Rules for Stickball and a Self-Governing Society

By Monty Lobb, Professor of Government and Dean, OCU School of Business and Government;

Program Director, Government and Public Service; Senior Fellow, Center for Faith & Liberty


Recently I heard Father Robert Sirico, President of the Acton Institute, share a childhood story about growing up in Brooklyn at a time when the game of stickball was prevalent. He set the stage of twelve rambunctious boys playing their beloved game in the urban streets during the early 1960‘s with a matronly woman, Mrs. Rabinowitz, sitting on her front stoop keeping an eye over the proceedings. From Sirico’s recollection, all it took was a look or quick comment to one of the boys acting up to restore order to the game and community.


At this point in his talk Sirico made his ultimate point: Mrs. Rabinowitz’s influence brought governance without government. Let that sink in for a minute. How many times have you or I seen a situation where the knee-jerk reaction is to involve the government to solve a problem within our society, community, or neighborhood as opposed to at least initially seeing whether the actual participants or key stakeholders can police themselves or manage the situation? How has the “war on poverty” worked for those in poverty over the past four decades? How has American foreign policy worked, especially in the Middle East, when it has come to “nation building?” I contend, “not very well” in these and other examples of intervention. Sirico and his fellow stickballers respected Mrs. Rabinowitz because she was a member of the tribe. She was one of them and the boys knew and respected that. The government at any level is never a family member or neighbor. It hardly ever understands the complexities and personalities involved, and, as a result, never gains the respect or trust of the interested parties.


Another dynamic is also involved in the stickball scenario. Sirico suggested compliance, what the boys did when Mrs. Rabinowitz called them out by name, can be either internal or external. If we had our druthers, wouldn’t we all want to control and alter our own behavior based on our conscience instead of a myriad of government agencies sanctioning, policing, punishing or regulating our behavior? Obviously, the case can be made for the government to reach into our daily lives when a small segment of our population will never apply internal constraints, and thus, poorly affect a good many of their fellow citizens. This role of governments is legitimate and necessary. Father Sirico remarked that his same neighborhood today would probably need squad cars instead of Mrs. Rabinowitz to govern the conduct of the current generation.


Yet, even though over time we occasionally witness change in the mores of a culture, some things remain constant. One of those constants is the need for liberty in any civilized society. Liberty is at the heart of internal constraint. No nation, no society can exist, let alone thrive, if liberty is not sacredly guarded as an indispensable right of the people. Our Founding Fathers understood this principle well. They knew that any nation predicating its existence on self-government must carefully guard the practice of liberty. Lord Acton captured the essence of liberty when he stated, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought.” That sure sounds like those adolescent stickballers responding to a member of the community, Mrs. Rabinowitz’s request for internal constraint.


When Thomas Jefferson and his Committee of Five of the Second Continental Congress presented the Declaration of Independence for adoption, they fully understood that liberty was not a contrivance of imperfect human government but of the Creator of the Universe. Because rights like liberty, which includes religious liberty, life itself, and the pursuit of happiness are gifts from God and not mankind, these rights can never be deprived or taken by the government from the individual. Because the nature of the God of Nature is one of benevolence, creativity, and joy to see his human creatures flourish, his laws of nature, or natural law as we view it today, are unconditional gifts meant for our societal ordering and security. These unalienable rights are perfect for those who seek governance without government, internal instead of external constraint. Internal governance is always the preferred path to community wholeness. Just ask those who benefit from the personal presence of today’s Mrs. Rabinowitzes.


Coda: OCU students who commit to changing the world need an accurate Christian worldview, especially relative to government. My video series, Enduring Principles, invites viewers to understand how many of this nation’s democratic-republic underpinnings are being stripped away and how students may contend for intellectual truth in the church, marketplace, and public square.

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