“Mr. Holmes, you must widen your gaze. I’m concerned you underestimate the gravity of coming events. For you and I are bound on a journey that will twist the very fabric of nature” – Lord Blackwood, Sherlock Holmes
In my line of work (I’m a mathematician by trade), there are occasional glimpses into the work and efforts of others that leave me enlightened, hopeful, and yet mildly frustrated at the failure to fully explore and understand the ramifications. There are those times when I sit in the back of the room during a brief or presentation and say to myself (in regards to the presenter) “you’ve really got something here … and you almost understand it.” (Surely it has been said of me as well.)
I had a similar feeling when I caught a headline from the Associated Press: Pope denounces ‘disintegration’ of Europe families. I read the story, though I really didn’t need to, it’s nothing I haven’t read before. And, as predicted, I said to myself, “you’re right, Pope Benedict, there is a problem here; and you almost grasp it – but thus far have just touched the tip of the iceberg.” (In deference to my Catholic friends out there – I’m sure the Pope is rightfully uninterested in, and unmoved by my conjecture that he hasn’t fully explored the ramifications of his message.)
This may take a bit of time to unpack. (My apologies to the casual reader who is used to 1000 words or so – we’ll be a bit over today.)
Social Support Structure: Fail-Safes
In the early days if intercontinental shipping and trade between Europe and the colonies in the Americas, wealthy entrepreneurs who wished to line their pockets would outfit ships to head to the “new world” and bring back valuables. They understood that success meant riches, and failure (e.g. losing a ship at sea) meant ruin. So, they devised one of the simplest forms of insurance imaginable. They would form corporations, or partnerships, in which some number (say 10) would go in together, outfitting 10 ships and sending them off to the new world. If all 10 returned, they would share the wealth – but if one was lost, each would only suffer 1/10 of the loss he would otherwise incur. Spreading the risk around (by free choice) helped to ensure survivability.
At a more basic level, the same is true of people as a whole. We are fragile. With the exception of teenage boys with new cars, who seem to believe they are invincible, people generally understand at some level their own vulnerabilities. We don’t like it, to say the least. We want to find a way to build structures in our lives that will allow survival should something bad happen – much like the simple form of insurance above. We don’t mind bearing the burdens of others, as long as they’ll bear ours should we find ourselves in need. And what are these structures designed to ensure survivability?
The Old System
Well, in the olden days, the structure was simple: it started small and worked its way out. First, there was family. You really didn’t need to be told that you could count on your parents – you just believed it. Parents didn’t need to be told that they should care and provide for their children – it was inherent.
Parents would have children, usually as many as possible. The kids would be a fiscal drain at the very early stages, but soon were able to pull their weight on the farm or in shops (before all those darn child-labor laws …). If a child became ill there was enough support within the family to provide food, shelter, etc. When parents grew old and could no longer work, they relied on the support of their children (and perhaps grand-children).
Naturally things weren’t family-only. Communities would form and would also work to help each other out. Larger and larger communities would form tribes, people-groups, nations. You get the idea. As the circles broadened, the level of commitment and reliance would lessen slightly. (You can hope that your neighbor will help in time of need, and often they will, but perhaps they cannot be counted on as reliably as a parent or sibling.)
This is the old system – and it is not the only one. But, before we get to the other system (perhaps there is more than one, but really only one other that we’ll discuss today), let us consider some features of the system.
(Side note: in the old system the most vulnerable people are the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants; not having a family structure or social structure to draw from. These are therefore exactly the people that God is most adamant about defending in His Law – showing us that loving our neighbors explicitly means caring for those who fall outside of the traditional support structure.)
System Feedback: Behavior Moderation
The old system was, by its very nature, a moderator of behavior. You could not behave any-old-way you wanted and still be a part of the system. Why is that? Well, for all of our intricacies, perhaps we humans aren’t all that complicated.
If you are counting on me to help you out if and when you should need help, you can’t just treat me any way you please. I’m not saying you have to butter me up and be a false friend, not at all. But I am saying that if you have any concern at all that you may someday need my assistance, you are less likely to be a jerk to me.
Beyond modest jerk-prevention, the old system also enforces some manner of “pull-your-own-weight” adjustments. You see, I will work hard to help a brother, or sister, or neighbor, or friend (and certainly a parent) – but only if I assess that they need the help. If I ever come to the conclusion that they’re playing the system, “getting over” on me, intentionally refusing to work hard while consuming my productivity … then I’ll just stop giving it to them. Sayings such as “your legs aren’t broken” and “get up off that couch” are perfectly reasonable. If you can help out but just won’t, well, the old system can deal with that problem. (We pull the same message from scripture too – see Proverbs 16:26 or 2 Thessalonians 3:10.)
“College Isn’t for Everybody” – We Want a New System
I saw a 60 minutes special a few years back about some formerly high-paid factory workers in Michigan who had lost their high-paying jobs due to foreign competition. These folks were pulling down $30, $40, $50 an hour (and more in some cases), doing a job that unskilled laborers from third-world countries would take $5 a day to do. It’s not that these guys weren’t good: it is widely understood that the American worker is actually quite capable, highly sought after, and tremendously productive. The problem was the market just couldn’t bear the high wages.
These workers were then given a proposal that they go back to school (on the government dime) to learn new skills and new trades so they could get different jobs. Their response? “college isn’t for everybody” (… yeah, and neither is $50 an hour!)
What am I to do in the old system if I don’t want to be nice to people? I don’t want to have a family and raise kids. I don’t want to provide for my parents when they’re old (hoping that my kids will provide for me in kind). I don’t want to play my part in this structure. What am I to do?
Well, there are three options:
- Do it anyway, that’s life
- Leave the system, and bear the risk/reward on your own
- Get a new system
For a while folks may have tried to hold on to #1, but the frustration mounted and we bolted for #2. It takes about 10 seconds living in #2 to remember how utterly vulnerable we are to random tragedy … we needed a new system.
I submit that this “new system” is something we have already, at least in part. It must break away from reliance on the family structure: parents raising kids, relying on them in their golden years, and spreading the burdens out amongst them. The burden must still be spread – now it will just be spread to a wider network (and in smaller chunks at first). This is what we call Welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, unemployment benefits, and all the rest.
Now you may find yourself today a proponent of the new system – greater spreading of the risks is certainly pleasing from an actuarial standpoint. I submit however that the new system lacks the old system’s simplicity of behavior modification. There is now a middle man (and I can vote for him – more on that later). I don’t have to raise kids on my own to defend against future ailments – I can use your kids. I don’t have to rely on savings and family/community structure in the event of loss of work – I can simply reap the benefits from the tax coffers. I don’t have to be all chummy with you – I have my support structure quite apart from your decision to help me.
Note that this is slightly different from the traditional capitalist/socialist argument, where the issue becomes one of “feedback” in finding the optimal solution. It’s not that my decisions and behaviors are impacted because I no longer have the appropriate risk/reward model. Rather, my decisions are impacted (for the worse) because I don’t have to rely on anybody to choose to come to my aid, and therefore I don’t have to be a good neighbor, or brother, or friend. I can be a leach if it comes to it. The third party between us (the government) affords me right.
Systems in Conflict
Back in September of 2010 we noted some comments by Howard Dean in which he praised a mixture of Socialism and Capitalism. We noted at the time that the mere concept was absurd: the systems are in conflict with one another and cannot get along peaceably. Capitalism allows for individual risk and individual reward, while socialism allows for corporate risk and corporate reward. Choose whichever you will, but as soon as you try to do both you will find yourself with individual reward and corporate risk. I mean, you could find yourself in a crazy situation where wealthy bankers make obscenely bad financial decisions, lose their shirt, and they are given boatloads of cash from your bank accounts to cover their losses … just imagine that!
In like manner, these systems of social support and insurance are in conflict with one another. Each requires input, productive input, from the participants. If you want to participate in both, you’re going to have to pay both; but it makes little sense to pay two people to do the job of one.
Surely we’ve seen cases of friends and family in need where the “best” course of action is to turn first to the new system, and then supplement with the old system is need-be. Can’t think of any? Let’s see, has anybody out there had a parent or grandparent intentionally sell off (and hopefully give away) all assets to become a ward of the state before entering a state-funded nursing home? Competing systems: turn to the new one first and then come talk to the old.
It’s just a simple example, and there are plenty of others. If it were just a conflict of ideas that would be one thing – let the crucible of life churn over them and we will pick the best result (we’re not stupid). But, I submit, these two systems are more than in conflict, they are waring against each other; sort of.
Full Scale System War
It seems to be the case at the outset of most military campaigns (at least in the last century) that somebody somewhere declared war first. The two sides don’t show up at the bargaining table, agree to go to war, and then go home to get ready. No, somebody makes the decision to go to war first.
In WWII, Japan was at war with us first. (Sure, they will claim that our refusal to supply raw materials to their war machine was itself a declaration of war … aggressors always say such nonsense to defend their actions.) Even after the various terror attacks culminating in the September 11 tragedy, there were folks coming to the revelation that “they” (the Islamo-fascists) were already at war with us even though we weren’t at war with them.
I submit that the old and new systems of social structure and support are at war – or at least the new system wars with the old to supplant it; whether the old knows it is at war yet or not. Why do I say this? Because the new system does not, cannot work unless it is given primacy; which it cannot be given if the old system is effective.
Imagine for a moment that the entire nation is functioning on the old system and it is by-and-large working. (It’s a thought experiment.) In a nation that is self-described as 40% conservative, 40% moderate, and 20% liberal, how much support would there be to use a new system? I’d argue that you lose the 40% conservative and 40% moderate right off the bat, and a good chunk of the liberals who are “liberals” only because they see a current problem and believe a liberal postulated solution will work.
No, for the new system to be adopted and accepted, the old system must be scuttled. It must either be proven ineffective, or made ineffective in the lives of enough people to carry the vote. That, my friend, is exactly where we find ourselves today.
The old system says “marriage and family is the nucleus of society” – the new system cannot allow this and actively subsidizes the break-up of marriage. You stand to gain significantly more financial help from the government if you are unmarried with children than if you are married with children. The result? There are generations of people who have no traditional family structures to draw from; not even a remembrance of such a structure. These are people who are utterly convinced that the new system is the only hope – they’ve never seen or heard of the old system (and you can count on their vote).
The old system says “children will care for their parents in old age” – the new system cannot allow this. Parents are bombarded with stories of how having more kids will destroy the planet, all while the new system is moving to provide for retirement funding (Social Security) and medical care (Medicare).
The new system also moves to supplant the funding of the old. “You can participate in the old system if you want [until we win] but you’re going to pay for the new system too.” It’s reminiscent of the Israelites who were told that they had to maintain the same quota of bricks, but would now have to provide straw for themselves too (see Exodus 5). I’d gladly give up all rights and claims against the benefits of the new system – if I also was given back all tax revenues used to support it. I’d do it in a heartbeat, and I’m not alone.
(As an aside, if you’ve ever known anyone who was on state-funded assistance for some stretch of time, you should ask them about the pressure of the system. The way I hear it, the caring social workers are downright belligerent to get people signed up for every program under the sun, and keep them there. Are these guys evil? Not at all. They’re quite rational – knowing that if everybody left the new system tomorrow the social workers would be out of a job. It’s just part of how the new system functions.)
Will the Battle be Joined?
This is a system war, though perhaps only one side knows it’s fighting. Pope Benedict XVI gets a little bit of it. He gets that the European family structure has disintegrated into nothingness. It almost doesn’t resonate with Americans since we have so much of our family support structures still intact (owing largely to a religious heritage I suspect). In former Soviet states there is no such thing, and they are having a pickle of a time just maintaining population, not to mention other social order difficulties.
What I’m afraid the Pope doesn’t grasp, or at least did not reveal in his speech in Croatia, is that this is a system war, and we must war against the entirety of the system if we are to win. It makes no logical sense to support the new system in terms of benevolence programs, but decry it on the grounds of the institution of marriage. The corrosion of marriage is just part of what the new system is – it must destroy the old system to ensure its existence.