Saturday, December 21, 2002


Frameworks for liberty and progress


kairos focus web:

Sadly, it is fair comment to note that, across the world, and over the long reach of history, the typical person in most societies has usually been oppressed, subject to the tyranny of princes, nobles, dictators or conquerors; and one or two bad harvests away from famine. The plight of minorities has, as a rule, been even worse. Also, until quite recently, slavery was a near-universal institution. (We must note here, that the modern anti-slavery movement argues that there may be more people in slave-like conditions – or even outright slavery – than at any earlier time in history!)

In short, it is liberty, justice and progress that need to be explained, not the opposite.

Breakthrough to Liberty & Prosperity

The key factors in the ongoing global breakthrough to progress are rooted in the renaissance, the Iberian breakout by sea at the turn of the sixteenth Century, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, the protestant (especially calvinist) reformation, and the American Revolution:

1) The Renaissance began a ferment of change, through the spirit of critical inquiry that it fostered – though it was also marked by a peak of tyranny, such as has been notoriously summarised in Machiavelli’s infamous textbook for tyrants, The Prince.

2) The Portuguese and Spanish mariners stitched the world together by pioneering the sea trade routes that have created the modern world. So, though the emergence of a global world five hundred years ago also led to a half-millennium of colonial oppression (not least through the conquest of the native American peoples and the Atlantic slave trade), it set a basis for mutually beneficial trade that has helped uplift the standard of living for us all.

3) The scientific and industrial revolutions – environmental challenges and capital-labour conflicts notwithstanding -- led to an ever-growing cascade of knowledge and industrial innovations that have helped us to control infectious diseases, produce a cornucopia of products that are the basis for modern living, and have generally created the high-tech world in which we now live.

4) The protestant reformation and its daughter, the American revolution, are perhaps the most controversial items on the list. However, it is the plain record of history that, for instance, Duplesis-Mornay’s 1579 work, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos drew out of the Bible the concept that rulers hold office under a dual covenant, with God and the people, and are therefore responsible to uphold justice in the community. In 1581, these ideas were incorporated in the Dutch Declaration of Independence , which championed freedom of conscience and the concept that princes are duty-bound to protect the rights, liberties and privileges of their subjects; who have a right of orderly revolution if the prince reneges on his pledge. This line of thinking was further developed in works such as Samuel Rutherford’s Lex, Rex and Locke’s works on government, and is deeply embedded in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence . For all its flaws, it is the success of the American Revolution that has led to the worldwide wave of self-government by a free people under principles of liberty, justice and equality. This revolution has also been strongly associated with market-oriented economics, which has decisively demonstrated that it is the basis for sustained economic growth.

The Bible-based Political Foundation of Liberty

The key political basis for such liberty and progress was aptly summed up by Thomas Jefferson in the second paragraph of the US DOI:

“WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.” []

The preamble to the US Contitution [1787] amplifies: “We the people . . . in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Consitution . . .” [NB: Note the theological significance of the capitalised phrase: “Blessings of Liberty.” Cf. Deut. 8:1 – 20, 28:1 – 68. It has been noted that the specific document most often cited by the Founding Fathers of the USA is the Book of Deuteronomy.]

Here, the central theme is based on the concept that rights are granted by our Creator – so no government can take them away – and that government is the servant of the people, to promote liberty and justice under God for all. So much is this the case, that when governments become oppressive or incompetent, the people have a collective right of reformation (or if necessary revolution) to restore sound government. Thus, we see the covenantal, servantly concept of government championed by the reformation and based on the Bible: the people, in solemn assembly under God and acting through representative leaders, institute governments, and hold them to account for their performance. [Cf. 1 Sam 8:1 – 10:26; 2 Sam. 2:1 – 4, 5:1 – 5 & 1 Chron 12:23 – 40, in the context of the Books.]

Jefferson’s use of “self-evident” needs some unpacking: the idea is not so much that the claims made in the US DOI are obvious to all, as that to deny them in theory or to subvert them in practice ends in absurdity.

Consequently, over the generations since the founding of the American Republic (and the further evolution of the Westminster-style Parliamentary system in response to its success), further waves of reformation have used the above principles to highlight and respond to various wrongs; especially relating to slavery, racism, oppression of women, and exploitation of the poor. (And, today, we see the patently absurd spectacle that, in the name of “choice” or “reproductive rights” forty million unborn children have been put to death through the US Abortion Industry since 1973. The rhetorical and judicial trick, of course, has been to deny the obvious fact that unborn babies are – just that: human beings with the God-given right to life. [Cf. Luke 2:26 – 45, esp. vv. 36, 39 – 45.] )

Moving on from Absolute Monarchy or Despotism

Despite its many flaws and compromises of principle, over the past two hundred and thirty years the American Revolution and Republic have blazed a trail that has led to the triumph in our time of the concept of democratic, representative self-government of free peoples, towards liberty and justice for all. So much is this the case, that the nature of political debate has shifted.

For, formerly, the standard form of government was the monarchy, often with unaccountable executive power. In contrast, the American experiment applied the principle of separation of powers found in the Bible and championed by leading political thinkers of the time: executive, legislative, representational, and judicial powers are divided across several bodies; which are regulated by a written constitution and accountable to the people through regular elections with broad-based franchise.

So successful has this been that it has now become the standard: “conservatives,” today, are not in the main monarchists, but rather those who favour sharply limited government within the above framework. Beyond them to the Right, we find the Libertarians and Anarchists, who view the state with increasing distrust, and wish to further curtail its powers; to the points where Anarchists would do away with it entirely.

As a result, especially since the fall of the Communist bloc in 1989 - 91,“left-wing” and “right wing” have increasingly come to denote a debate over the extent to which state and international intervention or regulation are justifiable, on what grounds: welfare of the poor, sustainability of development in light of environmental challenges, and the monopolistic threat of the dominant mega-corporation. Conservatives and Libertarians respond that, poverty (at least in the developed world) is increasingly a socio-cultural and behavioural problem rather than an economic one; that the classical, Keynesian welfare state is extremely expensive and ineffective in lifting people out of poverty; that free markets have proved that they are the only known, effective means to promote economic progress; that environmentally-motivated interventions are often based on flawed science, worse economics, and in some cases, outright fraud; and, that the state and international bodies have a very poor track record of performance relative to their rhetoric, so that the real agenda is often unaccountable bureaucratic power, thus tyranny.

To this, we now must add the religious dimension, as the dominant secularist outlook views with deepest suspicion those who view and value the biblical, reformation framework embedded in the principles of democracy. For, they fear the imposition of religiously motivated tyranny in the name of promoting godliness, decency and morality in the community. (The islamist agenda to impose the supremacy of Allah and his warriors over all peoples across the world, such as Mr bin Laden has set out to do, in such minds, underscores the danger. For instance, cf. Barbara Ehrenreich on “Christian Wahhabbaists” and contrast a balancing commentary on the tyrannical tendencies of secularism and the way "pure" democracy tends to deteriorate into mob rule under the influence of manipulative demagogues such as Alcibiades of Athens.)

Choices to Build the Caribbean's Future

Thus, we see several hard choices for the Caribbean:

1) “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” However, “who will guard the guards?” Clearly, it is hard to motivate people as a whole to sustain the effort required to understand issues soundly and keep watch over our public servants’ stewardship. This is the classic principal-agent challenge in economics, and there are no easy ways to so align the interests of the people and the state that public servants will consistently pursue the public interest. [Cf. Luke 16:1 – 15.] We must therefore reserve and jealously guard the right to demand public accountability, and to institute reformation as appropriate. The freedom of the press, the right to free and fair election, and the rights of peaceable assembly and petition for redress of grievance are vital to this process. However, all across the region, we have often allowed would-be political messiahs and their parties to so dominate the process and deceive us, that we face a crisis of governance. So, if we are to preserve (or even enhance) our liberties, we will have to devote time and effort to straighten out our thinking and set about the essentially spiritual task of renewal, leading to reformation rather than riot, rebellion or revolution ending in tyranny.

2) Unchecked secularist materialism is clearly inimical to the preservation of “the Blessings of Liberty”: what rights – other than “entitlements” granted by the state (and thus subject to withdrawal by the same state) – can a random bit of rubbish cast up by the evolutionary chaos of the universe have? Similarly, in the name of progress through relieving oppression and poverty, the twentieth century saw the imposition of the worst tyrannies of all time; as judged buy the over 100 millions who paid with their lives for Communist and Fascist/National Socialist [i.e. Nazi] political pipe-dreams. The sad case of Afghanistan under the Taliban shows that religious tyranny is no better. For that matter, classical times, the middle ages, the renaissance, reformation and enlightenment periods were so marked by strife, injustice and tyranny that it is clear that liberty was hard won, and is easily lost. Therefore, if we are to preserve and enhance the liberty we enjoy, we need to study the history of liberty, and resolve to maintain and sustain it across time. In this task, the church must play a vital role, and so it will need to move on beyond escapism to engagement of the task of discipling and reforming the nations under the Lordship of Him whose Spirit brings liberty.

3) Poverty and oppression are parallel, interacting challenges. They are compounded by the facts that economic equality (through re-distributionist policies and politics) and the growth and innovation that are required to create and sustain growth are significantly incompatible. For, as the collapse of Communism and the crisis of the Welfare State have clearly shown, attempts to impose centrally controlled allocation of production, distribution, incomes and consumption choke on the volumes of information and rate of processing required; resulting in wasteful, expensive, oppressive bureaucracies that are always crying out for even more power and control because what has not worked so far did not go far enough. That leaves one player on the field: market-based allocation; balanced by well-judged government regulations and a charity/volunteer/civil society sector that targets upliftment of the deprived within the context of sustainable development. Some form of what has been called “communitarianism,” in short.

4) “Sustainable development” indicates that the region’s environmental challenges cannot be ignored. Notwithstanding the hype and heat that have surrounded the environmentalists, the issues of biophysical environmental damage, coupled to socio-cultural and economic breakdowns that they have raised have a solid core. If we fail to soundly address these core issues, soon, we will suffer devastating consequences. In particular, we must find a more sensible approach to providing the energy that drives our economies and lifestyles, to forests and watersheds, to coastal and marine zone development and management, to urban and rural communities, to tourism and to industry and agriculture. Again, these require study, development and testing of effective solutions through a programme of demonstration projects, and the onward implementation of well-tested, proven approaches that will help us lift our region out of economic stagnation without sacrificing our liberties or our environment in the process.

A tall order. But one which we must pursue. Therefore, we will next begin to look at some specific ways forward.

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Hard Choices, #2:

Balancing Governance, Liberty, Progress and Sustainability


kairos focus web:

The Acts 27 case we have been exploring highlights the basic fact that we often must make decisions constrained by our uncertainty about the future as well as the finiteness of resources.

Thus, individuals, groups, organisations and societies are forced to set up ways to decide the alternatives to pursue in the face of uncertainty, scarcity and conflicting opinions. (This last point highlights the need to have enough liberty that alternatives – especially those that are unpopular or unpalatable (but may often be sounder/more sustainable) -- are heard and considered.)

This brings us to the issue of governance: the business of governing – incorporating but going beyond the state and its organs and officers. (Here, it is helpful to note that the root of “government” is the Greek word kubernete, used in Acts 27 as the technical term for the “steersman” of the ship, the officer who was responsible for its technical navigation through the trackless and potentially stormy seas to safe harbour.)

As Acts 27 also illustrates, sustainable governance is tied to issues of liberty and justice, to the strong desire for progress that animates us all, and to the resulting processes of recognising challenges; identifying opportunities and alternatives; hearing diverse perspectives; making decisions and implementing them. For, it was vital that Paul was heard, even though his warning was not heeded; for this then gave him credibility in the crisis, which saved the passengers when the sailors would have abandoned them on a ruse.

Immediately, this highlights the importance of “liberty and justice for all.” For, quite often the soundest path is not in accord with the wishes of the powerful or of the majority. So, if the minority, down to one individual, is not heard and protected in a family, or an organisation or community, then the quality of information on which decisions are made is liable to suffer.

But sometimes, community decisions reject sound counsels because they are unpalatable – the reason why Scriptures warn of false leaders who “tickle our itching ears with what we want to hear.” In cases such as in Acts 27, where a wiser alternative had been heard, it allows the stakeholders and decision-makers to recognise their error and change their estimation of whose counsel they should heed. Of course, if a fatal error has been made, remorse may come too late; there is an incentive to get the decision right the first time!

In short, if a community wishes to consistently make sound decisions, the principles of liberty and justice should constrain the power of decision-makers and the feelings/passions of the majority. So, if an organisation or community wishes to consistently make sustainable progress, it will have to accept the hard choice of hearing out and protecting those whose counsels it may not wish to hear. Further, it will have to undertake the arduous task of assessing the quality of both popular and unpalatable proposals, and consistently decide to take the prudent path in the face of uncertainties, risks and scarce resources.

That societies, organisations, families and individuals who take the habitual diligent care to do these things, on average, make better progress than those that do not should not be surprising.

However, there is also an inner tension between government and liberty that must be addressed. This brings us to two landmark passages in the history of the balance of liberty and government.

First, Rom. 13:4 – 7:

“For [the civil authority] is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”

And, the Second Paragraph of the US Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as shall to them seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness . . .”

Sometimes, it has been held that these two great passages are irreconcilable, as the first seems to advocate servility, and the latter, revolution.

In fact, they are flip sides of the same coin. The key insight to show this is Paul’s remark that the governor is “God’s servant to do you good . . . an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” That is, Paul sets out the proper role of government: promoting justice, liberty and progress, through administering justice – especially through restraining or defeating wrongdoers who would reduce a society to chaos. The US DOI concurs when it states that governments are instituted to protect our God-given rights, and forfeit their lawful authority when they become destructive to such justice. It proposes the remedy that we see so often in the OT’s Historical and prophetic books: reformation in the first instance, revolution if there is no alternative. (The US DOI, contrary to much popular opinion, is in fact strongly rooted in the Bible, as filtered through the Reformation, especially its Calvinist forms.)

In our day, thank God, neither of these has to be violent: a free press, freedom of assembly, and free and fair elections create a basis for peaceful change towards a better path.

So then, lawful, democratic, sound governance under principles of justice and liberty is a condition for sustainable progress in the community.

This brings us to hard choice # 3: how to so structure the institutions of society that progress is possible.