Monday, September 5, 2011

good heavens

In a recent post, I speculated on reasons why political conservatism and a strong Christian faith seem to go hand in hand [esp in the U.S.].

· Freedom of religion means governments should not be deciding what is right or wrong, for that is the Lord's job; 
· Fundamentalists resent paying taxes to a government full of godless people; 
· Fundamentalists resent subsidising godless lifestyles [e.g. supporting single mums and therefore encouraging careless promiscuity]; 

Big Dog's comments on my posts are always enjoyable, because they "keep my brain on its toes". In response, this post expands on my original lists in an attempt to discuss some of Bid Dog's curliest questions. [Though I must warn I can only hope I am not misrepresenting him with my cutting and pasting or paraphrasing of his comments.]

If people with strong religious values would like us to obey Christian laws, e.g. against prostitution, is there some contradiction between wanting to impose rules yet wanting government to be small?
How does a fundamentalist choose between using [expanding?] government to enforce god’s law, and shrinking government to prevent people breaking god’s law?
Must they choose? Can't they do both?

Let’s get some clues about where to start, by looking at a part of the AUSTRALIAN TEA PARTY manifesto [in Oz they call themselves a party but claim to have no plans to register as a party]

  • "What should be the role of the government in the economy, what should be the role of government in people’s lives and do you believe that you can spend your money better than government?"
  • The T.E.A. Party in Australia announces on its website that it is a "worldwide movement united for free markets, fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited small governments and individual freedom".
As Shakespeare said somewhere in some play I’ve never read, “The Devil cites scripture for his purpose": There is usually some apposite little comment in the bible that will support whatever argument we support.
The last point on the TEA PARTY agenda, “individual freedom”, is one clue. 
The story of Adam and Eve tells us that we all have free will. We cannot exercise free will and EARN heaven if the government overlegislates every aspect of our lives. 
If somebody commits murder we can do the eye for an eye thing then, but give us a chance to do the right thing first, for goodness’ sake.

Constitutionally limited small government is another interesting ideal. As the Australian Constitution is a waste of paper, let’s look at the U.S., where it appears a greater number of people are likely to be both fundamentalist Christians, and aligned with the right, and where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence seem widely respected.

The U.S. constitution was designed with “this is a chance to build a unique and brave new world” in mind. America initially attracted a lot of migrants who were fleeing religious persecution. Freedom of religion is one of America’s great promises. Anything that limits or interferes with freedom of religion is a breach of that promise.
“I am the Lord your God…You shall have no other Gods before me.” To those who, historically, felt freedom of religion was important, this went hand in hand with the idea of the primacy of religion over government.
What the TEA party and their fellow travellers want is as little government as possible. ANY law that goes against god’s law is a bad law.

The list of laws that might be deemed to work against god’s laws is almost endless. 
  • Social welfare for single parents, drug rehabilitation programs that coddle rather than punish, funding for schools that teach such heretical ideas as evolution, or that it is okay to be gay. Equal opportunity laws that preach tolerance of the intolerable. Laws that allow abortion or prostitution. Laws that stop children from participating in Nativity plays at school.
So several problems present themselves:
As Big Dog notes, drawing a line and deciding, for example, how many cells constitute a human life is a big problem. Line drawing is an ongoing task in most areas of life.

At this point, maybe the bible and the US constitution have a lot in common. They are both widely revered documents, with one meant to complement the other. Apparently there are several ways of interpreting the constitution/declaration of independence etc:
· Limited Strictly by Text
· Limited by Original Context/presumed intent
· Interpreted through contemporary eyes

  • “Every man has the right to bear arms” – suits the gun-totin’ lobby just fine the way it is.
  • “Every man has the right to bear arms” – the British government has no right to oppress us and we have the right to have our own army and fight back against tyranny. This does not necessarily apply in other contexts, or mean every pioneer has the right to carry a rifle.
  • Well, in its original context the right to bear arms is appropriate. If the founding fathers were alive today what would they think about the right to bear arms? Would they approve of us allowing crack dealers to carry automatic weapons? In this post 9/11 age does this mean I have the right to build an explosive device in my kitchen and carry it around in a back pack?
I guess for the right, the best and most tolerable laws are those that meet the TEXT of constitution test AND agree with the bible – those that fail both are probably not acceptable.
To return to this ideal would require the undoing of a great deal of government.

The answer to the ‘how many cells make a life’ question could probably be best served by something similar to the Pope’s approach [aka the ostrich approach]. 
  • It doesn’t matter if millions of innocent partners or children are being infected by HIV in Africa, I can’t approve the use of condoms because people should not be bonking in the first place. 
[Tho I do believe this proscription has been softened in the last few years]. [Against condoms, that is, not extra marital bonking.]

Yes, the religious right will want to pass laws outlawing sinful behaviour. Some government is unavoidable:
  • They brought the coin, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. [Matt:]  He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." [Luke]
If there must be government, then some kind of cost/benefit analysis or statement of changes in moral position will help people decide how much government is too much or too little. A hypothetical platform might be:
  • Repeal 4,321 laws which tolerate or encourage sin
  • Impose 3 laws to prevent or punish sin
  • Obviously we are better off with 4,318 reductions in the size of government
Certainly, not all religious people are conservative. Charity is important to some religions.
The Catholic version goes something like this:
  • The seven practices of charity toward our neighbor, based on Christ’s prophecy of the Last Judgment, that will determine each person’s final destiny:
  • 1. Feed the hungry
  • 2. Give drink to the thirsty
  • 3. Clothe the naked
  • 4. Shelter the homeless
  • 5. Visit the sick
  • 6. Visit those in prison
  • 7. Bury the dead
  • Mt 25:34 “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ’Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ’Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?’ And the king will answer them, ’Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me.’”
The Jewish version. Bearing in mind that my understanding of Judaism is limited, I shall simply offer the following:
  • The secondary meaning of Mitzvah refers to a moral deed performed as a religious duty. As such, the term mitzvah has also come to express an act of human kindness.
  • Charity is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Some religions like their members to make payments via their church organisations, some hope their members will do things voluntarily within their community [without necessarily expecting thanks or attention], and some followers will expect their government to take care of the needy on their behalf [accepting that this will take tax money].

Some religious people will have a conservative approach to charity. Rather than have their taxes chewed up in administration costs, or their donations distributed to unworthy recipients, they would prefer lower taxes that allow them to make their own personal arrangements for good works.

Holding a religious position - especially with respect to good works - is not necessarily either conservative or pro government intervention. Perhaps some people start from a position of conservatism first then use religion second to justify conservatism. Others might feel unable to achieve much on their own, and start with government first then use religion second as a way of determining the priorities of their preferred larger government size.
Some people – including religious people – are very big on using what is natural as a benchmark of what god wants. 
This 'nature as a benchmark' approach reaches its silliest when we think about a female black widow spider which kills the male immediately after mating, or claims that all animals are strictly heterosexual [not true]. 

Ignoring some of these aberrations from god’s tendency to make everything tickity-boo, some will believe – as Smith did – that if god designed a natural system that works then it must be good. God’s invisible hand is at work behind free market economics, so governments should interfere as little as possible and let god get on with it.
Whatever one's political position, the great thing about supporting an argument by using a reference to god is that religion is about faith and faith is, by definition, a belief in something which cannot be proven or disproven. Sort of makes some ideas difficult to respond to with logic.
Two more of my guesses about the conservative/religious tie were
· Communism means even more government than capitalism does - tsk tsk tsk; 
· The Russian model of Communism, as practised in the 20th Century, was not just godless but brutal - it also left people without basic, day to day goods and services; 

Big Dog says: "I have always assumed that the left likes to tell people what to do and meddle in their lives and so needs an army of people to do that. Religious folk have a propensity to be do gooders as well so they should really be the big government lot shouldn’t they?" 
The trouble is, all meddling is risky because it creates the sort of situation in which meddling can easily go wrong. [Though  a belief in divine retribution or even karma might be viewed by some as one of those checks and balances we love to talk about.]

At the risk of sounding obtuse, there are some differences between communism and socialism, and my previously sloppy thinking just bypassed socialism altogether. I found some interesting definitions which might help:
Socialism is an economic system, i.e. capitalism with a [theoretically] more equitable distribution of what is produced. 
A recent Australian example would be our government's recent decision to use tax money to pay for every pensioner to have a TV set which could receive new-fangled digital broadcasts so the next time there is a bushfire or flood crisis, they are not left without important information.

Communism, on the other hand, is very much a political system. 
Old fossils [like me] might not have lived through the Crimean War World War II but would be well aware of Government having taken control of the production and distribution of essential resources and services. In war-time, governments ration food, or shut down some industries and expand others, or re-direct people to work in essential industries. These are severe but temporary measures which interfere with the operation of [free market] capitalism. 

Communism, as it developed in the Soviet Union, started with the commendable ideal of redistributing land from the uber-rich to those still effectively living as medieval serfs. Of all the Soviet critters who abused this ideal, none can hold a candle to Stalin. Millions and millions perished as a result of his policies to implement change but, more importantly, his insatiable paranoid need to consolidate power.
Deciding what to produce and how - which in allied countries was exercised in war time as temporary and limited policy - became the sole province of soviet government. It became, effectively, a dictatorship on a permanent war footing.

In this form, Communism is the greatest argument for capitalism that ever existed. Under the soviet system a central planning committee decided what would be made, by whom, what with, and even allocated some bizarre form of price to everything.

My trusted "Comparative Economic Systems" lecturer [and some written sources] explained the system thus:
The Central Planning Committee [CPC] might decide, for example, that the Soviet Union should produce x,ooo tons [lord knows the real figure] of refrigerators. To achieve this, y,ooo tons of steel must first be planned for and produced, ditto all the other bits and pieces. The total time for a CPC order to work its way down to the factory floor via bureaucracy etc averaged seven years. If there was a problem at the other end of this seven year chain, reports could take a similar time to work their way back up to the top, and the odds of this achieving anything were pretty remote.
In order to meet production targets, workers started producing refrigerators made of ridiculously thick steel, the result being that no normal person could move the jolly things. Similar examples abound.
Now here is an example of Smith's assumption that people are rational in action. Workers satisfied a punitive state by making heavy fridges. Even more rational was the emergence of people at production level whose sole function was to go to other factories at the bottom of this planning chain and sort the problem out amongst themselves at a local level. Fred at the fridge factory might, for example, do a deal exchanging paint with socks produced by factory B which could then be exchanged with nuts and bolts from factory C. A rational response to a ludicrous system.

Ultimately, the system left people without essentials for day to day living, and showed that the free market price-system works because [allowing for some time lags], it provides a quick and sensible way of people deciding amongst themselves what they need and what businesses should consider providing.

This might be an argument for capitalism or free markets, but where does god come into this? One answer is that the soviet system remained intact only through sheer brutality, brainwashing in the education system, terror of the KGB and therefore one's neighbours, friends and family - all of which depended on the elimination or persecution of anything remotely religious.

Scary McLary or what!
  • "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." [Lord Acton]
Where one man's freedom begins, another's must end. In many senses socialism, although an economic system, increases the power of decision makers and therefore the possibility of corruption.
It puts free will, the right to freedom of religion and a whole heap of other desirables at risk.

Marx is credited with having said
  • Religion is the opiate of the masses.
Full Marx - pun intended - go to Carrie Fisher who more recently said
  • I took masses of opiates religiously
[Like many good quotes, Marx's is not used in its original context here, but I rather like the simple version.]

Towanda has written a brilliant post which puts all of this long winded verbiage of mine into a clear and simple perspective.

Following her link to a clip on YouTube led me to heaps more on issues of where our responsibilities and rights in relation to others might sit at a peronal level, where we are dealing with real people and real problems.

What I saw was disturbing and inspiring at the same time. My own emotions are far too close to the surface, but for all that it left me wondering whether my tears were tears of compassion, despair, impotence or rage.

How do we find a reasonable balance between alternative systems of government and economics? Whichever system we must live with at any point in time, perhaps one of our greatest challenges is finding a social equivalent of the soviet system of ignoring the upper levels of power, and just working at a local level to swap paint, socks and nuts and bolts, and getting on with doing what we must for ourselves and each other.
Big Dog has quite rightly zeroed in on an error I have made, perhaps as a result of sloppy thinking or wording.
I should say conservatives do not wait for change, they actively resist it. I think what I intended was to paraphrase the saying that "when the pupil is ready the master will come". For all that conservatives resist change, there are times when change can no longer be resisted.

He also says, rather well I think, 
  • The people who want change are those that feel the system is broken in some respect. 
Let me also quote him out of context
  • The overarching issue I think and included in your commentary on markets is the moral authority of decisions. One answer of course is not to decide globally but leave people to make their own decisions. But that doesn't always work…
More from Big Dog
  • Oh and one last thought on perfect information, if we need consumer protection for buying cars etc how come everyone gets to vote?… 
  • I have heard this referred to as the left wing paradox, smart enough to vote (presumably for a left wing government) but not smart enough to run their own lives.
The only - perhaps inadequate - answer I can come up with is this: Smart enough to attract votes, but not smart enough to run our lives.

It is inevitable that people test their political allegiances against their other - possibly religious - beliefs.
I don't have to be godless to appreciate the many changes Gough Whitlam achieved before his government self imploded - amongst them access to superannuation for the first time to many who would otherwise have had none, no fault divorce, equal opportunity laws to at least endorse the need for tolerance, and equal pay for women. Accordingly, I could never align myself rigidly to the right. 

But seriously, where do we go from here? How do we fill the leadership vacuums we must deal with? Only God knows.
  • Why is it that when we talk to god we are praying, but when god talks to us we are schizophrenic?
Lily Tomlin

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