Saturday, July 16, 2011

Am I my Brother's Keeper?

I would say that two worldviews currently dominate our public discourse about political economics in these United States. One holds it is the responsibility of Government to ensure that people have jobs and that their basic needs are met. The other holds that an unfettered Free Market will provide sufficient employment (and other means of livelihood), thereby ensuring that people can take care of their own needs.

As divergent as they might first appear, they have much in common. Both assign responsibility to abstractions. Both relegate human behavior to the realm of mechanics. Both trivialize (or worse, ignore) issues of scale in human relationships. One usually demands more taxes (albeit from someone else) while the other invariably demands fewer, but neither demands much else in the way of citizenship. The difference between “The Government is my brother’s keeper” and “The Market is my brother’s keeper” pales to insignificance when compared to “I am my brother’s keeper”. Our tendencies to outsource responsibility are staggering.

One might think the tremendous political turmoil which has seized us in Wisconsin would have shifted our public debate beyond these two worldviews, but thus far I see little evidence of it. The sustainability and Transition movements are still “fringe” – and perhaps for good reason, given how new and as-yet ill-defined they are. Most on the left, many in the center, and an astonishing number on the right instinctively reject traditional religious prescriptions for the public realm. One might be forgiven for concluding that Ayn Rand and Paul Krugman span the entirety of economic philosophy.

As for me, I find myself returning to the words of Edmund Burke, which I will paraphrase here:

“We are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to our disposition to put moral chains upon our own appetites…it is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Our passions forge our fetters.”