National Post

Friday, November 29, 2002

Virtue is freedom's handmaiden

Elizabeth Nickson
National Post

Freedom without virtue is a logical impossibility. Self-government, and the governing of one's own passions necessarily precedes free government. "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom," said Ben Franklin.

If Ben Franklin were alive ...

As we have relinquished the care for the poor, the sick and the disabled to government, so have we abandoned the one guaranteed path to becoming fully adult and fully human -- which is to say civil society. Our founders would be appalled. A hundred years ago, two hundred years ago on this continent, hands-on charitable work was considered the mark of a good man, a good woman, a good family. One did not advance without it, one could not face oneself in the mirror each morning without it. Even 50 years ago, business and charity marched hand in hand. The corporation was not split off from the community in which it operated. The corporation was, of itself, a moral entity, bent on creating wealth and the good. Corporate executives were first of all, leaders, exemplars of virtue -- not thieves, exploiters and fraudsters to be marched off in handcuffs in front of the television cameras.

We have lost even the memory of this history: In 1830, in the United States and Canada, the Benevolent Empire, run by the Association of Gentlemen, an organization made up of tens of thousands of chapters, in towns big and small, had a budget (all voluntarily donated) that rivaled that of the U.S. federal government. People gave. Automatically. They gave time, they gave money. Wealthy and middle-class women did charitable work from the time they were children. They started as handmaidens to the nurses that were their mothers and aunts, they waded into shantytowns and washed dishes, swept floors, changed the bedding of the sick, nursed children. They brought food baskets, found people jobs, procured medicine. At night, they spun and sewed for the poor. Without this work they would be hated, and they knew it, because without it, they would hate themselves. Noblesse oblige. From those to whom much has been given, much is expected. Along with their work, came social cohesion, the rich and competent knew precisely who needed help and why. They could figure out ways to fix problems within their own towns, villages and cities. They were stitched into community, not alienated, tucked in behind walled communities, with state-of-the art alarm systems, security guards and interests so decadent they would disgust every human born in 1830.

It is their work, their sacrifice, that created the stability that we stand on today. The stability that is eroding.

This social contract was born out of the social gospel birthed by the Third Great Awakening. This massive continent-wide revival took fire in 1820, and burned first along the psychic highway that threaded through the towns and villages of upper New York State and southern Ontario. Out of the tent meetings and churches -- new, emotional in character, utterly devoted in spirit, split off from established religious institutions -- emerged the great civic reform movements of the 19th century. Convinced that the imminent achievement of God's kingdom on earth was possible, they designed a program of economic and social reform to bring about that end. And over the next 150 years, the reforms that began in those churches eradicated slavery, promoted the equality of women, reduced mortality rates, and eradicated TB, smallpox, polio, and rheumatic heart disease. They eliminated child labour, and effected a 19-fold increase in the income of the poor.

Yet, in 1867, the Dominion government spent $13.7-million. On everything -- debt, transportation, surveying, law and order, defence. Canadians believed that low taxes and limited government, both more so even than their neighbours to the south, were a good thing. Charity and compassion were left to the individual, the community, business, the church. The state was meant to protect the citizen from government, and provide limited services.

In 2002, 31% of all federal tax dollars, or $140-billion, will go to welfare and related programs. The next largest expenditure? Seventy-seven billion dollars for health care. The results?

The theory that society is the source of sin, has undermined individual responsibility for bad behaviour. The cultural affirmation of the infantile urge towards pleasure at any cost, has produced child pornography, serial killers, the flagrant abasement and dependency of native Canadians, the wholesale abandonment of their families by half a generation of men, drug gangs running entire streets of some cities, the constant high-C screech of casual sex selling product, half of all older teenagers with an STD, middle-class families taxed to the point that they have negative disposable income ... is this why our ancestors practised sobriety, modesty, thrift and industry?

Every leading cultural indicator is bad. Drug addiction, alcoholism, births to unmarried teenage girls, rape, the battery of women and children, violent teenage death and crime, all are far more severe than they were a century ago. The effort to reform human nature, crush evil and create God's kingdom on earth, through income redistribution, has failed -- despite, in our country, the annual expenditure of $140-billion.

The government has a monopoly on the compassion business and it has failed. Joe Leconte, author of Seducing the Samaritan, How Government Contracts Are Reshaping Social Services, analyses just how fundamentally destructive of both the lives of the less advantaged and of those who choose to help, government contracts are. Government contracts force "mission creep," which means charities bend their program goals to secure federal money. "[Government money] is almost like heroin," said the president of the Massachusetts Association of Nonprofit Schools and Colleges. But government contracts ignore actual outcomes in peoples lives. Assistance with no strings produces clients who know how to manipulate the system. Virtue is, in the world of the poor and drug-addicted, irrelevant. Ethics are situational, morality is relative. There are no consequences.

This is beginning to change. Slowly, people are beginning to realize that civic disengagement and cultural breakdown began with the Just Society in Canada and the War on Poverty in the States, and are starting to ask why. Already, some observers are saying that a partial restoration of traditional society, is happening. Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert William Fogel, makes a convincing case that we are in the midst of the Fourth Great Awakening, which is less narrowly religious than broadly spiritual, taking place primarily at the individual level. Gertrude Himmelfarb says that "young people who will shape the culture of the future" are reacting against the "dominant ethos" of moral permissiveness. These young people are questioning the morality and efficacy of the vast administrative state we have created over the past 30 years, and leaning towards the rebuilding of the true institutions of civil society -- families, churches, and schools, so as to rebuild the moral character of our country.

Edmund Burke called civil society "little platoons." Civic responsibility encourages moral character, that is the restraint of private passion, in the service of good. Only when you are smack up against someone dying, someone drug-addled, children hungry, people almost beyond help, can you recognize how valuable life is, and how much it needs to be protected. And that the only way to protect our culture is through virtuous action. Only then, are you fully adult and fully human. And free.

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