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If Men Were Angels

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 25, 2008

This thoughtful letter arrives just in time for this holiday edition of the Pundit:

Your comments regarding the SEC and FDA in the piece, entitled So Much For Regulation: SEC Misses A Big One…Why Think FDA Will Do Better? — were apropos. Would it not be reasonable to consider an underlying issue to be the diminishing of moral values demonstrated by Jesus, whose birth is being celebrated this week?

Here is a quotation to consider: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Jesus Christ as recorded by Luke in the first century AD.)

When love for God as Lord diminishes, what follows? Is it not reasonable to expect significant decline of love for my neighbor? The evidence in the culture seems to provide a resounding “yes.” Is a reasoned outcome of “hyper-individualism,” the context of this era in our history, a striving to gain the maximum for myself without regard to the impact on others, i.e., my neighbor, an overwhelming basis for today’s economic crisis?

What is the meaning of ‘love’ in this context? Merriam-Webster provides one definition as “unselfish, loyal, and benevolent concern for the good of another.” This definition has an implication one will do good to his neighbor even if it costs, or there is no gain other than to the neighbor.

As God, prayer, and references to the Judeo/Christian teaching have been stripped from the public sector… should there be surprise at the decline of honoring one another, the protection of others’ well-being, or living to be served and for my gain as opposed to living to serve?

The authority gap of “God out” leaves a vacuum being filled with “the individual” in. Now, what power does the individual have? Individually little, but organized with others, a great deal; but organized as government, corporations, churches, or other organized groups, there is great power and influence reflecting the values and morals of the people of the organization. It may be to serve others, or it may be to “lord” it over others. In this cultural context should the alleged actions of Mr. Blagojevich or Mr. Madoff be a surprise?

Will the SEC or the FDA be successful in removing fraud, deceit, and the misdealing? Likely, only with a “Gestapo” hand, but with the “Gestapo” leadership protecting their own well being, simultaneously betraying the freedoms valued by most in America! (Note the recent article in many newspapers headlining the refusal of bailed out bank executives to reveal how the monies were invested or spent).

What of a return to God, prayer, Judeo/Christian teaching? Consider this man’s opinion:

“The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.”

Noah Webster
On the Education of Youth in America, 1788

Is there another more proven source of virtue?

— John Shelford
SHELFORD CONSULTING
Naples, Florida

We admire a man who has the courage of his convictions, and so we consider ourselves fortunate to have had many contributions to the Pundit from John Shelford including these four pieces:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Wal-Mart’s Folly

Pundit’s Mailbag — Gatekeepers And Risk Aversion

Pundit’s Mailbag — Beware The Bureaucrats

Pundit’s Mailbag — ‘Mandatory’ Had To Be Removed To Get Advisory Committee Approval

We read John’s letter as posing four questions for us:

  1. Isn’t regulation just a pitiful attempt to compensate for immoral behavior?

  2. Isn’t a decline in moral behavior a logical and predictable consequence of a decline in public religiosity?

  3. Shouldn’t our focus be the instilling of virtue in the populace?

  4. Isn’t a focus on religion the most proven font of virtue in a population?

These are grand questions and indeed, at Christmas time, a religious holiday that has been adopted as a secular one as well, these questions are apropos. Let us try and wrestle with them one by one:

Isn’t regulation just a pitiful attempt to compensate for immoral behavior?

Perhaps but, sometimes, our pitiful attempts may be all we can do. It was, after all, no less a luminary than James Madison, writing in Federalist # 51, who wrote this famous phrase: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Now Madison wrote this phrase in the context of explaining why checks and balances were necessary within government. Yet Madison pointed out that the concept applied throughout society: “This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public.”

Selfishness, greed, indeed evil itself — all are part of the human condition. Laws and regulations are there because we look for ways to provide compensation for “the defect of better motives.” Such compensation will always be imperfect but, then again, so is this world. Perfection is reserved for a world beyond.

Isn’t a decline in moral behavior a logical and predictable consequence of a decline in public religiosity?

The key word here is “public.” Though we agree that religiosity in general might instill higher levels of moral behavior, it is very difficult to measure moral behavior and its relation to religiosity. Furthermore, when looked at from a public policy point of view, interestingly enough, the evidence of the relationship between better morals to “public” religiosity is the opposite. In European countries that have “official” churches, church attendance is significantly below what we experience in the US. Perhaps our system of non-endorsement of specific faiths encourages a kind of capitalist competition which keeps sects engaged and relevant.

Shouldn’t our focus be the instilling of virtue in the populace?

We think so, though we might be more modest in our expression and urge the development of manners. It was another founder, John Adams, who pointed out that “A society can no more subsist without gentlemen than an army without officers.”

Edmund Burke explained that “Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.”

Yet this is a great problem for both ends of our political spectrum. American conservatism is often too enthralled with the free market, often forgetting that this tremendous wealth-creating mechanism is inherently churning and thus destructive of social conventions and societal mores. Raising issues of manners and virtue forces conservatives to confront what, precisely, they would like to see conserved in our society.

The American left also has problems on this subject for it requires a willingness to believe that some modes of behavior, some social arrangements, are superior to others. Liberalism in America is remarkably tolerant, so tolerant it may well tolerate those whose behavior will destroy the liberal society that is a pre-condition for liberalism.

Laws are a funny thing: They grow out of the beliefs and habits of a population and they help shape those beliefs and habits. So no democracy can be indifferent to the character of the population. So a society that does not focus on the implications of its laws on the character of the people will not long thrive.

Isn’t a focus on religion the most proven font of virtue in a population?

This is often so. However, it surely depends on the religion and what it is teaching. The terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 thought they were acting in service of their religion.

The role of religion in public life in the US is a long national discussion. The Pundit’s parents grew up attending the New York City public schools and they had a daily non-denominational prayer. Didn’t seem to do them any harm but can’t say it really did them much good either.

In any case, that was a time when even in such a big city, virtually everyone was at least nominally a Christian or a Jew. Today with Islam, Buddhism and other faiths, plus a much more prominent atheist and agnostic community, it is hard to see a path whereby public authorities could have much of a role here. Especially with constitutional interpretation in the state it is in.

In fact, it may not even be good for religion for them to have such a role. The state of the law right now when it comes to public displays of Christmas symbols is that they are acceptable in the context of broader displays, so you wind up with a town displaying a crèche, but only if they also have Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman out there. That hardly seems a situation likely to invigorate religious practice.

Of course even if the government can’t or shouldn’t promote particular religions or religion in general, that is not to say that individuals and houses of worship can’t look to gain adherents and to strengthen the ties of those already affiliated. Indeed this type of individual and institutional outreach, with its ability to touch individuals, is surely the most effective way to bring a person into the fold and, in fact, to impress upon them standards of behavior — manners and morals — within the context of a community that is reinforcing of these manners and morals.

We suspect modern life is inherently destructive of such standards simply because life is so mobile, and if one feels free to pick up and move to Florida or California and start anew, the urgency of remaining in the good graces of a local community is less.

We don’t know what motivated Mr. Madoff. Because there is no possibility that he spent the $50 billion that is missing, we suspect that what will come out is that he got behind, thought he would catch up in the market and make everyone whole and never did. In fact his desperation to do so may have motivated larger and riskier bets.

Although Mr. Madoff is not a Christian, as a Jew the precepts of the Golden Rule were certainly not alien to him. There is a story told of a famous Rabbi named Hillel the Elder. The story goes that a pagan came to Rabbi and said that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the whole of Torah — the Jewish scriptures — while the man stood on one foot. Rabbi Hillel converted the man by explaining: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”

A French financier, who lost over a billion dollars of his client’s money by investing with Bernard Madoff felt he had betrayed his own clients and friends and, apparently, couldn’t bear the weight of his responsibility, so he killed himself. Such is the horrible price that was paid because, for all his involvement with philanthropists and charities, Mr. Madoff neglected his studies.

Many thanks to John Shelford for, at this Christmas, encouraging us to think of more than reindeer and sleigh bells.

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