The Great Society and Its Not-So-Great Boundaries

By Colson Parker

Even without imposing governmental power on the family, these welfare reforms gave families new avenues of provision, and these provisionary means created a web of perverse incentives for families. . . It is these perverse incentives that I believe break the boundaries of the sphere sovereignty that Kuyper envisioned.

The Great Society and families

The American welfare state is a widely debated topic today. There are critiques and defenses made all over the field, yet few promising solutions are to be found emerging from the smoke. One of the largest areas of this debate’s impact is on the family. But I would like to look at the relationship between the family and the welfare state in a distinct way. Many historians and politicians look back and attribute the rise of our welfare state to Lyndon B. Johnson, and his body of legislation referred to as the Great Society. So let’s start there.

The Great Society was ushered in with LBJ’s election in 1964. Let me start off by acknowledging that the Great Society was not entirely bad. Some civil rights pursuits were achieved that I believe ultimately helped America renew its commitment to the values of liberty. In essence, LBJ’s legislation took FDR’s New Deal and expanded on it, giving birth to America’s current welfare state as we see it today. This expansion was so large that the repercussions, both positive and negative, are still being seen half a century later.

Clues from Kuyper

But again, my focus is on the family. How did the Great Society and its legislation affect the structure of our most fundamental institution? To answer this question, I’d like to call upon Abraham Kuyper and his brilliant framework of sphere sovereignty. Abraham Kuyper was a Dutchman whose lengthy achievements made him a public figure of significant effect and renown. His passion for public theology and applying his vision of Christ’s sovereignty to every sphere of life has been used as a guide for interpreting today’s world in spheres from education to politics to business. His framework of sphere sovereignty shows us some of the effects that the government has had on the family through copious amounts of welfare legislation. Under Kuyper’s framework, the government has overreached its bounds and the family has suffered greatly because of it.

The key tenet of sphere sovereignty is that society is made up of different spheres such as the family, the government, education, businesses, and the church. Sphere sovereignty emphasizes that each of these spheres holds its own dignity and sovereignty, and each calls for its own independence, governance, and goals since each is focused on achieving different things. I do not run my family the way I want my government to be run, and the government doesn’t have the right to step in and run my family for me. Each sphere is unique and calls for sovereignty to run in a way that is beneficial to those under the sphere as well as to the society the sphere resides in.

It is important to note the role government played for Kuyper. As the former Dutch prime minister, he certainly considered the government to be important. He saw it not only as a necessity for a flourishing society but also as a tool for making an impact. Kuyper himself even called the state the “sphere of spheres.” He noted the following in a speech given to the Free University on its day of dedication: “The state is therefore mindful to strengthen its arm in the noble sense of the word (thus not for itself but in the interest of all the other spheres) in order to resist and try to break any attempt on the part of a sphere to expand and enlarge its orbit.” This means that while the government covers all other spheres of society and life, it does so to provide a check and counterbalance to other spheres, not to monopolize power.

Sphere sovereignty and the welfare state

The government’s use of welfare curiously plays into this concept. Government welfare programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, all of which were introduced or overhauled in LBJ’s Great Society, are not the play of strength and power in the way we expect. These reforms don’t necessarily impose anything on the life of society, or more specifically the family, but it does give alternatives to how and what the family relies on.

Even without imposing governmental power on the family, these welfare reforms gave families new avenues of provision, and these provisionary means created a web of perverse incentives for families. There has been ample research about how welfare programs have led women to stay unmarried to keep single-parent benefits, led young people to stop working because of unemployment, and led older generations to be left behind by families and dumped on the street for Medicare and Social Security to pick up. It is these perverse incentives that I believe break the boundaries of the sphere sovereignty that Kuyper envisioned. One of the keys of this sovereignty is the recognition that each sphere should be run differently because the relationships, goals, systems, and supports of each sphere are different. Therefore, the family and the government should be run differently because their nature is not the same. The role that these programs and their ensuing perverse incentives have played has been in direct violation of these ideas.

The problem of government intervention

By imposing programs that provide the family with so many different perverse incentives, it opens the window for the government to begin controlling the family not through traditional avenues of power like laws or regulations, but subtlety through the family’s optional dependence upon it. There are many families that, through these programs, have built dependence upon the benefits that the government welfare programs offered. This has aided in leading to the dismal state that we now find the family. Rather than the government reaching over the line into the family to take its power, the government is incentivizing the family to cross the boundary into the government’s sphere and become dependent on its power.

This is a clear violation of the sphere sovereignty that Kuyper had in mind. Luther had similar ideas to Kuyper regarding how this government-to-family relationship could play out. Luther believed the three God-instituted spheres were family, church, and government. If we merge Luther and Kuyper’s thoughts, we can expand the Church into a broader “civil society.” The family was the primary institution, and when it faltered the church would step in to help the family. Once the family could independently function, the church would step out. If the church were unable to help, then the government would step in to help and provide the same function the church provided for the family.

The Great Society broke this framework by side-stepping the church and civil society, stepping directly into the family’s sphere to provide welfare and benefits. The government isn’t acting as a check on the power of other spheres as much as it is acting as a solution to their problems. However, the bigger problem is the welfare state’s lack of apparent goals or processes to enable the government to step out of the family. Families are becoming increasingly dependent rather than working towards independence. Simultaneously, the welfare state doesn’t seem to just be temporarily helping families out but appears to be lingering as a long-term solution. What we need is for the government to provide a fix and aid to support the independence of the family, while limiting its direct incentives, influence, and involvement with the family. The family needs the government to be the sphere that it promises to be, not a lure to other spheres for consolidating power. We need it to be a sphere for checking power—including its own—and pursuing a free and virtuous society upon which the family can proudly stand.

Colson is a Senior at Grove City College studying Social Work and Biblical and Religious Studies. Colson is involved in multiple roles on Grove City College’s campus. He serves as the Chaplain for the Student Government Association, on the executive team on the college’s orientation board, and as the Inner-City Outreach Student Liaison for the colleges short term missions program.

Colson enjoys researching and learning about global studies, community development, and poverty alleviation. He has a passion for missions and spent the last summer in Casablanca, Morocco in a language and cultural internship.