When government provision is expected in all areas of life we begin to neglect our personal obligations to our families and neighbors, says Dylan Pahman, assistant editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. “For the ancient Jews, intergenerational relations were a religious matter,” says Pahman. “The command ‘honor your father and mother’ (cf. Exodus 20:12) served as a bridge between duties to God and duties to neighbors. Our situation today may be quite different than that faced by Jews in the Roman Empire, but our problem is the same: We are missing the mark when it comes to our primary duties to one another.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
A Passion for Government Leads to Neglect of Our Neighbor
by Dylan Pahman
In ancient Palestine, under Roman rule, the Jewish people saw themselves as victims of an oppressive government. Most common folks constantly struggled to make a subsistence level living, on the one hand, and to afford ever increasing bills from tax-collectors on the other. In this setting the Gospel of Luke tells us that John the Baptist came to fulfill the prophecy of Malachi: to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6; cf. Luke 1:17).
For the ancient Jews, intergenerational relations were a religious matter. The command “honor your father and mother” (cf. Exodus 20:12) served as a bridge between duties to God and duties to neighbors. Our situation today may be quite different than that faced by Jews in the Roman Empire, but our problem is the same: We are missing the mark when it comes to our primary duties to one another.
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, John is known as “the Forerunner,” because he came ahead of the Messiah, “to prepare the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). During his ministry, John’s message to everyday people, according to Luke, was remarkably simple: “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” To the tax collector, he warns not to take more than is due, and to the soldier his counsel is “be content with your wages” (cf. Luke 3:10-14). This was “the way of the Lord”?
The preaching of this sensational man was commonsense and ordinary. The picture evoked paints no portrait of revolutionary upheaval, place of privilege, or retreat into the wilderness, as certain Jewish sects—the Zealots, Pharisees, and Essenes, respectively—reacted to the Roman occupation. Instead, John simply called the people back to God and to one another, to the relationships that they had with families and neighbors.
In our own time, Americans live free from both foreign occupation and desperate struggle for survival. Nevertheless, anxiety over our economic health dominates the news. People have lost jobs and homes and, in some cases, even their faith. But to whom do they turn? In the last few weeks, according to a recent Pew Center report, common consensus of public opinion (75 percent or more) leading up to the sequester deadline strongly opposed any cuts, even favoring increased spending in many cases. When down on their luck, Americans have ceased to look to one another — to families, friends, neighborhoods, churches, and other associations — but now look, by and large, primarily to government support in times of crisis.
Not only do these numbers necessarily cut across party lines, but the consensus itself is troubling. InFederalist #50, James Madison observed, “When men exercise their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them. When they are governed by a common passion, their opinions, if they are so to be called, will be the same.” No one fails to realize that we must care for the poor, sick, and elderly among us, but most Americans are blinded by a “common passion” for state-sponsored solutions, forgetting whose responsibility care for the needy ought, firstly, to be.
According to the German philosopher Walter Schweidler, “there is an ordo amoris through which each human being sees himself placed in a culturally and socially constituted order of closeness, and he must comprehend from this to whom he is responsible primarily and to a greater degree than others.” He continues, “[T]he question for what we are responsible cannot fundamentally be divided from the question to whom we are responsible.” Yet if we believe that all state aid is indispensable, and fail to look around us at the people in our own communities and at what we can do for them ourselves, we create such a fundamental divide.
I am not recommending that we pull the rug out from under all welfare programs. However, the apocalyptic portrayal of the sequester cuts, sometimes on entirely fictional grounds, does not reflect the cool and free exercise of reason. The cuts amounted to about $85 billion, approximately 8 percent of the roughly $1 trillion deficits the federal government has run up each of the last five years. In reality, these cuts are far from draconian, and it will take much more to get our spending under control.
Meanwhile, the present generation continues, through debt, to spend the tax dollars of tomorrow, today. Instead of parents leaving an inheritance to their children, they are spending not only what they should pass on, but the very resources of the next generation. Indulging in unrealistic expectations and shirking the fundamental responsibilities of our most basic relationships fuel a passion for government provision in all areas of life, well beyond a safety net of last resort. Rather than arguing over which sector of civil society will carry each burden, the common passion today continually pushes to the state, considering centralization the only solution, despite its obvious insolvency in the long run.
All this has served as fertile ground for the sort of person Wilhelm Röpke termed a “centrist”: the cheap moralist who “does not seem capable of imagining that others may not be lesser men because they make things less easy for themselves and do take account of the complications and difficulties of a practical and concrete code of ethics within which it is not unusual to will the good and work the bad.”
If support for cuts of only 8 percent of last year’s deficit is anathema, how much more so the hard decisions needed to restore our fiscal health? Willing the good — care for those in need — while working the bad — intergenerational injustice — is the disease of the day. The cure is not revolution or seeking government privilege or escape, but the commonsense “way of the Lord”: to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers” once again.
Just like John the Baptist preached to the ancient Jews, each of us needs to embrace a restorative repentance, refocusing on our duties to those who are nearest to us, and to God most of all. The way, indeed, may not be easy, but I’ve heard that “the burden is light.”