The problem with government today is that it leaves out human beings. That’s not an oversight. It follows from the basic principles on which public thought is now carried on.
The kind of thought now considered responsible tries to achieve prediction and control through simplicity and exactitude. That approach works very well for technology, and it’s brought us indoor plumbing, modern medicine, and the near abolition of famine.
But it’s not the key to all good things.
The point of the approach is to make it easier for us to get whatever we want. Even so, making it easier to get things leads people to cut corners, and that can make good things hard to come by. Technology makes it easy to produce bad food, for example, and eventually people stop making the effort to prepare something better. And at a more fundamental level, television, the Internet, smart phones, the automobile, and contraception seriously weaken the connections to others that form our lives by making it so easy to make and drop them.
Even the things people try to make as good as possible are getting worse, because the habits, attitudes, and skills developed by dealing with difficult realities have been lost. How many people think present-day art, architecture, and literature are equal to those of the past? People ignore them in favor of older productions, or settle into the easy gratifications of pop culture—TV, movies, comic books, science fiction, romance novels, and so on.
It’s obvious something has gone wrong. But what?
At bottom, the problem is that modern ways of thinking ignore too much. By concentrating on what is effective and demonstrable, they distract us from other things that are less tangible but more important. They’re very good at telling us how to achieve physical goals that can be specified numerically, like flying to the moon, but can’t deal with questions like how to live a life worth living. How can they, when they only tell us about man as a material object or a being that has desires and can be used for various purposes?
One result of these tendencies is modern government, which is understood as part of the technological project of remaking the world so that everyone gets whatever he wants, as much and as equally as possible. But suppose that’s not what people want? Suppose they want human connections? The good, beautiful, and true? An understanding of the meaning of life? God? Can any of those things be reduced to getting what we want as much and equally as possible?
In any event, if getting what we want is the point of life, why should officials or anyone else care about the public interest rather than what they want for themselves? But if they don’t care about the public there’s no reason to expect them to do much to advance the stated goals of government. They’ll be too busy looking after their own interests.
So we can’t expect much out of the current approach to government. For a better life, including better government, we need a fuller picture of man.
That can be difficult. Man is complex, and it’s hard to say what he is or how to sort out his various aspects. He’s physical as well as intellectual and spiritual. He’s free as well as restricted, social as well as rebellious, earthly and open to the transcendent. The result is that he’s incomplete, inconstant, and ambiguous. We learn far more about him from literature, which is notoriously open to very different interpretations, than from scientific treatises.
How can such a being be placed in order, which is, after all, the purpose of government and indeed morality?
It’s a complex problem, but the human race has had lots of experience dealing with it. Also, not all issues are difficult. Some things are obviously natural, others evidently necessary for a decent way of life. A couple of examples will make it clear how modern government botches the simplest points.
The first point is marriage, the union of man and woman for new life and mutual support. People have always viewed it as the original and most basic institution. Aristotle said as much. Mythological tales bear witness to it. Genesis starts with Adam and Eve, and tells us that “a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh” (Gen 2:24). Even Mencius, a strong advocate of propriety and hardly a one-sided proponent of the nuclear family, knew how to put first things first. He justified a great sage who had married a woman without informing his parents by noting, “If he had informed them, he would not have been able to marry. That male and female should dwell together, is the greatest of human relations. If Shun had informed his parents, he must have made void this greatest of human relations.”
From marriage arises family relations in general. Reproduction within an ordered structure connects us to an ever-ramifying network of people in a way that can’t be denied and gives us a responsible position in the human world.
Thus far nature takes us by herself. But everything exists in a setting, and man is a social and cultural being as well as one with a given nature. The family is not a perfect society in the Catholic sense–meaning it does not itself have everything necessary to attain its end. It cannot, for example, generate the standards that maintain and perfect its ability to realize the goods for which it exists.
Standards are public and rational, and our exercise of reason has cultural aspects. We need correction from others, so much so that shared habits and understandings are necessary for sound thought and a well-founded system of action. So families must exist within a culture that supports them and understands their importance. The maintenance of such a culture is of the first importance for a tolerable society.
Something so basic should be an obvious concern of government. Certainly it should be a concern of any government that like our own feels called upon to reform social attitudes it views as somehow defective. But today what we find instead is a government that makes every effort to extirpate habits and attitudes that support stable and functional family life—the view that marriage is a basic institution, that sex and reproduction have a special connection to it, that the sexes differ and the differences must be taken into account in understanding their lives together, even that mankind is divided into two sexes.
It gets worse. Culture must be systematic and coherent to function as more than a jumble of irrational prejudices. For that it needs a domain of common life in which it is accepted as authoritative. To be itself it needs a particular home with boundaries. Without that basic requirement even people who ignore human nature on principle, like quantitative social scientists, notice that the way people live breaks down and they stop trusting each other.
These are all obvious points. The response of modern government to them is to do everything it can—mass immigration, multiculturalism, every kind of diversity initiative—to disrupt cultural coherence. It acts as if its first duty were to destroy the conditions that enable people to carry on rewarding, productive, and self-governing lives.
Today government is more powerful and active than ever. It’s backed by a supremely self-confident educated class that dominates social life more thoroughly than any previous elite. Confucius remarked, “you may rob the Three Armies of their commander-in-chief, but you cannot deprive the humblest peasant of his opinion.” That’s no longer true. After a few years of modern electronic propaganda the peasant will be spouting transgender talking points.
That’s a big problem. The first step toward dealing with it is to recognize what it is, and for that the Catholic Church, with its realism, knowledge of man, acceptance of nature, and ability to maintain an independent perspective, should take the lead. In recent years she has increasingly failed to do so. That must change.
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