Political Philosophy

A Review of Political Thought (by Hunter Baker)

The following is a review of the book, Political Thought: A Student’s Guide (Crossway: 2012), which is part of the Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series and is written by Hunter Baker.

To those who are new to the subject of political thought/philosophy/theory, Baker’s book will prove to be a friendly introduction to some of the key historical contributions – the concepts, arguments, and philosophers.  Baker begins the book in a manner that is familiar to virtually everyone – the family.  That is, he begins by echoing Aristotle in asserting the family as “the primary unit of political society”[1], what Edmund Burke called the “little platoon” of society and the first principle of public affection, and draws out parallels between so-called family politics and larger political communities, while at the same time being careful to explicitly differentiate the two.

The main body of the book is contained in Section 2: Major Themes, wherein Baker addresses the subjects of order, freedom/liberty, and justice.  This section concludes with a chapter on A Brief Attempt at Describing Good Politics, which essentially amounts to a faithful administration of all three subjects (see below).

I’ll be brief on his discussion of order, as Baker himself is rather brief.  In short, while order is necessary, order alone breeds totalitarian rule – brute force to accomplish the ends of the totalitarian regime.  “Order is a means to an end.  If what order gives us is not good, then we should not continue to uphold that order.  For example, a dictator may give us order, but his order may not be worth preserving as we perceive ourselves to lose more by it than we gain.”[2]  In other words, order exists to preserve something else – both freedom and justice.

The two directions of justice, vertical and horizontal, are addressed at length.  He notes, “[Horizontal justice] is justice in terms of the relationships and arrangements between human persons.  Vertical justice is concerned with the acknowledgement of God”[3].  We see both concepts of justice in the Ten Commandments.  The first four commandments directly pertain to our relation to God (e.g. “You shall have no other gods before me.”).  This is vertical justice.  The remaining 6 commandments pertain to our relation to fellow man (e.g. “You shall not murder.”).  Of course, it is the vertical justice that gives rise and meaning to the horizontal justice.  Baker himself remarks that “vertical obligations typically dictate just treatment of one’s fellow human being (e.g. the brotherhood of men as a consequence of the fatherhood of God).”[4]  There is an implicit apologetic here, which Baker readily acknowledges but does not develop at length:

Horizontal justice is justice between human beings.  One of our great arguments is the degree to which horizontal justice must be or should be tied to notions of vertical justice.  It could be argued that believing in justice without believing in God is a questionable stance.[5]

This is something I will have to develop at length at some other time.

An important anthropological, and indeed theological, discussion in political philosophy is the nature of man.  Since political theory pertains, at least in part, to the governing of man by man, it is certainly helpful to have some notion of the nature of man.  Is man basically good or basically bad?  Baker remarks, “The basic Christian anthropology of man suggests that man is sinful and probably more likely to do ill when given a great deal of power than to do good.”[6]  I do believe that Baker here makes a poor choice in words, specifically “suggests” and “probably”.  Christian anthropology more than suggests that man is sinful; it outright says as much (e.g. Ephesians 2:1-3).  Further, I believe the testimony of Scripture, as well as history, more than establishes the multiplied waywardness of man when given increased power.  Granted, there are exceptions, but these have typically been men of faith.  Perhaps Baker meant to say, “The basic Christian anthropology of man is that man is sinful which leads to man being more likely to do ill when given a great deal of power than to do good.”  This issue can easily lead into a discussion of the Christian doctrine of common grace, although this is not discussed in the book, so I digress.  Regardless, this is a fundamental reality that must be taken into consideration when developing one’s political theory, especially from a Christian perspective.

In light of the sinful nature of man, we can expect evil in this world, and therefore require a mechanism for restraining such evil, which speaks to the serving of justice.  “True peace exists only with justice.”[7]  He goes on to say, “Justice thus requires the coercion and restraint of evil men.”[8]  In other words, the punishment of evil is justified, and the absence of such punishment is to be thought of as injustice.  The punishment of unjust acts is, of course, a biblical notion (e.g. Gen. 9).

The interplay between order, freedom, and justice is summed up well in what follows:

If some men by their unrighteous acts have made themselves fit subjects for coercion and restraint, then what does that say about those who do not commit wrongs (or at least substantial ones) against others?  The logical corollary is that those who do not commit wrongs should be free and uncoerced.  They are free because they do what is right.  This is the ordered liberty[9] mentioned early on in the book.  They have earned the right to be free and uncoerced because they govern themselves.[10]  In other words, if one does justice to others by not harming them through force or fraud, then one should be able to live free of government coercion and expect protection from wrongful coercion by others.[11]

You may wonder at Baker’s statement that these morally self-governed individuals “earned the right to be free”.  I think he intended to communicate that such men earned the right to remain free and uncoerced.  This understanding seems most consistent with the book as a whole, as well as the Christian perspective of man made in God’s image.

The content of the book largely surrounds the discussion of order, freedom, and liberty, and their confluence as properly describing good government.  If I take anything away from this book, it is this:

Order, justice, and freedom are clearly related.  Justice is the result of the enforcement of a moral order that protects the freedom of human beings from malignant interference.  We are able to live together in peace and freedom with the government standing by to exercise coercion and restraint upon those who would do wrong.[12]

The Christian should readily agree with such a logical ordering of things, as this is certainly the meaning of Paul’s political thought in Romans 13:1-5:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.  Do you want to have no fear of authority?  Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good.  But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, and avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.  Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.

Baker provides what I believe to be a realistic view of government, and a view voluminously present on the pages of Scripture: “While [government] is necessary, we must also fear that it will become a means of suffering.”[13]  Government has its purpose.  Due to the great power that government can come to have, we must be diligent to discern just what that purpose is in order to hedge against totalitarian forms of government.  A government that becomes too big and too controlling has the tendency, if not the inevitability, of diminishing the good institutions of a society.  This is especially evidenced in the ever-growing welfare state in the United States where the freedoms of many are transgressed for the benefit others.[14]

At just a little over 100 pages, this book is short enough to consume within a few days, but don’t mistake its brevity for shallow waters.  There are deep truths and concepts throughout, and the reader ought to pause from time-to-time to reflect upon them.  With this book you will begin to lay a solid foundation in political philosophy, upon which you may build with more confidence and readiness to address the day-to-day matters of social and political life.

[1] Baker, Hunter. Political Thought: A Student’s Guide (IL: Crossway, 2012). 21.

[2] 52.

[3] 71.

[4] 72.

[5] 75.

[6] 84.

[7] 87.

[8] 88.

[9] Notice how liberty is not to be thought of as an individualistic and relativistic concept.  Otherwise, there would be no need to speak of order.

[10] I find this to be a fascinating way of putting things.  Assume you live in a just society and the government arrests you.  This implies that you have done something that demonstrates you lack the ability to be self-governed (or self-controlled).  Obviously, I’m not talking about some minor fit here.  For the government to get involved, you must have done something rather egregious, something you should have known not to do, either from Natural Law or the law of the land.  In other words, the government is not primary, you are.  The first-order of government is self-government, and when that has been shown to fail, then those in the position of governmental authority are forced to step in.  Again, this scenario assumes you’re living in a just society.  There obviously have been governments that have abused their authority by persecuting good citizens. Of course, in such cases they do so on the basis of unjust laws that turn good citizens into bad citizens (in their eyes).

[11] 89.  Emphasis is his.

[12] 89-90.

[13] 95.

[14] 95-98.

About Drew Mery

Drew is a husband, father, Reformed Christian, and graduate student in Humanities at American Public University. His favorite past-time, aside from time with family, is reading, especially the Great Books and in the areas of theology, philosophy, education, science, and history. He is a board member of Pietas Classical Christian School in Brevard County. His goals are to earn a PhD and teach at the college level.

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