Sunday, January 31, 2010

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Land of the Free and Home of the Brave?


“When a land transgresses, it has many rulers,
but with a man of understanding and knowledge,
its stability will long endure.
” (Pr. 28:2)

On the first of every month a “Dow 30” company, call it “Very Big Conglomerate” (VBC) makes pension payments to tens of thousands of its retirees. One of them goes to me. Much of the payment is used to cover the premium on the retiree medical insurance policy that VBC makes available to Mrs. Presbyter and me.

So VBC, “bless its heart”, is an important one of my “cash cows”.

A condition for supplying that retiree medical insurance policy was that, when I turned 65, I was required to enroll in Medicare, Parts A and B, and, when Mrs. Presbyter turns 65, she will be required to do the same. So VBC has an emphatic interest in government policy towards “senior citizens”: If the government did not supply us with medical insurance, we could cost VBC a lot more.

But this is by no means the end of the VBC interest in government: When I worked for them, our division supplied “process measurement and control” systems to various industries. A purely economic argument can be made in favor of these systems, since more efficient process control saves material and energy. But government imposes extra constraints that also incline industry toward buying these systems, some very defensible (like cleaning up the emissions that once denuded nearby hillsides) and some less so. Among the less defensible constraints will be the one currently being debated to impose very substantial energy taxes under the guise of restricting carbon dioxide emissions. Taxes like these would greatly tilt the economic argument for the systems VBC sells by making savings in energy much more attractive. So we can expect VBC to be all in favor of these taxes (but not for calling them that!) and to issue occasional press releases stressing their corporate concern for polar bears.

So large, intrusive, regulatory government, “bless its heart”, is an important one of VBC’s “cash cows”, and so, once removed, it is one of mine.

It’s at this point that we come to the catalyst for this post, the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down some constraints on issue advocacy by corporate entities. The letters column of our local newspaper has been filled with indignation about this, and the following quotation can be taken as representative: “Who gets to make the laws? Citizens or corporations? Duh!” If this sentiment had any validity, then it would follow that VBC should be elated at the ruling. Is it? I haven’t seen any press releases yet, but I doubt they’re very happy. The sort of activity that the ruling now legitimizes simply isn’t their style, nor that of most other large organizations. Indeed it’s more the style of a number of lesser players in the government-manipulation game that VBC probably would rather see driven out. They’re annoying competition.

This isn’t to say that VBC wouldn’t encourage its employees to form Political Action Committees and give to various candidates that have a reasonable chance of being elected. Of course they do that and have ways of making sure that winning candidates are aware of their sympathy. But their principal means for influencing public policy is surely the same one that other large organizations use: They form relationships - at substantial expense! - with various entities, of which there are hundreds, and which make it their business to form relationships with various government officials and use those relationships to influence policy. These organizations (“lobbyists”) would say that they simply “inform” the officials, but it’s also the case that they provide them with various “perks”, including jobs for the officials’ friends and relatives, and, should the official be constrained (say by losing an election) to leave government, even, after a decent interval, a job for the official himself. None of this was affected in the least by the recent ruling and, even had it been, everyone involved would have quickly figured out how to effect the same sort of results with suitably-adjusted means. None of this is easy. It all costs money, a lot of money, and only organizations like VBC can afford it. And, if the truth were to be told, this state of affairs probably suits them just fine.

A quick reaction to all this might be that, “There ought’a be a law!’ But the awful truth is that laws are a large part of the reason that things are as tangled and opaque as they are. VBC is very well adapted to manipulating government regulation through a process that is itself highly regulated. Indeed, the more regulation of elections and lobbying we have, the better for VBC and so too, to the extent that my welfare depends on VBC, the better for me. It’s a distasteful thought, but “full disclosure” demands it.

Still, it is a distasteful thought and the question rises as to “What can be done about it all?” An obvious answer is “limited government”, since, with less influence to peddle, there’d be less influence peddling. But is this a likely outcome? The verse cited at the top of this post (Pr. 28:2) would seem to indicate that, in a democracy at least, it’s very unlikely, and that “many rulers” is associated with “transgression”. This seems to be consistent with the opinion that Plato ascribes to Socrates in his “Republic” (sections 557 and following). There democracy is described as “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike”. But, Socrates then maintains, the appetites aroused, along with the disorder, lead in the end to tyranny.

Does Scripture lend any support to that picture? Consider the following two verses from Proverbs 29:

“By justice a king builds up the land,
but he who exacts gifts tears it down.”
(Pr. 29:4)

What is true for a king is also true for a democratic electorate, and experience seems to teach us that these have a substantial penchant for “exacting gifts” (or “taxing heavily” - ESV margin). But, surely, we might argue, won’t the electorate’s common sense tend to arrest the destructive process of treating itself to more and more “benefits” that, in the end, lead to ruin and tyranny? At this point, the second verse comes in:

“If a ruler listens to falsehood,
all his officials will be wicked.”
(Pr. 29:12)

Democratic electorates certainly have a history of listening to attractive lies, and a companion history of rule by scoundrels.

I’m purposely painting a gloomy picture here in order to raise the question, “Is the gloom warranted?” Or can we see any signs of hope in Scripture that the country where I live will be, for my grandchildren, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? Or will it be just a tangled web of “cash cows” and those who milk them, sinking into a “soft tyranny” and poverty? And what can - or should! - our churches do about all of this?

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, and everything is deep, deep,and hard to see. Our view of reality is so jejune, profundity rattles us.

    What to make of Socrates and the Athenians? That is a hard question, but it seems that Athenian democracy was politics without a commitment to a standard of morality. The introduction of Christian moral standards was an incredible revolution in the ancient world, something Plato could never have conceived of being possible.

    Gifts: differences between given freely and being exacted. To give freely is a fine exercise in freedom, one of the best exercises available in a democracy.

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