact that we cannot bring about Zion through political means does not justify us in creating Babylon instead.

My argument here rests on two unstated assumptions that I shall now state.

My first assumption is that “inaction” on the part of government is a lot harder than it seems. It is, in fact, almost impossible. Government, by design, creates the field upon which we transact our social and economic lives. It does this through incentives, disincentives, taxation, regulation, and hundreds of other things both visible and invisible. Almost everything that the government decides to do, or not to do, affects somebody’s life and livelihood. People who say “the government should not pick winners and losers” have usually already been selected as winners. These are the people who were born on third base and go through life thinking that they hit a triple.

Let’s look at an example. If the government “does something” by criminalizing or disincentivizing air pollution, that means that companies, their employers, and their shareholders will be able to make less money than they otherwise could have by polluting at will. If the government “does nothing” by not criminalizing or disincentivizing pollution, then it allows companies to distribute the burden of pollution (need for health care, missed days of work, shorter lives, etc.) to society in general without sharing the economic benefits. Both decisions constitute “socialism”; one socializes profits and the other socializes risks. Neither one of them constitutes the government doing nothing.

The same dynamic exists in health care. Over the last 75 years, governments have done thousands of things to create the most expensive (but not the most effective) health care market in the world. It has incentivized employers to provide health insurance to some employees, which has driven the price of care up to the insurance deductible and made it almost impossible for the uninsured to participate in the market.

Those who now say that it is “not the government’s job to provide health insurance” are coming late into the game  and calling for inaction that will leave in place nearly a century of government action that created the status quo. This is not inaction; it is Robin Hood in reverse: an aggressive income transfer that benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

My second assumption—and this one relates directly to the Zion question—is that, in a democracy, political action is the proper and most effective way to build any kind of society. That is the whole point of having a democratic society. If we want there to be fewer poor people, or better education, or more people able to afford health care, then we should work through our government to build that kind of society. It is certainly reasonable to argue about the effectiveness of specific government actions in accomplishing this objective. But (if we are going to be Zion people) the objective itself should never be in doubt, nor should the propriety of working through political actions to accomplish them.

Statements like “it is important to treat people with compassion, but it is wrong to expect the government to do it; we should do it ourselves” makes no sense in the kind of country that our Founders built. They cast “the government” as something other than ourselves—a them, not an us. That’s just wrong. Building Zion is about creating a certain kind of society. This is hard enough to do when we use all of the tools at our disposal. It cannot work if we refuse to consider the most important tool that we have for creating the kind of society that we want to live in.


  1. Great post — a very helpful discussion of an increasingly important issue. The interstate highway system is such a great example in this discussion as well!

  2. Over the last 75 years, governments have done thousands of things to create the most expensive (but not the most effective) health care market in the world. It has incentivized employers to provide health insurance to some employees

    I suspect that much of what government has done about health care was unintended. If I recall my history correctly, it was a federal wage freeze during WWII that gave rise to employer-based health care as industry turned to fringe benefits to attract labor.

  3. Happy Hubby says:

    I love the analogy of the highway system. The sad thing I see is that every major new thoroughfare where I live is a toll road. I know of people that could save a considerable amount of time by going to/from work on these toll roads, but can’t afford them.

  4. jaxjensen says:

    “The kind of country our Founders built” wasn’t a democracy at all. It was a republic. That republic that they built didn’t have anywhere near the authority you want to give it, nor even the authority it now possesses. That authority has been usurped from the citizens of this country over time.

    Now we are at a point now where none of us know what it is like to have the type of liberty that those Founders envisioned for us (and fought to obtain for themselves), because each new generation gets just a little bit more used to gov’t involvement in their lives and readily gives away just a little bit more power over themselves and their children (who will know even less freedom than we have).

    It’s a sad and disgusting thing to me that we are so blind as to think that we even live in a free country anymore. We don’t. Gov’t controls or regulates the vast majority of each of our actions. How despicable that many among us advocate for giving even greater amounts of control/power away. We have become slaves to the state and the corporations that control it.


  5. And, of course, in the US according to the system the Founders intentionally instituted, *we* are the government, including the federal government. It truly is not “us vs. them” — and in a Republic like ours based on democratically electing representatives to represent us in republican forms of government at both the state and federal levels, we as a society are perfectly justified in voting for representatives who will use their republican discretion in crafting policies that benefit all of society, even if the means by which to achieve such an outcome is a new or marginally increased tax. (The “Western farmer” libertarian ideology claiming that this is evil is simply wrong — looks like jaxjensen is exhibit A.)

    Those arguing that imposing a tax to achieve such a societal benefit through legislation enacted by democratically elected representatives of the people (who are therefore politically accountable for their policies and legislation) is immoral, evil, or wrong are actually arguing against republican government based on democratic elections. They’re argument: for any such policy of using a tax to achieve such a societal benefit, there is a minority of voters who don’t consent to the tax or who voted against that policy. Those people are then “forced” by the weight of law to comply with a policy or tax they didn’t vote for or agree with. Again, these people, though they ironically usually view themselves as the most patriotic and pious among the people, really oppose the project of republican government based on democratic election of representatives because in such a system there will always be a legislative minority that did not agree with a given policy or legislation enacted by the majority.

    Our intentionally countermajoritarian federal courts, thankfully, protect minorities from majoritarian tyranny in violation of specific provisions of the federal Constitution (another aspect adherents of this misguided “Western farmer” libertarian ideology decry unless it’s their constitutional rights that a majority in some state legislature is violating through specific legislation — then suddenly all is right with the intervention of federal courts). But being subject to a federal tax that is neutral and generally applicable does not violate any constitutional provision as long the legislation falls within the federal government’s enumerated powers. Much debate can be had about the latter but attempts to argue that all taxation is a violation of the Constitution is wrong and reveals severe misunderstanding of the Constitution and its origins and interpretation (including as explained and interpreted in The Federalist Papers).

    God has given us minds and rational thought to help us live and improve ourselves and our societies. He has given us the liberty to shape our societies according to our best rational thought. This has in turn led to slow improvements over the centuries. We are free to legislate universal healthcare so that millions who currently don’t have insurance can get the healthcare they need. We aren’t a just or equitable society — or a decent society — until that happens. It will be morally legitimate when it happens because it will have been done through representatives we elected to do that and who are politically accountable to their constituents. People who argue not just that it’s ineffective policy — a legitimate concern to raise though also incorrect based on empirical results — but also that it is immoral have a misunderstanding of what they really oppose. Their project is actually against representative democracy in a constitutional Republic itself and not against a minor tax with exponentially major real-world effects of saving people’s lives and reducing their suffering.

  6. jaxjensen,

    The argument that “this is not a democracy but a republic” has begun to amuse me, since, until a few years ago, I never heard it from anyone who was not in a middle school civics class. But it seems to have gotten into the mainstream now, despite the fact that 1) a republic is a subset of a democracy even in the dictionary definition; 2) the Constitution, by design, has both elements of a pure democracy and elements of a republican form of democracy; and 3) in contemporary usage, “democracy” refers to a large subset of government types that derive authority from the people. The Athenian type of pure democracy has not existed for for a thousand years. We don’t have city-states anymore, making the distinction you are trying to draw absurd as a matter of contemporary usage.

    As for the authority that the government has, please read the original texts. They simply do not support the kind of Grizzly Adams anarcho-capitalism that you appear to be advocating. The government has, and was designed to have, the authority that the people give it. There were certainly advocates among the Founders for a more limited government (i.e. Thomas Jefferson until about 1804), and there were advocates for a much greater role for the Federal government than it now has (Hamilton until he died and Madison until about 1789). The document itself allows us to decide how much authority the government has, and gives us an Amendment process that we have used on a number of occasions to expand even the fairly broad boundaries of the original text.

    The process still works. It is ugly and contrarian, but elections still do have consequences. And, like people in any democratic country, we get the government we collectively want.

  7. Also, travel around a bit and meet some people who actually are slaves. See if you can convince, say, the trafficked teenage girls of Central America, whose governments have done nothing to intervene to protect them, that fishing licenses are a form of tyranny.

  8. jaxjensen says:

    Michael, I’ve read the original texts and own copies of most of them. I have a degree in Pol Sci. “They simply do not support the kind of Grizzly Adams anarcho-capitalism that you appear to be advocating.” Please note I said nothing about anarchy nor capitalism. “The government has, and was designed to have, the authority that the people give it.” Those original texts make it clear that this is wrong. They make it quite clear that the Fed Gov’t authority is limited to a very strict list of things, and that any authority NOT granted to the Fed Gov’t is held by states or individuals. The entire purpose for giving the specific list of what the Fed Gov’t DID have authority over was so that it couldn’t try to exercise authority over other areas; even if a majority decided to vote to give it that power. A gov’t run by the Constitution CANNOT have whatever power the people want to give it because the Constitution itself limits the power of the gov’t it created. Our gov’t today has more power than outlined in the Constitution because we have stopped living by that document. Pretending we still do is a farse.

    We do have the gov’t that we collectively (the majority) want. I don’t argue with that. The majority, vast majority by huge margins, want what we have. I recognize that. Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and “independents” all want gov’t control and more gov’t power; a gov’t that does not leave them free. They just argue over who gets to control that power and how it should be used. Almost gone are those who think that the gov’t shouldn’t have it at all. This is the democratic process. In a democracy a neighbor gets to vote money out of my wallet, or I get to vote gov’t regulation into his life. It’s a sad and disgusting system… and almost everyone wants it. That is why it is depressing.

  9. Jax, understand your position. But I disagree with it. And the disagreement we are having goes back to the beginning of the Republic. Read Federalist 30-35, for example. It is simply impossible to read those texts and come away with the idea that Madison and Jefferson believed anything other than that the Constitution gives the government unlimited taxing authority. You can disagree. You can say that the text means something else. But you cannot argue that the people who wrote it meant something else. They told us exactly what they meant to say.

    Or read the briefs that Jefferson and Hamilton wrote to George Washington about the National Bank. Jefferson argues much as you do, that the Federal Government’s power is limited. Hamilton argues for a much more expansive federal power. Washington agreed with Hamilton. Again, you can argue that Washington and Hamilton were wrong and that Jefferson was right. But you cannot appeal to a monolithic understanding of the Founders that subsequent generations have lost. And the closest interpretation to your view, Jefferson’s, did not even survive Jefferson’s own presidency when, among other things, he doubled the size of the country without any clear Constitutional authority to do so.

    The proper power of the Federal government has been an open, controversial question from the very beginning. It was debated at the Convention. It was debated in the Federalist Papers. And it has been addressed by hundreds of Constitutional rulings by the Federal courts (who are the ones empowered by the Constitution to interpret the Constitution). This is not a rejection of the Constitutional system. It is precisely how the system was designed to work.

    The fact that your particular interpretation of the document (which is a legitimate interpretation that some of the Framers held) has not prevailed and that another interpretation (that is also a legitimate interpretation that others of the Framers held) has does not mean that the Constitution has been abandoned. It simply means that, like all people in a democracy (including those in the subset called “republics”) you get to be governed much of the time by rules and people that you don’t like.

  10. Google “free-market roads” for arguments pro and con. I find the natural monopoly argument persuasive.

  11. RockiesGma says:

    In my long years of experience I have met and helped many “poor” folks who had no health insurance or even enough money for food. I hate to admit it, but in such cases these good people were in their boats because of choices they previously made. Some hated school so did poorly. Without education options were very limited. Some lost their good and decent jobs because of economic downturns, but wouldn’t relocate where jobs were offered cause “this is home and our friends and family are here.” Some had jobs offered beneath their dignity or previous level of pay so they turned them down. And all of them went to the hospital ER when they needed healthcare because hospitals don’t turn anyone away. Time and again they never paid their bill. Now my sister has spent 35 years in hospital administration where the losses of those who don’t pay are added to the bills of those who do pay by charging say, $20 for a diaper or $350 for Hydrocodone. Health insurances have always had to absorb the costs of the uninsured along with those they insure, which raises the cost of insurance. I even had a niece who wouldn’t marry her fiancé (of 2 years) when she got pregnant because as a single mother the government would pay for her prenatal care and then delivery of the baby. So they didn’t marry till their two kids were born. So many people milk the system, corrupt the system, and feel entitled to any and all freebies. Ive seen many young LDS couples not take a certain job because they’d earn a little too much money to qualify for WIC or food stamps. I’ve literally experienced this time and time again. I’ve paid a goodly number of folks bills cause I was able and willing. But I can’t help but see how choices got these particular folks where they were. Nice, wonderful people, but oh my…

    I’ve read several times over the years that no country spends more than America on helping others. They say it’s the most generous country by a wide margin, in fact, more than all western countries combined. (Of course, that was what Anderson Cooper on CNN reported at Christmastime a few years back so maybe it’s fake news, don’t you know.) I like being part of that generosity. I grew up pretty darn poor, but my dad always said no matter how poor you are there’s someone poorer, so always give a little something-to the point of it hurting a bit and the Lord will give you back more in some way. Dad was spot on. Most folks give. Too many are takers. We have programs in place to help the sick and afflicted, the poor and needy. But there will never be enough cause of the takers and slackers. Some folks never have enough–the more you do for them the more they expect. That’s why Zion failed in the early days–some worked very hard for their allotment while some slacked off but received a greater allotment cause they had a bigger family. It got real old dealing with the slackers. (I’ve noticed they’re often the biggest complainers too.) Same sort of thing today where everyone uses the ward building but lots of folks don’t show up (ever) to clean it–they leave it to be done by the same few hard workers. Or the same 20 people do all the welfare assignments, etc.

    We need to teach kids to get educations in fields that earn enough income to support a family. It’s a necessity. We need to teach them to earn scholarships–there are tons that go unclaimed. We need to teach people that government isn’t supposed to take care of us–we are supposed to take care of ourselves. Throw out the tv, video games, and computers! Teach them to garden (even in pots) and grow trees (even in pots). Raise some chickens. Go in with another family or two on purchasing a steer for beef. Teach kids to fish. If people get government aid of any kind they should spend a commensurate amount of time volunteering to do things needed in their community. They’ll feel better about themselves and will be giving back to those whose taxes helped them. And the shirkers and slackers and abusers and corrupters need a good colonic and a mighty comeuppance, even though we may know and love them!!!

    And quit criticizing the government! Glory. The government doesn’t need to do better nearly as much as the people do I say.

  12. “fewer poor among them.”

    There are fewer truly poor among Americans than ever, the result of free enterprise in a system where the state rightly and importantly provides the structure and security for that enterprise to thrive.

    And yet every policy seems to come down to compassion for the poor equating with increasing entitlements and growth of government sphere in exchange for the promised land of entitlement. A promise which is continually elusive, always needed more, and seemingly generationally destructive.

    When our poverty programs involve free phones, you know we’ve crossed the rubicon of concern for the truly impoverished and are operating under materialistic desires.

    But as long as the poor keep being used as a gambit to gain power by praying on a combination of charity and materialistic concerns, the modern day sons and daughters of Akish will continue to offer wealth to the people as a means to their power.

    Don’t get me wrong, the tax credit, spend and cut taxes crowd is just as equally enticed by the father of lies and his earthly unknowing followers.

    But it is the free enterprise structure that cherishes individual liberty, and the right to property that provides the framework for Zion. I’ve heard with my own two ears such from a prophet of God declaring it over 50 years ago. They stood on the tower and saw the problems of our day and preached against it. Any system which doesn’t operate on those principles will need to be thrown down before His coming. The fall will be tragic and painful.

    Any allegations that they were politically biased can equally be applied to the one making the allegations.

    We know whose counsel we should trust.

    Read their words and find a way to square them faithfully with how you integrate your political view if you want to excercise wise political judgement.

    As Latter-day Saints we should be a united voice in supporting the words of the prophets, not because we blindly follow but because we’ve done the work to receive revelation to recognize them to be based on godly wisdom.

  13. Now my sister has spent 35 years in hospital administration where the losses of those who don’t pay are added to the bills of those who do pay by charging say, $20 for a diaper or $350 for Hydrocodone. Health insurances have always had to absorb the costs of the uninsured along with those they insure, which raises the cost of insurance.

    Exactly—health care in the US is subsidized, just in an extremely inefficient manner. One way to ensure that the “takers […] shirkers and slackers and abusers and corrupters” contribute to the common good is to not allow them a choice, whether they’re the type who blow their earnings on weed or spirit them away in tax shelters. But Americans love their freedoms, so I don’t see much changing anytime soon.

    A promise which is continually elusive, always needed more, and seemingly generationally destructive.

    Counterpoint: the experience of other developed countries.

  14. Kristine N says:

    After growing up in Utah and then living in California, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, I’m currently living in Australia, a democracy that’s embraced socialism to a greater degree, though is far from being truly socialist. Minimum wage is much higher, verging on a livable salary, at least here in Adelaide where housing prices are less outrageous. The social safety net is far more generous here, which, funnily enough, doesn’t translate into a huge indigent population. In fact, there’s *a lot* less homelessness here than in any other major city I’ve lived in. Unemployment is around 5% and people are, as far as I can see, just about as industrious as they are in the US.

    They are also more comfortable economically. It’s not perfect–there’s still quite a bit of poverty, and quite a lot of intergenerational poverty, and people are as condescending toward the poor as they are in the US. Poverty here doesn’t seem nearly as grinding, though, and people who are disabled in some way lead lives of dignity. There’s a guy who I’ve made friends with through our dogs who is mentally handicapped. His family helps him out a great deal, but so does the government through public housing. That means that the help his family can give him goes a lot further than it otherwise would, and gives him a decent quality of life and the means to contribute to his community.

    For all of you who can think of poor people who are just moochers taking welfare and WIC–statistically most people who accept government help only need it for a few years. Yes, I’ve know a handful of people who just can’t get it together and stay on welfare forever. I’ve known far more who are on welfare while they’re in school (the stereotypical mormon grad student on welfare with two+ kids) and get off as soon as they graduate and go on to lead productive lives that more than compensate for the assistance they received. When I was at Purdue (go boilermakers!) one of the most remarkable things to me was that the bishop and Relief Society President made sure all of us grad students were aware of the welfare benefits we were eligible for. We talk about the evils of the dole, but encourage those in need to accept help that’s available. It makes sense–church welfare can go a lot further and help a lot more when it’s augmenting government programs instead of trying to do everything.

    Particularly given how little of the federal budget goes toward welfare programs–even here in Australia–I’m happy to support them. I personally am happier living in a world where everyone enjoys a reasonable standard of living.

  15. Mark Brown says:

    It is so ironic to see well-off white people who went to state universities, who bought their first house with a FHA or VA loan, who send their kids to public schools, and who use freeways, parks, and libraries loudly proclaiming that taxation is theft and all those things are illegal because CONSTITUTION.

  16. The government may not be able to build Zion, but surely we cannot build Zion without the government.

  17. I am mildly amused by Mormons who think that “Zion,” whatever it will eventually look like, is some sort of government-free zone where the righteous just do all the right things (like give up their wealth so that there are no rich or poor) out of the goodness of their hearts. These folks undoubtedly assume that the city of Enoch had no government, no apparatus for ensuring that there was wealth equality. This is a very simple-minded view of heaven (or its earthly counterpart).

  18. Left Field says:

    I don’t know how much credit Reagan deserves for demonizing “the government” and for casting it as something other than ourselves. But that certainly wasn’t the view of the founders and isn’t the system set in place by our founding documents, in which “We the People” establish a government that derives “its just powers from the consent of the governed.”

    So who or what is “the government” that is deemed to be such a problem? The government IS the people. All those civil servants and politicians are American citizens with families to support and who contribute to the economy by providing myriad services that promote the general welfare of we the people. The Administration talks a big talk about jobs, but then congratulates itself for eliminating or leaving unfilled most of the jobs they have direct responsibility for. Every government job you eliminate or leave unfilled is a service unfilled and a family unemployed. You don’t get Brownie points for that.

  19. Amen to that comment Kristine N. — my same observations from having lived in a number of different European countries (primarily the UK and Germany) for nearly a decade.

  20. Amen, Mark Brown, Nepos, Wally, and Left Field! (Left Field, in particular, said much more succinctly a part of what I tried to express in a much more long-winded comment above @5:38pm.)

  21. it's a series of tubes says:

    I am mildly amused by Mormons who think that…

    These folks undoubtedly assume that the city of Enoch had no government, no apparatus for ensuring that there was wealth equality.

    I am mildly amused by Mormons who cite their own assumptions as sophisticated, while dismissing the assumptions of others as “simple-minded”.

    Wally, please link us to your copy of C.E.C.A. (City of Enoch Code, Annotated). kthx

  22. “Wally, please link us to your copy of C.E.C.A. (City of Enoch Code, Annotated). kthx”

    I think I left mine over by my “Garden of Eden: dos and don’ts” sign.

  23. Chadwick says:

    I love the road analogy. I’m sure back in the day there were plenty of citizens that thought this new-fangled freeway would be nothing but trouble and old way of doing things was just fine.

    I paid out of pocket for all my medical expenses when I lived in India because navigating my global insurance policy simply wasn’t worth my time for a $60 hospital bill. If India can figure this out, surely so can America. In fact, my doctor (who was schooled in America, as most doctors are in India) said that people go to India for surgery, $2K plane ticket and all, because it’s cheaper than surgery in America. WAY cheaper.

    The thing that boggles me is that literally half of our population (the conservative half) sees so much harm in trying something new. I guess they are merely defending the textbook definition of what a conservative is, but still. Why are we afraid to try something new? If it doesn’t work out, then we’ll try something else, and something else, and something else, until we figure it out. Is the status quo really so much better than being willing to try new things? I get that trying new things will probably lead to a certain level of casualties, but could they be any worse than the casualties under the current structure?

    As for who is responsible to pay for what, I’m fatigued by that conversation. Yes, RockiesGma, people make bad choices when they are mad or scared or stressed. I know I do. I guess I believe that people should not have to pay for bad choices for literally the rest of their lives. At some point, can’t we as a society step in and alleviate the pain?

  24. The middle class exists only because there is a structural framework to support it. Otherwise, the societal status quo is for a minority to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of the poor majority. Michael Austin is correct in pointing out that the debate about the limits of government existed from the beginning among those who drafted the Constitution. Let us not forget the failure of the Articles of Confederation (the precursor to the Constitution) which left more power to the states and a weaker central govt.

    “They are also more comfortable economically. It’s not perfect–there’s still quite a bit of poverty, and quite a lot of intergenerational poverty…Poverty here doesn’t seem nearly as grinding, though, and people who are disabled in some way lead lives of dignity.”

    I think that is the bottom line. There will always be those who, for one reason or another, simply take advantage of the system and/or who are mentally, emotionally or physically incapable of devising and executing a plan to be totally self-sufficient. Luck plays a huge role in life success–beginning with the circumstances of one’s birth. Poverty can have lifelong physiological effects on children.
    But what kind of society do we want to live in? One where we step over bodies of the dying and dead? One where young women prostitute themselves to survive? Or, one where everybody has a basic level of dignity?

    (I would point out the FCC during Reagan’s Administration initiated the Lifeline phone benefit program for income eligible people).

  25. Great post. Joseph and the early saints regularly petitioned the government. He even ran for president. The church today still works through the government to influence policy (see gay marriage or immigration). So the argument that we should not bring about Zion by political means (in addition to any other means) has never made sense to me.

  26. Loursat says:

    I’d like to comment on the interesting exchange between Michael and Jax earlier in the thread. My politics put me on Michael’s side of the argument, but I also believe that we need a healthy, vigorous counterpoint between these points of view. I believe that our politics has lost that counterpoint. My comment is about the ways that I think Jax could strengthen his argument to make it more constructive.

    What frustrates me most is the despair in Jax’s comments. He writes as if he has given up on the possibility of making our system better. With this attitude, Jax and others like him push themselves to the margins of politics. Many persuade themselves that they must either withdraw from society or engage in some kind of violent subversion. They become susceptible to apocalyptic ideas that are the opposite of the communal politics that our democratic system makes possible. This despair is one of the things that makes it possible to elect a Trump. When people give up, they find it easy to sabotage the system by voting for a bigoted fool. Cynical despair is an important reason for the hollowing-out and withering of the once-great Republican Party.

    If conservatives would do two things they might really get my attention again. First, on matters of race and equality, I wish conservatives would acknowledge that the Constitution was carefully crafted to preserve the barbaric institution of slavery, and that this massive abuse of political power has legitimated pervasive racial abuses that continue to this day. In 1800, “freedom,” in practice, was the freedom of land-owning white men to trample everyone else’s rights. And if you were a white man who didn’t own land, well, at least you could lord it over women and anyone else who wasn’t white. A perverse idea of freedom as thuggery has always been a grotesque undercurrent of “liberty” in America. On the other hand, thank God that we also have some of the world’s greatest articulations of a higher ideal in our founding documents. I wish conservatives would acknowledge how vital federal power has been in helping us make what progress we have made in correcting that perversion at the heart of the American founding. I wish conservatives would acknowledge how important federal power will continue to be in these issues, since the struggle is very, very far from finished.

    Second, I wish conservatives would do some intelligent analysis of the ways that limited government power should work in the actual, contemporary world. I find it pathetic when conservative rhetoric does nothing more than denounce “too much government.” There are important reasons why government has expanded. The world is more complicated than it used to be, and conservatives need to deal with this fact. Today’s conservatives far too often use their Nineteenth-Century frontier fantasies as the context for what they want government to be. That kind of wistful rhetoric does nothing to show the way forward in the modern world. In fact, it does the opposite: it just makes conservatives retreat into their despair, leaving the field open for the wealthy corporate interests that Jax so dislikes.

    As a liberal, what I wish for most is a vital conservatism of realism and hope.

  27. Hey LOURSAT:

    1. There is NO INSTITUTIONAL RACISM! Please provide specific examples of government policies that are keeping minorities oppressed. A big example that minorities are not being oppressed is that minorities are seeking to live in the United States because they recognize the opportunity that a relatively free market can provide. Capitalism and profits are not bad, especially for the lower classes.

    2. There are too many conservative and libertarian thinktanks to mention, but there are rational, intelligent thought leaders that provide all the research you could ever read. Try listening to Rush Limbaugh sometime.

  28. Loursat says:

    There are many examples of institutional racism today. Here are a few.

    One that feels especially urgent right now is the effort to restrict voting freedom. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were crucial steps toward undoing Jim Crow laws that discriminated against minorities. When the Supreme Court nullified portions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the Court claimed that the protections of that law were no longer needed. However, states, counties, and cities across the South immediately instituted new, racially restrictive voting laws that would be illegal under the VRA. The effort to further restrict the vote continues with Trump and company’s false claims of widespread voting fraud.

    There is a vast racial disparity in the way that criminal laws are enforced. We imprison black people at far higher rates than white people, largely because of laws that are systematically biased against minorities. For more on this problem, I’d recommend Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I’d also recommend the documentary film called 13th, which is available on Netflix.

    Then there is the problem of police shooting black people with impunity. That’s at the top of the news these days.

    Here’s an interesting article from The Atlantic: The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America. Racist laws in Oregon’s early history set a pattern of racial exclusion that has endured long after the laws themselves were abandoned. Even today, when so many Portland residents pride themselves on being racially tolerant and politically liberal, the patterns of economic development that the city officially pursues are giving minorities the short shrift.

    Our nation’s deep and continuing problems with racism are real. Both conservatives and liberals—all of us—need to deal with that fact honestly.

  29. “but there are rational, intelligent thought leaders that provide all the research you could ever read. Try listening to Rush Limbaugh sometime.”

    I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh. I would never use rational, intelligent or thought leader in the same sentence with Rush Limbaugh.

  30. Loursat,
    You mention the minor changes to the VRA as a sign of institutional racism. The VRA was designed to combat specific instances of racism in state and local government over 50 years ago. Most of those local governments are radically different now. I have lived in several of these areas in the past 30 years and the conditions that led to the VRA do not exist there anymore. A complete repeal of all of the area specific provisions of the VRA is probably in order today.

    You then assert that ‘laws are systematically biased against minorities’. I have not read the literature you cite, but you give no arguments to back this up in your text. I think that you are looking at some data, like incarceration rates and getting the wrong conclusion.

    When building Zion, some people will fight against the principles of Zion in almost any circumstance. Prison is a good place for them. The government can greatly help build Zion, but some policies that build Zion may not be what we wish to hear. The top leadership of the church seems to believe that more individual freedom (especially when putting religion into practice) is a major step towards Zion. They also think that defining marriage more nearly to the way that God does is a principle of Zion. There is little discussion of marginal tax rates as good or evil, the LDS leadership seem to not see a huge correlation of tax rates to Zion creation. They definitely believe that paying taxes is part of good citizenship.

  31. Tracey Snoyer says:

    Wow. This is a slippery slope.

    Before I make my comments, let me state that I am grateful for much of the regulatory controls the government affords. I like knowing I can pick up a steak in the refrigerated section of Albertsons and be fairly confident it has passed some health standards. (Of course, competition helps with that as well. It’s a beneficial dance.) Like you, I am grateful for roads and other systemic infrastructure and other services that would be much less efficient to be locally —
    or individually — developed and maintained. So everything I’m about to say is not to suggest that government doesn’t have a role. But, with some small exception (which I’ll mention) I do not see it as a path to Zion.

    Every time I turn over a responsibility to an institution, I am abstracting myself from the real connection to something that this institution serves. For example, in the institution of our Church, because I am a Visiting teacher, and because the RS sends rolls around the room to sign up for feeding the missionaries or bringing dinner to a sick person, I do not have to think about how to serve them. I don’t have to know them. I don’t have to care deeply enough to be the person they would call for help. And, conversely, because I am “assigned” as their VT, the sister who does call me for help, does not have to be in true relationship with me. She doesn’t have to create a stable of friends and relationships with which she gives — and then can subsequently receive — support. It’s easier to call on someone assigned to help.

    Because I can go to an institution called a grocery store, I don’t have to think about how climate change or weather in general might affect my food supply. If instead I were a farmer experiencing a drought, I would be much more connected to these issues. I would change my eating habits to eat more drought-resistant foods. I would be more connected to the earth.

    Because I pay taxes to the institution called government, I might spend hours and days on the phone with my local city offices trying to get a pot hole filled on the street in front of my house. I would never consider going down to the Home Depot to get all the materials and expertise needed to fill that pot hole myself. I have already paid for someone else to do it. And I get all twisted up if they don’t do their jobs and don’t respond to my calls and complaints.

    Because I have the institution of the recycling program in my city, I don’t have to think about whether or not I use plastic bottles. I just recycle the many that I buy. I lose my connection to reduce and reusing, and their purpose, which is to preserve the environment.

    Now institutions do good things and I am not an anarchist. We need them. But the more we turn over responsibilities to institutions, the more abstracted we become from truly connecting to others, to taking responsibility for the life we are living.

    The examples above are applications of the principle that smaller-government people hold. I am not suggesting that there should be no government intervention as it relates to health care or poverty. I am, however, calling out the argument that I have with the OP position: that getting government help is the path to Zion. For all the good these programs might do, I do not think it helps us care more.

    I will take exception to my own argument in one way. I do believe that as we look at the evolution of caring in a macro sense, government assistance can help. By this I mean that because of these interventions, from FDR to the present, we as a society (in general) see ourselves as responsible for the less fortunate. Because government has intervened to say we will support those in need, we as a society have come to in general agree that a country as rich as ours should not abandon those less fortunate. However, that same caring breaks down at the micro level. We now expect our institutions to take care of these issues exclusively. This abstraction really harms our journey to Zion, IMO.

    My city is considered a highly progressive city. There are loud demands that the city take care of the less fortunate. Lots of compassion — in principle. But when the city wants to move a homeless shelter to the most progressive parts of town, there is opposition: not in my neighborhood. When the city wants to put in affordable housing in some of the older parts of town (with some of the highest real estate values), the progressives there fight it on the grounds that they are preserving the “historic” nature of their city. Push the affordable housing out to the less upscale suburbs, they say…which also happen to be less accessible to the inner city and jobs. Because we expect these services (at a macro level) to be provided by the city, and because we are essentially paying for it through taxation, we do not feel we need to personally sacrifice to solve these problems.

    There is a beautiful park in our city that the homeless have inhabited. New regulations have pushed them out, so they are now legally inhabiting the area in circumference of the park. One of my progressive friends lives a block from there and was describing the scenarios they deal with. One of them had to do with all of the garbage that seemed to pile up in these shanty towns. Of course the first conversation we had was about how the city needed to keep this area clean for the neighbors who live around it. At one point one of us asked, “So what would radical hospitality look like in this scenario?” This question was met with absolute silence. I finally said (and by the way, I consider myself a moderate with conservative leanings. My friends are moderate with progressive leanings), “I have an idea. What if all the surrounding neighborhoods got together and agreed to offer clean up services to the homeless on a rotating basis? Families would bring dumpsters or trucks and help the homeless clean up every couple of days?” This was met with surprise and approval. “Yes,” they said, “that would be radical hospitality.” Then one person said, “but now we are creating a situation in which word gets out to the homeless that this park area is a great place to live because the neighbors are providing services.” And the deflation in the room was palpable. To be fair, this is not happening in my neighborhood so it is easy for me to be a spectator here, and I do not believe I would be any more generous than they were if the situation were to show up near me.

    This is why I say that institutional services can thwart the journey to Zion. To approach Zion, the hearts of men need to move toward the personal sacrifice it takes to truly love our neighbors.

  32. Loursat says:

    If we want to make Zion, we need to work first on lifting people out of poverty, and let the purity of our hearts follow. The only concrete yardstick that the scriptures give for identifying Zion is that in Zion there are no poor. The other stuff—unity, righteousness, purity—is essential, but it is also abstract, and it is secondary. The concrete, measurable problems that we are commanded to solve are about caring for the poor. The scriptures make it clear that we must care for the poor before we can claim to be righteous: “For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things. For if you will that I give unto you a place in the celestial world, you must prepare yourselves.” D&C 78:6-7.

    There is no way to meet the needs of the poor without collective action. There are many forms of collective action, including the many kinds of organization we have in the LDS Church. We are also immensely blessed to have the possibility of collective action through government, which can alleviate poverty on a scale that is impossible in any other organization. That is good, not evil.

    No matter what kind of organization we use to fight poverty, the task will be full of problems and very difficult obstacles. At its root, this project is about building community. That comes with all of the conflicts and hard compromises that Tracey Snoyer’s stories suggest. It comes with the fascinating and confounding problems of organizing our government well. And why should it be otherwise? How else do we expect to become righteous? It is only by engaging with hard problems that we lift each other and learn.

    Michael Austin, in the OP, does not claim that government programs are the path to Zion. He claims that government is one of the essential tools that we must use to build Zion. If we refuse that opportunity and blessing, it will redound to our condemnation.