To Market, to Market

American industries are already tightening their belts in anticipation of the administration's new budget plan, which calls for higher corporate taxes. Most industries are, that is: Amid the gloom cast by higher taxes, Silicon Valley is still sunny. In the new budget, the computer industry is slotted as a favored recipient of government largesse. Federal money will be poured into projects like the construction of an "information superhighway," designed to link industries with one another. This isn't just one more expenditure added to the federal balance sheet. As an editorial in the Plain Dealer explains, the plan signals a dramatic change in philosophy of government: It tilts Washington toward a national industrial policy, where government selects which industries shall be winners and losers. But is this a good idea? Should government manage the economy? Practically speaking, an industrial policy is full of risks. Do we really want bureaucrats, who have never even run a small business, to be running the economy? If the government selects its winners well, it only duplicates what the private sector is doing anyway. Telephone and cable companies are already racing one another to create information highways. Why should a deficit-ridden federal government spend billions of dollars to build something that's already being built by the private sector? And what the private sector isn't already doing often shouldn't be done anyway. Under President Carter the administration poured billions of dollars into a synthetic fuels program that turned out to be a wasteful boondoggle. And yet the problem with an industrial policy goes much deeper than these practical considerations: For Christians, the most important question is whether it accords with biblical teachings on the role of the state. Ever since the Reformation, Christians have taught that the state should be limited. It began with freedom of conscience—the idea that the state should be separate from the church. The government should not be in the business of telling individuals what religion to believe. Later the same principle was extended to economics: Religion cannot be free if people are dependent upon the state for their livelihood. When the state runs the economy, citizens can't afford to antagonize it by holding independent views. This is what we mean by limited government. The biblical role for the state is to preserve order and ensure justice—and those activities we support with our taxes. But beyond that, the state's role is not to tell us how to spend or invest our money—any more than its role is to tell us how to worship God. As Joseph Sobran argues in a recent column, politicians have no special competence in economics any more than they do in theology. No doubt, the pros and cons of the new budget plan will be debated for months to come. But its most significant impact is to signal a change in philosophy: By embracing government intervention in the economy it expands state power and moves away from the concept of limited government. Sure, it's a good thing to promote new technologies, from fiber optics to super-conductors. The question is, who should do it? Government or private industry? The answer to that may determine whether our country preserves its classic freedoms.


Chuck Colson


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