Twenty-four years ago this month, the magazine brought us its Nietzschean fears with its famous red-on-black cover, “Is God Dead?” More recently, apparently, the agnostic editors of Time experienced a crisis of faith over the secular substitute for God, and thus presented the interrogative cover of October 23, 1989: “Is Government Dead?” The irony, which is surely lost on Time’s editors, is that God and Government are in a doubtful state for remarkably similar reasons. These two cover stories could, without much work, be combined into one treatment. Furthermore, Time is likely to remain oblivious to its role in the executioner’s chorus for both God and Government.
Time’s essay on Government (which it capitalizes throughout the text) reads more like an extended New York Times editorial than a genuine newsweekly feature piece. It is littered with errors and dubious, if not wrongheaded, judgments. Time thinks the conservative complaints about Government are “self- evidently silly.” “Of course,” Time reflexively jerks, “Government must do something. That is why it exists . . . .”
Even though its editors made a botch job of it, Time is essentially correct that Government is dead. In the ordinary sense we have more “Government” than ever, i.e., massively expensive regulatory bureaucracies micromanaging ever more details of people’s lives and livelihoods. But of course this is not Government properly understood, it is Administration. The result of the regulatory revolution of the last thirty years has been to transform our democratic Government into a highly centralized Administrative State. This indeed has been the goal of “scientific” politics all along, from thinkers as ostensibly diverse as Marx and Woodrow Wilson. One should recall the famous dictum, attributed to several radical thinkers, that the goal of scientific politics is to “replace the government of men with the administration of things.”
Although Time is oblivious to this fundamental trend in politics, its earlier essay did understand that the scientific revolution was pre-eminent among the causes of God’s demise. Science has so thoroughly swept the field of competition that, as Irving Kristol wrote a few years ago, “theology has practically ceased to be a respectable form of intellectual activity.” “God,” Time observed in its cover essay in 1966, “was seen as the apex of a great pyramid of being that extended downward to the tiniest stone, the ultimate ruler of an ordered cosmos . . . .” But if science can explain the motions of the tiniest stone according to demonstrable physical laws, then God as the final, contingent Being is unnecessary.
There’s only one problem with this view: it doesn’t work. The leading edge of astronomy and theoretical particle physics has called into question the fundamental scientific premise that Everything Can Be Explained, and more than a few scientists have murmured the word “God” out of the corners of their mouths.
The impact of the scientific revolution on democratic politics is less widely comprehended. The best American treatise of. the scientific theory of the administrative state comes from Woodrow Wilson, who thought modern science required a new theory of government. The constitutional separation of powers and the “checks-and-balances” system was, Wilson thought, based on an outmoded Newtonian understanding of the universe. Darwin had replaced Newton, Wilson wrote. Thus, “Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and practice.”
What this means is that expert administrators are to be empowered to guide and shape man’s Progress. Moreover, these administrators are to be largely independent of the normal political process and effectively sealed off from public opinion. Inherent in this theory is the view that there are no fundamental political controversies that can’t be adjudicated through scientific administration. “Process” replaces politics. Most importantly, individual natural rights is an obsolete doctrine as well. Thus, democratic “Government,” as the arena in which representatives deliberate over the moral dimensions of great controversies, is strictly speaking unnecessary, just as God is unnecessary.
There’s only one problem with this view: it doesn’t work. The breakdown of the separation of powers has generated a low-intensity constitutional crisis in which the President is effectively deprived of command over the executive branch and the federal budget. Congress has transformed itself into an administrative body, with its members offering intercessions, like medieval priests, on behalf of special interests. In return for these intercessions, the high priests of Capitol Hill are rewarded with the indulgences of PAC money. Meanwhile, as every free-market critic of bureaucratic management has predicted, centralized administration of American life is excessively burdensome and destructive of character.
Time rightly perceives that things are in a mess. It is much less clear on the causes of this mess. In the God essay twenty-four years ago, Time noted that the image of God as a “wonder worker” was a discredited, if not paltry, view of the Deity. Today Government, which at the time of the death of God was celebrated by Time as the omnipotent progenitor of the Great Society, is no better than a “dispenser of largesse.” Government as ersatz wonder worker is dead, too.
It must be awfully despairing to be a Time editor these days. God is dead. Government is dead, and on top of it all we may be at the End of History. God, who can take care of Himself, has already made a comeback. But democratic Government, a human contrivance, is less secure. Time in 1966 said that the postwar religious revival was over, just a few years before the explosion of attendance at evangelical churches. Today, Time thinks Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of government was a “costly irrelevancy,” and that George Bush is hopeless as a leader. The people of America have proven remarkably resistant to the crisis of faith that infects Time. They keep electing conservative Presidents by large margins. They keep going to church. The really incredible thing is that anyone keeps reading Time.
Steven Hayward is Director of the Claremont Institute’s Golden State Project, which studies public policy issues in California.