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.

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