Why C.S. Lewis Was Right About Government

Saturday’s Joplin Globe featured a column by Paul Greenberg, who quoted, favorably and surprisingly, C.S. Lewis:

It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects — military, political, economic and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden — that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.

I happen to think that Lewis’ sentiments here describe exactly the raison d’être of government. I am just surprised that Mr. Greenberg, a conservative, so enthusiastically embraces those sentiments.

The quote from Lewis is found in his famous work of apologetics, Mere Christianity (first published in 1943), and his thoughts on government are really extraneous to the argument he was making in that book. Lewis wasn’t writing a political treatise, but was evangelizing on behalf of his faith. But he captured the essence of why men and women bind together to create an organized community we call the State, with its complex of relations we call politics, the art—and increasingly—the science of government.

That Paul Greenberg, or any conservative, would adopt Lewis’ beautiful description of why the State exists is really both comforting and off-putting at the same time.

It is comforting because perhaps there is hope that conservatism can yet be retrieved from the clutches of the awful reactionaries who have commandeered it, and the Republican Party can be healed from the wounds those reactionary conservatives have inflicted.

But it is off-putting because so much of contemporary conservatism is not concerned with promoting or protecting “the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life.”  The conservative movement these days is about promoting and protecting extraordinary things like tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans or about demanding the termination of government actions designed to actually promote and protect ordinary human happiness, actions like regulating capitalism and trying to make sure all of our citizens have access to affordable health care.

My friend and fellow Globe blogger, Jim Wheeler, wrote eloquently on St. Patrick’s Day about the tragedy of the English subjugation of the Irish (“The Isle of Freedom“), and he made an important point about “what freedom means in America“:

Freedom is found not only in the ability to travel the streets and lanes of the land at will, to choose a religion or no religion, to be secure in one’s own home, and to stand on a soapbox in the town square and orate. It is those things of course, but so much more. In the complex amalgamation of civilized life freedom must be had in an economic context, for without economic equality under the law opportunity is forfeit and with it the meaning of freedom itself.

Of course, it is often hard to define what exactly constitutes “economic equality under the law,” but it is not hard to see that economic inequality in contemporary America is alarmingly high, as this graph from The Economist, , demonstrates:

The graph is based on work done by Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, and you may notice that after the Great Depression—after the State stepped in to address income inequality—the income earned by the top earners leveled off. It leveled off until the Reagan Reversal, when conservatives stepped in with their laissez-faire attitudes and ideology, an ideology that established deregulation as gospel and tax cuts as economic salvation, an ideology that today shouts “class warfare!” at those who desire a more equitable distribution of income.

Paul Greenberg—who as far as I know never met a Bush tax cut he didn’t like—joined the ideological shouts of class warfare last month, when he criticized President Obama’s budget:

Behind all the fanciful figures in this budget, there is a simple strategy, also dating back to Roman times. Divide et impera. It’s a battle plan as old as Cannae: Divide and conquer. In political terms, it means setting poor against rich.

You see, anyone representing the State, who wants to ensure that our nation’s wealth is not just the possession of a few, is merely playing politics, “setting poor against the rich.” But let’s look back at Lewis’ words, which Mr. Greenberg quoted so approvingly:

The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden — that is what the State is there for.

It is hard to see how a husband and wife can chat over a fire, if they don’t have a fireplace to call their own. It is hard to see how a couple of friends can have a game of darts in a pub, when there are so few disposable dollars in the pockets of people who might want a pint with their game. And a man needs a decent income to purchase “his own room” or to buy a plot of ground so that he can dig in “his own garden.”

But beyond all that, it is certainly hard to see how the “ordinary happiness of human beings” can happen in a world in which people don’t have money to go to the doctor or who fear they are a sickness away from economic ruin.

Greenberg recently began a column this way:

Have you got health insurance? I do. Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody did? Just think:

No more worries about losing your health care if you lose your job, or just get a different one. Ah, peace of mind at last.

If you assume there is a caveat coming from this conservative, you would be right:

Don’t fret. It’ll all be nice. Just leave it to government. It knows best. And it’s all for our own good. The velvet glove will be so soft that after a while we won’t notice the iron hand inside.

…Democratic nations are peculiarly susceptible to a soft form of despotism that doesn’t so much dictate to its people as embrace them, infantilize them, smother them ever so gently in its all-encompassing arms.

We would all be saved the trouble of making our own decisions, providing our own necessities (like health care), and generally thinking for ourselves. Which was always a bother anyway.

To Greenberg, daring to do something about the fact that millions upon millions of Americans don’t have and many cannot get health insurance, or daring to alleviate the widespread fear that ill health could instantly bankrupt them, amounts to “a soft form of despotism.” As if there isn’t real repression involved with going without adequate health care or there isn’t genuine tyranny mixed up in the dread of going broke at the hands of a disease.

Thankfully, C.S. Lewis, whose view of government we now know has Paul Greenberg’s blessing—he  called Lewis’ words a “reliable standard” and “sure guide” and “genius”—had a word or two to say about health care, particularly about what Americans call “socialized medicine” and what Brits like Lewis called their National Health Service.

To an American correspondent Lewis wrote:

What a pity you haven’t got our National Health system in America. (1/14/1958)

What you have gone through begins to reconcile me to our Welfare State of which I have said so many hard things. “National Health Service” with free treatment for all has its drawbacks—one being that Doctors are incessantly pestered by people who have nothing wrong with them. But it is better than leaving people to sink or swim on their own resources. (7/7/1959)

I am sorry to hear of the acute pain and the various other troubles. It makes me unsay all I have ever said against our English “Welfare State”, which at least provides free medical treatment for all. (6/10/1963)*

It is obvious that Lewis came to see that “the ordinary happiness” the State existed to “promote and to protect” was very much dependent on access to “free medical treatment for all,” which is paid for by taxes, particularly by those who have benefited most from the existence of the State.

Somehow I don’t think we will find Paul Greenberg, or any conservative in America, lifting these C.S. Lewis quotes for use in their attacks against what they derisively call “Obamacare,” the essentials of which were originally proposed by conservatives as an alternative to real socialized medicine.


* All citations taken from Letters to an American Lady, my copy published by Eerdmans in 1967.


  1. ansonburlingame

     /  March 18, 2012

    I can easily understand how Greenberg could agree with C.S. Lewis. It is simply a matter of “how far” the state should go to promote and protect the happiness of the governed.

    In my view Lewis NEVER imagined government “paying for the beer” in a pub or “buying a fireplace” for a couple to sit beside. Lewis assumed such ammenities were provided by individuals living freely and working to provide their own comforts. Governments role would have been to prevent “foreign hordes” from ….. or lawless bandits spreading mayhem and terror within the midst of such communities. Enough government to protect America and creation of enough laws to prevent anarchy. Then let freedom and liberty prevail for each to seek his or her own level with such a society.

    Jim speaks of economic equality as do you and as does Reich at least imply in Sunday’s Globe column, a call for government to redistribute income based on …….? Need I suppose with government deciding exactly who needs what and who should give to support that need.

    I would suggest you construct your own graph, representing progressive goals in terms of income in America for all “classes”.

    We all know the current graphs with a few making a lot and a lot making little. Fine. Now show what YOU would like to see such graphs look like. “Paint you vision” of income distribution in America.

    I KNOW what you want HC distribution of services to look like. It would be a flat and straight line, would it not, with ALL getting exactly equal HC? I suppose you would call such health care equality, everyone getting the same treatment and at the same cost no matter what.

    So when you and Jim speak of economic equaltiy, I suspect you might be talking about the same flat and straight line for all Americans. Maybe not, but who knows.

    After you construct such curves showing your “vision” for America, we can then discuss how to “get there”.



  2. I wish that there might be a public debate in our little conservative corner of Missouri, an airing as it were, of the points so well made here by the Erstwhile Conservative. In reading the press and the blogs I find few others willing to reason about fundamental economic issues such as in this post and this particular one, the proper role of government, is at the very heart of the enmity between the parties in this contentious political year. The material however, even when presented so clearly as the EC does, is difficult enough for trained economists, let alone the average person.

    Joe Public, for example, may not understand that the Economist graph shows not the average nor the median actual incomes of top earners, but rather the percentage share of income. It may help to note, for example, the sharp dip downward in both curves during the early 1940’s. That was when WW II caused a moral shift in income distribution. We were all in the effort together, in other words, and the income value of workers as a proportion of the total became larger. Also interesting is that although there were government price and wage controls in effect during the war, this was a permanent shift, permanent that is until, as the EC notes, that trickle-down economics were adopted under the “Reagan Reversal”. Now the shares of incomes are back to Great Depression levels. That ought to be of great concern to all.

    I recently had a brief conversation about health care with a conservative acquaintance, only slightly less old than I. It was revealing to me of how he reasoned about the issue. “Is American healthcare the best in the world?”, he asked me. It was that simple for him. He was unwilling to even consider any other system because he had accepted the false premise that the care we get (or at least those lucky enough to have insurance get) is worth what we pay for it. In other words, it is more expensive only because it is better. That is a false premise of course.

    Healthcare under our present system is not a commodity priced by supply and demand because very few people shop for it. Medical insurance companies compete relatively little – it is more like a sharing of the customer pool while the young, the unemployed and other uninsured’s simply rely on “free” healthcare by going to the ER when a condition demands treatment, thus boosting costs for everyone.

    Then there is the fact that medical care here costs more than double what comparable care costs in Canada or Europe. And there is Big Pharma, the most profitable industry in the world which is leveraging profits with patient-directed ads for non-curative drugs at potential patients while curative drugs are in critically short supply. And finally there is the fact that the costs of the present system are unsustainable and are, in fact, the principal cause of the ballooning national debt. But I never got to make those points with my acquaintance because he cut me off as soon as he saw I wanted to argue about it. One cannot debate with a closed mind.

    I am gratified that the EC has taken such care and patience in this post to make his case. His perseverance is needed. One can only hope that reasoning might be more palatable in writing than in conversations about town and if citing C.S. Lewis can’t help to engage the thought process anew, I don’t know what else can.


  3. ansonburlingame

     /  March 18, 2012

    Need versus cost. that is what is all bolls down to in my view. How much does it cost to provide the need for universal health care?

    Cry all you like about the humanitarian needs for HC for all. But then realistically figure the cost to provide such equality of care and tell anyone how to pay for it. Tax the ricfh, for HC alone and and your find a very dry well in just that effort. Then add in defense, other entiltlements, etc and you have yourself in a very dry well indeed and NO ONE pouring water into it.

    Needs versus ability to meet the needs by government is what the argument is about today and all you cry for is more need!



  4. Jane Reaction

     /  March 18, 2012

    The Reagan Reversal. That phrase is perfect for what happened. Maybe you can be the coiner of a whole historical turning point.


    • Jane,

      Sadly, I don’t see a reversal of the reversal on the horizon. It will take more demographic shifts to have an electorate of sufficient size to get a “fairness” consensus that obtained after the Great Depression.



  5. ansonburlingame

     /  March 19, 2012

    Jim and others,

    Jim noted, “That was when WW II caused a moral shift in income distribution. We were all in the effort together, in other words, and the income value of workers as a proportion of the total became larger. ” Indeed many Americans were engaged to work to fight a huge war and government paid for such work, by and large.

    What is left out of that picture is the skyrocketing government debt, unsustainable for any significant period of time. The debt literally went through the roof. That represents the COST to America, costs which could never be sustained over the long haul.

    Keep pursueing the progressive agenda today, watch the debt curve and then tell me how long that agenda can be sustained before…….?



  6. genegarman

     /  March 19, 2012

    After retirement, I went to work as a common labor employee for two prominent millionaires in the county where I live, I can assure you their companies are nonunion and the level of wages, which they both pay to common labor employees, is not sufficient to provide a personally owned house and decent living wage for one person, let alone a family–which is why one in four children in my county (Crawford County, Kansas) lives in poverty, as reported in the local newspaper.

    Further, the Kansas state minimum wage ($7.25), as determined by the Republican/Chamber of Commerce controlled legislature, is a poverty level wage, clearly insufficient to provide a decent living wage for a family, which is why poverty exists among Kansas children. Regardless, when I recently communicated, via email, with two Democratic Party leaders in the Kansas State Legislature and recommended legislation to increase the state minimum wage, neither even took the time to reply.

    In other words, obviously, neither the national or state Chamber of Commerce nor our elected national congresspersons and state legislators could care less about fellow citizens in poverty. And, dare I even mention my lunch break efforts to teach English to some of my fellow employees?

    As if there is no solution? I am a theological seminary graduate (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yb7SbUWw9dM) and a dues paying member of two worker unions: (1) free trade is not fair trade, and (2) not even the input of Jesus has, after thousands of years, been sufficient to overcome the refusal of the individual rich or the Chamber of Commerce to bargain collectively for decent living wages and benefits for every employee.


    • Gene,

      Unions came into existence as the only viable way for workers to have a real voice in the workplace and improve working conditions and wages. To some extent, the threat of unionization (as opposed to actual organization) kept wages higher than they would have been without that threat. Today, not content with living with only the threat of organized labor, the right-wing wants to remove even the threat because, as history shows, as unionism declines, so do overall wages and benefits. It really is that simple, in terms of why the right-wing is so opposed to organized labor.

      You raised the issue of “free trade is not fair trade,” and I confess to this day I have mixed thoughts on that issue. Just what constitutes “fair” trade is problematic in a world economy like the one we find ourselves in now. There are a lot of variables and one of these days (I keep promising myself), I will dive into it deeply and see if I can get my mind right.



  7. ansonburlingame

     /  March 19, 2012


    Yet for whatever reasons you chose to work for the millionaries, as I read the above. If they were so despicable in wages paid, why would you as a theology student lower yourself to support their business by working for them?

    No one considers minimum wage as a way to live a lifetime. Raise the minimum wage to achieve “comfort” for all and you would grill your own hamburgers at MacDonalds, would you not?

    Minimum wage is, I think, intended as a way to get “kids” into the workforce and then allow them to go far beyond such wages based on their ability to contribute to the bottom line of any business.

    On the other hand you and your union friends demand “fair” wages in order for workers to be “comfortable”, regardless of how they procuce products to support the bottom line, profit, of businesses.

    And thus in the long run we see GM, bankruptcy and chaos, politically over such tactics by unions. And it is going to get worse, not better in public employee unions. Just look at the state of education today, a TERRIBLE product being produced by unionized employees who say it is all “managements fault”!

    Are you kidding me.



  8. kcchieffan

     /  March 20, 2012

    Class warfare will continue as long as billionaires like the Koch Brothers use their fortunes to pad their own coffers at the expense of the so-called middle class. They are working for such things as the elimination of desegregation, as they did in South Carolina, the elimination of unions so they can pay their workers starvation wages, stopping or reducing employer contributions to healthcare and retirements, and making college more difficult for those who need federal help so they can keep an ignorant work force.

    These men, and others who attend their fascist-type meetings, as well as the organizations that back them (Heritage Foundation, for example), are pure evil. They do not represent Christian values–just greed. This is why I can’t understand the poor and the middle class supporting these policies. They are so against their economic interests. It is especially confusing that Christians support this greed, which Jesus and his apostles preached against throughout the New Testament. Are these Bible-fearing individuals aware of Jesus driving the money-lenders out of the temple or his teachings that a true Christian helps the poor? Have they forgotten that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven? And what about the teachings regarding the fate of a hypocrite as well as the definition of a hypocrite?

    It is almost sickening to watch the hypocrites in Congress, the Koch brothers, and others praying while they work against the interests of their brothers while promoting their own greed. They will live in comfort while promoting their selfish agenda, but they will pay for their sins in the end since they can’t buy their way into heaven as they can buy corrupt politicians.


  9. jdhight01

     /  March 20, 2012

    I made the comment above and changed my username to reflect who I am.

    Jim Hight


    • Jim,

      You might be more careful revealing the fact you are a Chief’s fan. Folks might start pitying you. We’ve had a tough decade or two or three.



  10. ansonburlingame

     /  March 20, 2012


    OK, now a new union supporter enters the fray herein. Welcome aboard.

    I only address one point you made above, “…stopping or reducing employer contributions to healthcare and retirements, ”

    For sure that seems to be happening, a rapid decline in employer supported HC and retirement packages. If you get your way those packages will so go to zero and government will be called upon to pick up the whole tab, for all of your HC anytime and your retirement after age 65.

    Except of course government does not have the money to achieve such nirvana, universal HC for all and a comfortable retirement for anyone over age 65.

    I also note a newly emerging “statistic”, one showing that the eligible work force (between ages 18 and 65 I assume) are currently employed at about 58%. Almost half of the “working” age population in America is actually working, it seems

    And you want to blame that on the Koch Brothers, et al??



  11. ansonburlingame

     /  March 21, 2012

    Now I have to figure out new opponents from old opponents when they “change their names”! Had JD used his real name, I probably would have ignore his comment. Just thought I was dealing with “fresh meat” herein.

    As well, now that I am on Duane’s “ignore list” I will not try to refute his various and frequent subcomments to his own blog to commenters. Same old “stuff” most of the time and I agree that Duane and I need not exchange more “blows” here or anywhere else in writing though I still offer the “debate in Spiva Park” on any topic and at almost any time, at his choosing to refute his views.

    Just leave it at the simple point when Duane offerers subcomments, as above, you can rest assured that I disagree, all of the time, unless I comment otherwise.



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