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At the International AIDS Conference in Bangkok last month, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan questioned the commitment of the United States to fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. His criticisms centered on the failure of the United States, as he sees it, to contribute part of the $15 billion it has earmarked for the fight against AIDS to a UN-administered “superfund.”

“The global fund is ready to go,” said Annan. “If individual governments begin to set up their own initiatives, they start from scratch, it takes longer, the money that they hold will not be spent for a long time.”

The Bush administration has defended its use of the AIDS money, citing national sovereignty and the right to use its own money as it sees fit. The irony should not be lost, however, that the federal government often manifests the same attitude with regard to domestic affairs as the UN does in international affairs. Government administrations often work under the implicit assumption that if government isn't doing the work, then the work isn't getting done.

This is the case with education, as federal funding of schools has continued to balloon under the Bush administration. The Bush campaign touts “historic levels of funding–President Bush's overall Fiscal Year (FY) 2005 budget represents a 49 percent increase for elementary and secondary education since FY2001.”

A sound Christian understanding of the role of the state views government, not as an end in itself, but as a means to serve the common good. The nature of government is penultimate: the good of its citizens should be placed before the good of government's institutional interests.

Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper outlined the proper role of government more than a century ago in his presentation of the idea of “sphere sovereignty.” The state, Kuyper said in his Free University speech of 1880, “must provide for sound interaction among the various spheres ... and keep them within just limits.” But the sovereignty of each sphere (the individual, the family, the church) has an authority of its own, which “descends directly from God” and which the state “does not confer but acknowledges.”

When the federal government makes the de facto claim to be the only valid source of a social good, whether healthcare or education, it oversteps its role as facilitator and arbiter between institutions of civil society, displacing these institutions and tyrannizing their rightful authority. There is all too often a fundamental lack of recognition by governmental officials of the critical role that private citizens and civil institutions play in the well-being of a healthy society. Private institutions and associations have much more freedom to integrate such important matters as faith and learning, and are more directly accountable to parents for the education they provide than governmental schools, which are more tightly bound by court rulings and institutional regulations.

One of the unintended and unfortunate consequences of concentrating power in government bureaucracies is that corruption becomes much more commonplace, since authority has been centralized and consolidated into a single institution. This has most recently been made obvious in the scandal just now coming to light in the UN’s Oil-for-Food program in Iraq. Governmental bureaucracies tend inevitably to monopolize power, placing decision-making authority in the hands of a few officials, who can all too often be turned by bribes or personal greed.

Moreover, governments tend to enlarge over time. What was once the safety net, the last resort of yesteryear, becomes the baseline entitlement of tomorrow. Governments are entirely dependent on the productivity of their populations for their income, and all too often a critical line is crossed where the size and scope of governmental power interferes with the healthy functioning of a society.

The United States is certainly well within its rights to refuse greater participation in an inefficient and bloated international bureaucracy. But by the same token, federal policymakers should more clearly recognize that government doesn't always know best. For the greater good of society, government officials should embrace more fully the critical role of mediating civil institutions.

It is for these reasons that British historian Lord Acton once said, “There are many things the government can't do - many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people. It cannot convert the people.” Both Mr. Annan and Mr. Bush would do well to realize this truth. In doing so, the activities of both their governments and their constituents may well be blessed.

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute where he also serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.