In the last week, I’ve witnessed an overriding theme develop among conservatives in the analysis of the recent election. From Mark Steyn to Rabbi Pruzansky they see a fundamental shift in the American spirit: Americans have become big babies begging for a nanny state to take care of them. They like free stuff and will surrender liberties and common sense to get it. In essence, Americans will stop making their own decisions in exchange for a nice big lollipop. This realization has driven conservatives to despair. Their advice varies from running away from home to disowning the nanny to just grinning and bearing it until it gets so bad the nanny begins hitting the crack pipe even harder and the other babies realize they need to get their own acts together.
These are not hopeful visions.
Underlying the despair is a simple economic argument: when people get free stuff they don’t just give up their liberties, they tend to stop producing. Economies collapse when you eliminate the negative incentives of not working. And this phenomenon can lead to the decline of the military and political power of the United States. Our vision of the City upon the Hill will be erased.
And the world will suffer.
But why isn’t free stuff good? Isn’t this our vision of the Garden of Eden: mankind living without any work required, trees ripe for the picking whenever the desire appears? Heck, I think G-d even provided healthcare. Talk about single payer!
So what’s wrong with this vision?
Haven’t modern leftists simply replaced the Nanny God of past imaginings with the Nanny State of future theory? Haven’t they simply constructed a new city upon the same hill? And if the nanny state could be tuned to work economically, what would be wrong with it?
To put it another way, Man and woman were happy in the Garden of Eden. They were kickin’ back in the original nudist colony. Love was free. All was well. And then G-d sent along the snake and they learned about Good and Evil and life began to suck.
Whether or not you believe G-d wrote the Bible, you have to ask: why would G-d do that?
Disney knows the answer. ‘kahuna matata’ isn’t a fulfilling way of life. If people don’t create – if they don’t produce – moral rot sets in. And, in Genesis, G-d sees this. G-d uses the word ‘good’ to assess his own creations; He creates the plants and sees they are good. But man stands out. He is the first of the creations G-d does not see as good. Why? Because man was created in the image of G-d – and for man goodness is not in his creation itself but in what he himself creates.
So, G-d, adds Eve. But even that isn’t enough. Man still isn’t creating So he adds the snake to the mix and breaks down the garden.
How does the snake help?
It was clearly necessary for Adam and Eve to experience risk before they’d be productive. He needed to experience evil – which is the absence of divine and risk free peace – before he could be pushed into creating the good. Prior to that, man was like a large child, using his eyes and his nose to guide him towards pleasure – a false good. According to some Jewish traditions, the forbidden fruit was an Etrog. It looks beautiful. It smells beautiful. And if you are guided by your eyes and nose, you would want to eat it. But it tastes awful. In the Garden, it revealed the shallowness of our base desires.
And that, not economic risk, is the fundamental problem with the modern nanny state. We are trying to recreate the Garden of Eden – a world without risk. But we haven’t addressed the fundamental issue – that most people become children, thoughtlessly chasing pleasure and nothing more satisfying, when things are too easy. It is an underlying cause of our sexual culture. We don’t build families on shared purpose and physically reinforced love. We just [expletive].
The fact is, at some point those who pursue pleasure open their eyes and realize that what looked good, smelt good and felt good left them empty and depressed. It distances them from peace just as Eve’s choice distanced her from G-d.
The Bible sees this and in the Garden is presents our fundamental and continuing moral weakness; we need evil to create good.
But that is not the ideal.
The ideal is a world without risk, but one in which we create nonetheless. The ideal is a garden where everybody has healthcare and a worry free life – but continues to add to the world nonetheless. The ideal is a garden where, on a regular basis, people stop producing to celebrate family and community – and thus add meaning and value to the labors of the period passed. As a religious Jew, I would say that the ideal is a week in which we work, and a Sabbath on which we rest with the divine; thus making creations out of the labor just accomplished.
This is an image which (while the terminology might change) classical liberals and modern liberals and fascists and communists can all share.
What we don’t share is how to get there.
Classical liberals emphasize reinforcing the avenues of the good – so all will be spurned to create more and innovate more and find ways to reduce the experience of evil. They emphasize the work week before the Sabbath.
Modern liberals emphasize eliminating evil (risk) by sharing resources – and hope mankind will be creative and productive due to a community spirit or (for the recalcitrant) government coercion. They emphasize the Sabbath before the work week.
We can see this dichotomy in healthcare. Classical liberals emphasize innovation driven by market-based models. This will create cheaper healthcare and new technologies to serve people better. But some will be left out in the cold and will not experience peace. Modern liberals emphasize universal coverage. There will be less innovation and more cost/unit of care delivered. But the evil of not helping those with therapies that are available to some will be eliminated. And modern liberals hope innovation will occur even without profit incentives for revolutionary technologies.
In reality, neither party gets what it wants. We have a system that rewards better outcomes but because it is not market-based, new technologies do not compete on price. And we’re getting a system that will result in rationing and a major reduction in innovation – so all will experience more evil. But that evil will be hidden because we can’t see innovations that haven’t occurred.
We have neither creation nor rest.
Of the two paths, I see far more promise in the classical liberal one. Our standard of living is far higher that it has even been in human history – and a major driver of that is innovation and creation. We don’t want to hamper those forces in the name of a premature Eden.
But I don’t see Eden at the end of the classical liberal road. I just see a never-ending road with ever improving creations and ever improving quality of life – and the constant necessity of risk for those who can’t or won’t get on the path of creation. Many free market conservatives people give an unusually high proportion of their income to charity. But even while doing so, they understand that when this charity becomes a handout rather than a hand-up, its character changes. Instead of reducing risk (evil), it can undermine the creative goodness of the receivers.
In the world as it works, with people who react to prosperity as we do, we cannot conceive of a risk-free Garden in which mankind produces.
But despite this, I do not despair.
There is a way back to the Garden, as it should have been not as it was.
This way involves one very challenging task – getting people to create when they don’t need to.
And that is the clarion call of this election.
We have ample evidence of what doesn’t work in trying to make creators of those who don’t need to be producers.
Communism and the New Man don’t work – the human spirit can’t be badgered into a new form.
Prayer and religious devotion – by themselves – don’t work. We had a personal relationship with G-d in the Garden – and it wasn’t enough.
Taking away the rewards of creation in a spirit of fairness or universal equality doesn’t work. The experience of the good doesn’t exist if somebody can’t claim some ownership of their own work. And yes, deciding to gift the product of one’s labors – or accepting payment for those labors – is ownership. Any society that does not allow ownership is a slave society. Slaves in the American south were far better fed than Ukrainian peasants, but it made them no more free.
So what does work?
The American example is the closest we’ve come to encouraging creation even when risks were reduced. The low-regulation and low-tax example – combined with a social safety net and massive charitable giving – produced many people who would work and produce even while at peace. But we still needed the risk – the risk of falling off the path of productive employment.
But because that risk was not sustained, our example has been derailed. The safety net has become a way of life, and more and more people have been lulled out of their creative drive. Recent attempts to combat risk have focused not on providing the poor with temporary food help or medical care – but on issues like reducing the risk of fertilization. In other words, we have once again become adolescents primarily motivated by the opportunity for sex.
As it stands, the American example is now in the process of collapsing in on itself.
So how do we proceed?
The solutions are more fundamental than government. The solutions lay in the development of human goodness. And that is a process not of mass media, coercive power or shouting – but of daily rigorous self and civil improvement.
And we know it can work.
Our example is William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a man who had everything – wealth and a best friend who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the age of 24. And yet, he both spread productivity and fought evil. He is primarily known for playing a major role in ending the slave trade throughout the British Empire – thus eliminating a major source of evil and opening up the opportunity for productive lives to millions of Africans.
But he did something perhaps even more remarkable. He reformed English society.
We like to laugh at the Victorian Age and its hypocrisy. However, England before Wilberforce was far worse off than the United States today. In Wilberforce’s day, 25% of single women in London were prostitutes and poverty and vice were rampant. Britain was an old empire by then (after all it had been 200 years since Queen Elizabeth had sunk the Spanish Armada). And Britain was socially unraveling.
Wilberforce reformed this society. Not all of his efforts were laudable or successful. For example, he tried coercive vice laws but they were no more effective in creating better people than was communism under Lenin. But he tried something else as well; education. And this education was not just skills training or political training, but a concerted effort “to train up the lower classes to habits of industry and virtue.”
In other words, he used education to encourage industrious behavior (which creates good) and virtue (which mitigates risk). Virtue, of course, includes both the personal mitigation of risk (like avoiding drink) and the mitigating of other’s risks by giving support and charity in times of need.
Over time, many in the upper classes took it upon themselves not just to employ servants, but to look in on and safeguard their moral development. We like to mock this – after all it is a major conceit to assume the lady of the house was in some way better than her maid – but it produced results. Perhaps the lady of the house was improved by trying to make a positive example of herself. And perhaps her involvement in the salvation of her servants enabled her to occasionally see their humanity and share in it. After all, even in the presence of hypocrisy, there is merit and value in attempting to live up to higher ideals.
As we look ahead, we should look back to this example. While we may be laughed at by the cool kids, it is indeed incumbent upon us to reinforce the lessons of industry and virtue.
In our personal development, and in our interactions with others, we should do everything we can to introduce those mired in the drunken and false pleasure of the subsidized life, to the far more fundamental pleasures of the act of creation and the experience of Sabbaths built upon one’s own labors. And we should honor those who achieve – even imperfectly – those goals.
This is an exercise in charity, in conversation, in education and in self-development.
Yes, politics are important, but the fundamental solutions to our nation’s challenges lay closer at hand.
People are meant for something greater than the pursuit of that which is looks and smells good from a distance.
We are meant to have lives that are fulfilling even as they are filled with true peace.
And whether those on the left or those on right lead our country, our obligations to pursue and share this vision remain the same.
May you be blessed in your endeavors,