Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Giving Social Values Their Due

Recently Bill O’Reilly, host of O’Reilly Factor, interviewed Britt Hume and Karl Rove on the Republican primary race and the issues that each of the Republican candidates represent. To Hume’s and Rove’s chagrin, to Senator Rick Santorum has brought public attention to issues like contraception, religious freedom, amniocentesis testing and pro-life causes. As you might know, both Hume and Rove are not only Fox News analysts but some would argue that they represent the Republican establishment. And as with any “establishment-types,” they subscribe to their own brand of conventional wisdom, a narrow range of thought, which holds up the economy as the most important issue. On a number of occasions they have suggested that the emphasis on social issues is unbecoming for a presidential candidate.

However, the proposal that economics is more important than social values is like saying the effects are more important than the cause. I would go so far as to say that there is emerging a kind of conservatism that is becoming every bit as materialistic as their liberal counterparts. What many establishment-types fail to reflect on is that the economic crisis of 2008 was man-made. It resulted from a deficit of virtue. The government was eager to promise too much for political reasons and consumers were eager to buy more than what they could afford. Sometimes we forget that the economy is more organic than it is mechanical. Indeed, it is a network of relationships which presupposes a good number of virtues.

For the most part, we assume in our daily transactions that people are good on their word- that they are honest –and that they are guided by the norms of justice. In the absence of these virtues, trust begins to breakdown as it has. And when we no longer trust our neighbor in the free market, consumers naturally turn to the State to redress injustices. In fact, people begin to distrust even themselves.

Pardon the digression, but why is Social Security deemed to be a compassionate service of the government? Why does it give senior citizens (and others) a sense of economic security? Is it not the case that the U.S. government takes a certain portion of “our money” (without us having any say about it) so we can receive it back several years down the road when we retire? We earn no interest on that money. But if we were permitted to invest it, we could earn quite a bit of interest on it. Still, for some reason we believe it to be in our best interest to give a lot of money to the State so that it can give it back at a later time. Unfortunately, it is very probable that my generation will not even see Social Security benefits. Due to the demographic imbalances (the ratio between the elderly and younger tax payers) that are soon to be felt, it simply will not be solvent by the time I retire in 20 years. Have we ever stopped to wonder why it is necessary that the government be the custodian of my retirement funds?

Fewer people are appreciating that today's economic prosperity is feeding off of the social and moral capital from previous generations. But that capital is being spent. With each younger generation, work ethics, valued sacrifice and self-discipline have weakened. Many, if not most, employers see this trend. If we can but understand that the economy is the effect of strong families, a good education and a strong Church, then both political and economic prosperity can be had for the long-term. No doubt, it is the family where self-governance, frugality, stewardship and the virtue of sacrificing immediate wants for long-term interests are fostered.

For those of us who are critical of secular-liberalism it is important to remember the following: Christianity, not conservatism, gave birth to Western civilization or what was once known as Christian civilization. It was from medieval Catholic Europe, that is, from the monastic communities of monks and Renaissance Italy where the free market got its start. It was the Catholic worldview that held that political and economic liberty leads to prosperity.

You probably have heard of Intelligent Design. This is a belief that a Creator, an Intelligence, if you will, had fashioned the order and beauty of the universe. Just the same, Catholics in the first millennium also inferred that there is an "Intelligent Design" of the commonwealth. That is to say, God so apportioned every human being with certain desires, talents and aspirations that if left to their own counsel they would contribute to the greater good of the community. As such, central planning courtesy of a big government was unnecessary. Indeed, when citizens, workers and consumers were free to actualize their God-given potential, everyone benefited from it. Progess was born.

The very idea of progress is Christian. If you take the whole of world history you will find that freedom was the exception, not the rule. Liberty is a stern discipline. When it is exaggerated into license (liberty without limits), then it will be compensated with tyranny. To be sure, this balance of individual freedom with civic order not only produced economic and scientific ingenuity, it was inspired by the Gospel. It was the Gospel of Jesus Christ that instilled the following principles:

• The belief that every person, needy or powerful, was equal before the altar and therefore equal in the public square.

• That we are not to envy and hate political rulers, but rather we are to pray for them.

• That we are to do unto others that we would have them do unto us.

• That we are to do the right thing even when no human being is looking. As believers we know God is always looking.

• That as Christ taught his Apostles, those in authority are not to lord over their subjects.

• That we are to welcome and care for the lowly, that is, children, the infirmed and the poor. And we are to even love those who wrong us.

• That we are to take the plank out of our own eye before we seek to remove the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.

• That we are to be vigilant of using idle words (Jesus says we will pay back every penny), especially as it pertains to the good name of our neighbor.

• And that, if necessary, we are to lay down our life for our brother.

Every single one of these virtues and commands for our Lord makes for a better economic and political environment. These are the principles which made the most prosperous civilization possible. People like Britt Hume and Karl Rove need to know this. After all, if we base our hopes on improving the effects without fixing the cause, if we suffer from the illusion that the economy and the ballot box is where America's restoration lies, then I am afraid we are repeating the same mistakes as the Roman empire and so many other civilizations which died from within.