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A Modest, but Serious Proposal

Force politicians to give a vow of poverty.

by James Leroy Wilson
October 30, 2003

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A Modest, but Serious Proposal_James Leroy Wilson-Force Politicians to Give a Vow of Poverty As an adherent to the libertarian outlook and member of the Libertarian Party that seeks to limit, reduce, and/or eliminate civil government from our lives, I encounter many libertarians who think differently than I do. In fact, I’m kind of going into an entirely different path, although one that still conforms to libertarian ideals. It’s becoming clear that people arrive to the libertarian position from many diverse sources and reasons.

But I think the fundamental difference springs from two different ways of viewing the world and social institutions. Every party has them, even the Greens, Socialists, and Constitution Party people. Especially the Democrats and Republicans. And even the Libertarians.

And in all of these parties, the exact same way of viewing the world is predominant, although other assumptions and perceptions vary. This “way” is essentially oriented toward the concept of individualism, and its law is based on universal Right and Wrong.

For example, the Libertarian may say that it is morally wrong to take from other people through violence and fraud. The Republican may add that it is wrong to permit pornography, or unregulated drug use, or some other behavior they decide is a vice. The Democrat may add that it is also wrong to discriminate against people for particular reasons they find offensive. The Green may add that it is also wrong to make deals with other nations which the Green thinks pollute the environment. The Socialist may add that it is also wrong to pay wages they consider to be too low. Right and wrong exist in the world, and we are personally responsible to uphold the right and punish the wrong. On this, all parties agree; they just disagree on the specifics.

Yes, these groups are all different in their political understandings and philosophies, but the orientation to a legalistic view of ethics and morality dominate all, even if the actual content of the legalistic view varies. They all have a theory of Right and Wrong.

Whether from an atheistic standard of morality such as Ayn Rand’s, or a divine universal morality coming from God but discerned from reason, it comes upon the individual as “this is right, that is wrong” or “this is a sin, but that is not really a sin.” Regardless of our belief of heaven and hell, most of us see ourselves as under perpetual moral judgment. This is both a legalistic and an individualistic way to look at the world, society, politics, and oneself. I think it is the way most of us think, particularly Americans and other inheritors of post-Enlightenment Western civilization: we are each held accountable to how we act.

But that’s not the only way to think.

Individualism and legalism do have their place, which is the place of exchanging property. This is the place of the contract, which is the standard of justice. Justice is the one standard by which all human beings are created equal. Justice can be judged only individually, not socially, and can only be discerned when each person receives what they freely agreed to. Justice is the foundation of liberty and civilization. But there is more to life than justice.

Instead of viewing life and morality as the highly personalized pursuit of trying to conform to what one believes is right and wrong, there is the alternative of viewing life and morality in the social context. In the socio-religious context of Christianity, the Calvinist pastor turned Catholic theologian Scott Hahn put it best:

“In the Protestant world the idea of covenant is understood practically as synonymous with or interchangeable with contract. When you have a covenant with God, it's the same as having a contract. You give God your sin; He gives you Christ, and everything is a faith-deal for salvation. But the more I studied, the more I came to see that for the ancient Hebrews, and in Sacred Scripture, a covenant differs from a contract about as much as marriage differs from prostitution. In a contract you exchange property, whereas in a covenant you exchange persons. In a contract you say, "This is yours and that is mine," but Scripture shows how in a covenant you say, "I am yours and you are mine." Even when God makes a covenant with us, He says, "I will be your God and you will be my people." After studying Hebrew, I discovered that 'Am, the Hebrew word for people, literally means, kinsman, family. I will be your God and father; you will be my family, my sons and my daughters, my household. So covenants form kinship bonds which makes family with God.”

The idea of a contract pre-supposes two people mutually agreeing to exchange property, but Covenant defines the terms of a relationship that already exists.

Everyone who is conceived, can not control who the mother/governor of the womb is, let alone who the biological father happens to be. And no one, once born, can control who their parents or other guardians may be.

We can’t help but be born into a social context we can’t control. And we are taught what others want to teach, at the pace they control. We are compelled to believe what we’re taught, at least at the younger ages, because we have no one else to tell or show us otherwise. We can never be fully independent human beings, if for no other reason than that we believe, think, and act as others told us to, and not how we independently decided to based on nature alone. If we are products of nature alone, we’d be scarcely different from other apes.

What Dr. Hahn’s conception of Covenant means is that the natural social order consists of families, of households. Just as, being created, we can’t control who our Creator would be, so it is we can’t control who our parents will be or the social circumstances into which we’re born. But the nature of the family is not to put the child to the test, to see if he can withstand all temptation from breaking the rules. The family doesn’t exist to punish the child, but to raise him, teach him, and discipline him so that he may, as the Fifth Commandment implies and the Vulcans say, “live long and prosper.”

In other words, society isn’t based on the individual facing the legislative, judicial, and executive powers of The State, but rather on a household arrangement that seeks happiness and prosperity for each and for all. The family/household is the real foundation of civilization, not The State.

That’s not to say that this view is necessarily or exclusively Catholic, or even religious at all. Instead, it suggests that the human race is one family - as Rose Wilder Lane put it: “all men are free, and all men are brothers.”

What I’m suggesting is that a Covenantal understanding toward all human relationships and institutions conforms better with the natural order of things, than the doctrinaire legalism of any ideology‘s sense of “right and wrong.” The purpose of laws, rules, and regulations are not to damn those who may violate them, but to be used as standards by which lessons may be learned, discipline established, and better habits adopted.

Love is about freely giving to other people because one wants to. Justice is about receiving a fair exchange. Justice is necessary, but love transcends justice without refuting or repealing its precepts.

I believe there are means of adapting Covenantal models in civil government. Just as the Catholic Church demands priestly celibacy as a form of poverty, so it may be that those who seek political office ought to, as their reward, be paid lower than a fast-food fry cook in a depressed small town, and to be prohibited from receiving any gift or support except what subsequent politician/guardians of The State decides to bestow on them.

We know that, for whatever its faults, the Catholic Church means business, that it believes it’s doing something worthwhile, if it insists on a vow of celibacy for its leadership. This means that whatever their rewards may be, the pleasure of intimate female companionship isn’t one of them. And some priestly orders also insist on a vow of poverty as well.

Therefore, if democratic/republican regimes such as ours are really worthwhile - if The State really means business - it is not too much to ask of politicians, if what they do is really meritorious and improves the moral and economic well-being of mankind, to sacrifice all material gain they might possibly get elsewhere. The satisfaction of helping their fellow human beings should be great enough reward. So I suggest a simple proposition, and I’m serious: that all politicians take a vow of poverty, just like, as I understand it, some priests and most monks and nuns already do.

If serving “the people” is so rewarding in itself, then politicians won’t need monetary gain. And they’d willingly go to the poorhouse or live off of charity, if their service to The State was so good. If I were a politician, the immaterial enjoyment of knowing I made the world a better place would be better than all the money in the world.

So let’s go this route. If the libertarian position is wrong, it will be proved by politicians who take a vow of poverty and convince us that the public good can indeed be maintained by disinterested commitment to the public good regardless of personal profit, partisan gain, or the free-market mechanism called price.

All you Statists and socialists with political ambition : put your money where your mouth is. Take a vow of poverty, and I just might listen to what you have to say, and maybe even vote for you. Without a vow of poverty, however, you’re entirely discredited from the start.

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