Friday, March 03, 2006

The Collapse of Western Civilization

In my lifetime I have heard many opinions stating the cause of "the fall of Western Civilization." The most common references are to the 1960's and to sex or drugs or rock and roll, or some combination thereof. But others have cited the Nixon scandal, or the Kennedy assassination, or Supreme Court decisions on racial integration or official prayers in public schools.

As will not surprise anyone, I have my own opinion. I point to Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and to this particular quotation:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation." (From Statecraft by Margaret Thatcher. Although this quotation is from her book, I believe she also used it in public addresses.)

Now, I don't blame Lady Thatcher alone. While I haven't been able to find the specific citation, I seem to recall President Reagan calling the observation "one of the smartest things [he'd] ever heard." And of course there have been all those others, those in leadership positions (in this society that reportedly doesn’t exist) who have followed this standard in political planning and economy.

No such thing as society? Surely this was a philosophical innovation. For all that we think of the American icon of the “rugged individualist,” our history shows quite a balance between individualism and a responsibility for the “neighbor” that goes far beyond geography. We may take as stereotypical the practice of barn-raising, still practiced among Amish and other Anabaptist traditions. The facts that we have public schools, public roads and highways, and social safety net programs (as opposed to only private schools, toll roads, and poor houses) speak to a recognition in our society that there are some things that are better accomplished by the community as a whole, and from which we all benefit, if not all in the same measure.

I find the arguments from “entitlement” to be a straw man, raised up for the express purpose of being knocked down. While there are exceptions (regularly highlighted these days in the media), it has always been the assumption that we were responsible as individuals for initiative and effort. Both liberals and conservatives, and certainly the broad social middle, understood that while those who tried didn’t necessarily get where they wanted, those who didn’t try got nowhere. And we wanted a society that supported that individual effort with educational and economic infrastructure that optimized the results of that effort. We believed that there was a “social contract,” a living relationship between the individual and the commonwealth of all the individuals. How could we speak of “the public good,” without an understanding that some actions and some needs affected all members of the public?

And how could we speak as if there were no society and still call ourselves Christian? If we believe that all the baptized are members of one Body, surely my neighbor is not geographically, economically, culturally, or politically limited. If we are judged based on how we care for “the least of these who are mine,” surely we are not limited to those we know personally or those within a defined geographic radius. And if the Good Shepherd has “other sheep that are not of this fold,” how can we in conscience – how can we without risking God’s wrath - set limits of place or age, of race or sex or culture, even of “deserving” or “undeserving?”

But there are still those who want to deny the reality of “society.” In my own circles the arguments for “health savings accounts” reflect that bias. At the extreme are Libertarians, whose political economy sounds to me like, ”I’ve made mine; you’ve got to make your own; weakest to the wall and devil take the hindmost.”

We certainly need to support those institutions and those leaders, both political and religious, who understand the reality of society. We need to reclaim the title of Christian for those who are as concerned about “the least of these” as they are about public displays of Scripture. We need – but then, I know I’m preaching to the choir. We need as individuals to affirm our conviction that society is real, and that we want to see society led toward justice and compassion.


Anonymous said...

Amen, brother! Well said! That Thatcher quote is chilling. I've been reading about how addiction is a disease of isolation, and how healing from it requires reintegration into community. I've also been reading the Psalms a lot and realizing how far we have fallen from the Judeo-Christian notion of being God's people as a group, in addition to having personal relationships with God. Now that I live in the capital of Rugged Individualism, Wyoming, I am particularly troubled by the lack of community feeling. Thanks for putting it so well.

Anonymous said...

At the extreme are Libertarians, whose political economy sounds to me like, ”I’ve made mine; you’ve got to make your own; weakest to the wall and devil take the hindmost.”

This sounds like the conservatives to me.

Marshall Scott said...


I think many who call themselves Conservatives are actually Libertarians. Most who call themselves Conservatives give lip service to caring for the weakest. I think they're pretty petty about what constitutes adequate care, and pretty selective about who are the weakest, or more often who among the weakest are deserving.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

"You're on your own".