Charity & Mercy (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)
This is a repost of an editorial I did a couple years ago on the Missouri Record.
Human culture is a complex thing. What is it that a culture believes? How do those beliefs affect how a culture acts? What does a community consider morally laudable? All of these questions are hard to answer, but they are important. They are hard to answer because the underlying principles are assumed and the underlying principles are presumed to be unassailable. They are important to answer if we are to make accurate judgments about ourselves as a nation and a culture. C. S. Lewis once wrote in regard to reading old books,
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. . . . . None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. . . . . Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
Introduction to On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius.
In the twenty-first century we are especially susceptible to a characteristic blindness since we are bound to a popular media culture. We are trained in the government school system. We are trained to think by that system and reinforced in our thinking by television and other media. What old books?
I was recently at a conference exploring the implementation of what is called the “Smart Grid.” The Smart Grid, for those who do not know, is a vision of the future operation of the electric utility system which permits two way power flow and communication between customers and their electric company. The idea is based on providing a customer with enough information on how his home is using power so that he can at any point in time adjust his own electric usage and/or his power storage facilities, such as an electric car, in response to a time-of-use price. One of the participants suggested that what we must do as a culture is teach our children in the government school system of the value of the smart grid. He observed that all of us have been greatly affected by our instruction in the government school on smoking, the environment and many other issues. The speaker captured a valuable observation. How many of the foundational principles we now hold as true and unassailable came from our formative years in school? And how easy is it to challenge those foundational principles today?
This principle is a truth about creation: culture is a characteristic of the succession from one generation to the next. The principle is inescapable because it is in the very fabric of creation. Consider the Ten Commandments, particularly the fourth and fifth.
8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
It is amazing to read these two commandments together to see the way they work together. Several things are worthy of note for these two commandments. First, they are the only two of the ten that are positive in nature and not prohibitions. Second, they are reciprocal in nature. The older commandment is to “remember” for the sake of the younger generation, and the younger is to obey the older generation as they remember. Third, these things are to be done because this is the way that God created the world. Fourth, blessings follow to the next generation based on how faithfully the commands are obeyed. It could almost be said that these two are more than commands; they are primary laws of moral physics. The younger generation will be affected by the conduct and policies established by the older generation. The older generation by its conduct will create the blind spots that Lewis wrote about for the younger generation.
Lewis observed that it is impossible to read future books, and his observation is true. However, I would like to engage in a thought experiment regarding the culture we are creating for our children in the area of health care. What will health care mean to our children with the passage of socialized medicine by the federal government?
To begin this thought experiment, we must first recognize that there are three institutions on earth which exercise binding authority over the individual: the civil magistrate, the family and the church. The first acts by the exercise of law, i.e. obligation. The latter two act by the exercise of love.
With the formation of this country, charity, the help for the poor and needy, was left to the church and family. Therefore, charity was left to the compassion of individuals within the family and the church. We can argue about how well charity was done by each. I would argue that it was generally done well. But my point is that regardless of how it was done, it was left to the voluntary love commitment of those two communities.
In this situation charity and compassion are morally laudable. We all react positively to a story in which someone gives selflessly to someone who is in need. A specific example is the Pujols Family Foundation. Another example is what the Keane Charitable Group is doing through the Haiti Orphan Project. Go to either pujolsfamilyfoundation.org or www.facebook.com/thehaitiorphanproject and see if you are not moved by what these two organizations are doing in our world. Again, the Bible says a lot. The book of Deuteronomy says that you will be blessed to the extent you give to the poor and needy. Here, again, Deuteronomy is expressing a principle of moral physics. There will be consequences for the next generation depending on how this generation acts. Compassion is praised and exalted as laudable.
What we are doing by imposing government on the healthcare system is radically changing care, compassion and charity in this nation. Allow me to return to an observation regarding how government acts. The government acts by law. It can do no other. Statutes, rules and regulations are the means of communication of government, and such communications bind the government in how it acts. The government exists in order to execute justice, to punish evil doers and reward doers of good. The only remaining question for the government is whether it does this function properly and well.
Once a government enters an arena of society with law, conduct in conformance with the law ceases to become morally laudable and becomes obligation. Is it morally laudable to recycle or give to the food stamp program or the social security system? No, it is simply required. With these obligations, there are also concomitant rights. Certain individuals have the right to food stamps and social security. Compassion and charity are replaced with litigation and regulation. Is this what we want to teach our children, to be devoid of a sense of moral judgment regarding how we take care of the poor and needy and, instead, to teach them that everything is defined by right, obligation and litigation?
But there is more. Government only provides what it takes from some to give to others. Government cannot by law create wealth. It only acts by law. Therefore, the government must take through taxes everything it needs to provide healthcare. I recently took a trip to New Orleans to help in the cleanup after hurricane Katrina. As I was working to rehab a house, I thought to myself, how could government do this any better? I was paying my own way, providing my own meals and lodging and contributing my labor and some of the materials. If government were to do this, it would have to tax me in order to pay for government administration of the program. The government could only act after the right paper work was filled out. And by taxing me, the government would have destroyed my ability to aid the people of New Orleans. It would have prevented me from being a blessing to them as Deuteronomy encourages.
I do not want America to become a place where morally laudable acts are made legal obligations. I do not want my children to have a blind spot in which they do not recognize the laudable nature of a kind heart. Yes, our present system has problems, but those problems proceed from the blind spots we already have due to the present intrusion of law into the healthcare industry. In order to see this, we must try to remedy those blind spots and return true compassion to our healthcare industry rather than expanding the blind spot with more government obligation. One way we can do this now is vote for the Missouri Healthcare Freedom Act. One way we can continue to do it in the future is to reduce government involvement in areas of charity and compassion.