Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Common good and the fate of the United States

A friend and I have been discussing the application of the constitution in this day of unprecedented spending on bail-outs and entitlements.   We share a deep concern about the socialist nature of the changes we are seeing in today’s government.   During this discussion, the following statement was made:

When we can no longer come together as a people for the common good, then we’ll see the [societal and political fragmentation] happen in our time.

This led to the question:  What is “the common good?”  Indeed, this is probably the crux of the issue with government today.  To what end can and should the government act to promote a common environment of good circumstances that allow the people to grow and thrive and pursue happiness?  To investigate the answer to this question,  I went through the follow exercise, starting with first principles drawn from the scriptures:

1 Cor 12:  25 That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.

  26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.

The perfect, unified society, as Paul describes it here, is attuned to all of its members.  Everyone is different, but they are all equal and treated equally.  I think every utopian thinker understands this principle at face value:  A great society is marked by unity of spirit such that the poor are tended to through the ministrations of the rich and fortunate.    You and I also understand this principle, though often it manifests itself as a built-in uneasiness about inequity-   When we see someone consuming conspicuously, we have a natural instinct to know that something isn’t right about that.   Similarly, when we see the people living destitute in extreme poverty while others are quite comfortable and well-off, we feel that something is wrong with that picture.  We know inside that things ought to be as Paul said.  There should be no rich, no poor, but we should share alike in our material blessings.

Now, let me state something as a postulate:  The end goal of socialist and communist societies is the picture Paul was painting for the Corinthians.   Corruption aside, people who support socialist agendas want a peaceful, equal society where there aren’t any rich or poor.   I will use the above observations to talk about the common good and what it might mean.

Given these aims of establishing equity for poor and downtrodden, people have come to understand “common good” as “MY good”.  Here’s how that happens:  If the whole body is supposed to suffer at the pain of a single member, then *my* suffering ought to motivate the body to meet *my* needs.    From the side of the wealthy, there is also thought that has a similar dilution of responsibility.  The well-off want to remain well-off so they insist on diluting the charity across the society to minimize their personal contribution.   To them, the “common good” is a “common donation” of a small amount to appease the few complaining disadvantaged.  The net result is that  generally, everyone is looking after their self interests by placing a “common burden” on the whole society.

Jesus spoke against this selfish type of thinking and proposed and antidote:

Matt 10: 39 He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.

Basically, the Savior is saying that a society that is “pull” based- one where people pull resources from others to meet their self-interest- is a society that will fail (we lose our lives in trying to find them).   According to Jesus, it just isn’t possible to run a successful society this way.  Ironically, non-intuitively, if a person puts aside their self-interests entirely (loss of self) they will discover the happiness that they are pursuing.   (Interesting that the declaration of independence mentions the “pursuit of happiness”)

For a society to work, it must be “push” based-  one where people with resources, of their own choice decide to relieve the suffering of others.   The key issue here is agency.   The difference between socialism and the Christian united order is free will.    If we create a society that forcibly takes from the body to meet the needs of some, then we severely tilt the table towards a philosophy of “my problem is someone else’s responsibility.”    The ultimate result of this is a society that dies (he that findeth his life shall lose it).  

There is a risk here, and this risk has always troubled those who choose the path of top-down totalitarian rule.  The risk is that if people can choose for themselves, they might make the wrong choice.   Indeed, they often do, which is what prompts well-meaning people to take away the choice and make goodness mandatory.  As I have shown, however, this action of force tilts the table toward selfish thinking that is counterproductive and ultimately destructive.    But the only way good can really come to fruiting is if the fetters are removed and people are free to act for themselves.  It requires an act of faith by the leadership to allow this.

So “common good” in a deep, eternal sense, is the necessary starting position of significant personal liberty.   Donations to the poor mean nothing if I cannot also choose to hold on to every penny I can (legally) scrape together.    This idea is reflected in the original purposes of our government:

·         Establish Justice

·         Insure domestic Tranquility

·         Provide for the common defence

·         Promote the general welfare

·         Secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity

Personal freedom to make good choices is critical.   It turns out that this is true in all other walks of life- work, marriage, friendships, etc.  There are wonderful psychology experiments to show that the ability to choose and control ones fate makes all the difference in our feelings and performance.  Even though the outcomes may be the same, if a person feels they have control of the situation, they tend to thrive.   

If there is any single phrase to describe what is happening in our country today, I doubt I could find a better one than “out of control.”    I don’t know anyone who feels like we have a real avenue to reign in the government or to make a difference in any meaningful way.  There is a feeling of riding a vehicle that is careening out of control as congress continues to pass titanic spending measures to bail out failed institutions and establish expansive entitlement programs.  We are increasingly giving up our freedoms as we seek insurance of protection against everything from terrorists to coffee spills.   Heck, we can’t even smile for our driver’s license pictures any more.  What is there to do?   

I suspect the reason that we don’t jump up and do something big about it is that the gravity of the situation has not hit us in any meaningful, physical way.   Like the people in the early stages of the sinking Titanic, there is an eerie normality to what is going on.  People are saying “the ship is sinking” and maybe the ship is listing to port a little, but the lights are on, we’re comfortable and dry, and there are still some empty life boats.   

So beware everyone.  Our current course as a nation is not good and the signs are pointing to significant loss of liberty and an eventual collapse of society.  Our efforts to find our own life as a nation will eventually cause us to lose it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Better Living Through Sound Isolation

A few weeks ago, I accidentally cut the wire on the headphones for my Zune and today I finally got around to replacing them. I dropped by Fred Meyer on the way to work and browsed the headphone section and noticed that almost all the headphone models sport an “in ear isolation design” that is basically a soft rubber insert that seals off the ear. A friend of mine had something similar years ago and swore by them. The difference was that his pair was hundreds of dollars and I managed to find a pair for only 8 bucks! (Coby CVE31’s if you care to know).

The isolation was so good that I did not notice that I had left the radio on for several minutes after I started listening to my Zune. Normally, I have to turn the volume all the way up to 20 while freeway driving, but during this commute, I was able to turn it down to 11 (!) and it was still plenty loud enough for the road.

Well, the reason I am writing this post is that the sound isolation had a transformative effect on my commute, which was totally unexpected. The ride felt much smoother and my mind felt alert. It was very easy to listen to music and spoken word with little distraction, yet I still felt like I was paying attention to the road. It was like I had a new brain and a new car all for the cost of a lunch! How sweet is that?