A question was posed in the last post. Are those who choose to live ‘on the dole’ the problem or simply the result of something else? That is the question we’ll look at this time. Government sets public policy, but as stated previously the primary role of government is the administration of the virtue of justice. That can only happen when those who lead do so out of a sense of service to others. From the book of Mark, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.’ This requires the virtues of humility and righteousness. But these are not enough. Leaders must also be oriented toward their society’s fulfilling its purpose as both individuals and a people. That cannot be found within any form of collectivism as it breeds dependence.
We have as individuals been given the gift of free choice – the ability to make decisions using our free will. This is freedom, and without it we cannot fulfill our purpose. Individualism is the only societal form which supports fulfilling our purpose as it allows us to make our own decisions, subject to the constraint of not harming another – which is the point where human governance comes into play. It is that ability to make our own decisions which allows us to grow and mature – to become better tomorrow than we are today. Collectivism attempts to stifle that ability as many, if not most, decisions are made by the State. Per the Roman general Scipio, in order to be a people there must be both a mutually recognized set of rights, and a mutual commitment to furthering the common good. As collectivism is based upon the recognition of group rights (i.e., some are more equal than others), it is not possible to be a people using Scipio’s definition as the conditions simply do not exist. Perhaps this is why collectivism exhibits strife. It needs an enemy, either external or internal, to use in its attempt to sustain itself.
For a quick example of a collectivist approach, we can continue to look at our War on Poverty. Since its inception in the 1960s, we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars, but there are more in poverty today than before the program began – both in terms of the number of people and percentage of the total population receiving assistance. Additionally, before the War on Poverty, the percentage of people in poverty within America was already decreasing on its own. However, after this program was implemented, that progress slowed, and eventually halted. In some cases we now have third generation families whose primary means of existence is the reliance on government programs. This program is not inculcating independence, but is instead breeding dependence. It is relinquishing one’s rights in return for a form of economic security – and a form of economic slavery as these programs often turn from the safety nets they were intended to be into safety webs, where often there is an adverse incentive to prevent one from leaving, and in fact a person might be economically punished for attempting to become more independent. Notice within individualism that people are the first line in terms of decision making and the state is secondary, only entering the picture when a person or group have failed to consider another’s rights – when someone has put themselves before others. Within collectivism, this is reversed. The State is the primary decision maker, and individuals make decisions where allowed by the State. The State is first and the people exist to serve its perceived needs.
This is what Augustine wrote about in The City of God as a people can only govern themselves where they possess virtue. There are two societies, one oriented toward their Creator and the other toward man. The second society is indicative of one which has turned away from its Creator, and instead has focused on itself. It is man in an autonomous state, which leads to vice. In the end, it is that simple – a matter of virtue and vice. Virtue benefits society, while vice disrupts it – and may even destroy it. At the individual level, paraphrasing Augustine, the dominion of good men is profitable, not so much for themselves as for all of society. But the dominion of bad men primarily hurts themselves, for they destroy their own souls; while those they rule are only hurt by their own vices. For those who practice good all the evils imposed on them by unjust rulers are not punishment, but the test of virtue. Therefore the man of virtue, even if he is a slave, is free; while the man of vice, even if he reigns, is a slave, and not simply the slave of man, but, what is far more hurtful, he is a slave to as many masters as he has vices. This transcends parties. It points to where one’s heart is oriented. Do those who lead put themselves first or those they have chosen to serve?
And what about being a people? This is where Jonathan Edward’s writings enters the picture. Edwards was one of Colonial America’s religious leaders during the First Great Awakening, and one of its most prolific writers. He has been called the last of the Puritans, and his writings often focus on the love that is reflected in acts of charity. The following passages are from his work The State of Public Affairs. Although written over two hundred and seventy five years ago, it could just as well have been written today. In describing the state of the Massachusetts colony society of his day, Edwards opens with a description of two possibilities,
‘The public [common] good here mentioned is a settled, the calamity is an unsettled, state of public affairs. While public affairs are in an unsettled posture, they are continually liable to be shifting and altering; and this a great calamity to the land. But when the public state is settled and prolonged, and remains unshaken and undisturbed, this is a great blessing to any people.’
Edwards states that the cause of this unsettled state of affairs is ‘by a land’s “having many princes” . . . often changing its princes, often changing the persons governing and the forms of government that it is under.’ That the calamity experienced is the result of ‘the state of public affairs of a land being in a changeable posture, whereby a people are exposed to lose their rights, privileges, and public blessing which they enjoy by virtue of the present establishment.’ This calamity arises as its:
‘Rulers are not so deeply engaged in seeking the public good. They don’t act with that strength and resolution, their own circumstances being unsettled and uncertain. And rulers, not being united among themselves, don’t assist and strengthen one another, but rather weaken one another’s hands.
‘Such an unsettled state is commonly attended with abundance of strife and contention, with jealousies [and] envyings. Rulers are divided into parties, and so the whole land with them. The distemper becomes general, so that the devil hereby gets a great advantage to promote his kingdom amongst one to another. And while all are engaged in contention, justice and righteousness is neglected. The suppressing of vice and wickedness is neglected, and they take advantage and prevail without restraint.
‘Rulers, instead of discouraging and suppressing vice, do rather encourage it by their own unchristian behavior in their heats and debates. And commonly at such a time the wealth of a people is greatly wasted and consumed. While a state is unsettled, its strength and wealth consumes, as the health of the body natural under a sore disease.
‘And such an unsettled state, if continued, tends to a people’s ruin. It tends to its ruin from within and from without. The commonwealth is exposed, to become a prey to the ambition and avarice of men in its own bowels, of those that should be its fathers.’
This state of affairs is not the sole result of the rulers themselves, because the rulers are a reflection of the people that they govern. If we do not like what we see, or the path that we are on, then we must change ourselves. Do we watch that next episode of Survivor or Big Brother, or do we turn on a program which educates or enlightens us? Do we become absorbed in video games, or do we spend time with family and friends? Do we help another, or help ourselves? Do we strive to acquire virtue, or do we choose to sink into vice? What we receive is often a reflection of what we’ve chosen. If we want something different, we must change our choices, and do so in a way more aligned with our purpose so that we become better tomorrow. It is a promise that is our hope.