The New Civil War – Our Brother’s Keeper
For some time, we in the United States have been engaged in a new Civil War. This time it is not a contest between the States but between attitudes of what kind of Country we want and how our society should be organized.”
Today I want to talk about one of the overriding issues that divide us as a Country. The issue of our “Social Contract” with each other.
What do we owe each other?
In the 17th & 18th Centuries, three philosophers –Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – developed differing outlines for a Social Contract, a rationale and framework for society to band together with rules for the common good.
Simplified, a Social Contract defines, among other things, the issue of how much we are “our brother’s keeper,” and Government’s role in enforcing the answer.
Before Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” life in America was pretty much a reflection of individual struggle – the phrase “dog eat dog” comes to mind – and those who could not prevail had little help in surviving.
Leaving out the crooks and cheats, people became prosperous through hard work, family heritage or tribal connections, practicing current societal mores of acceptance and luck.
For those who didn’t “make the grade,” their only recourse was to fall back on the help of family and friends or public charities (which were inadequately funded for the need).
It was a time which calls to mind Scrooge’s retort in refusing a request for a contribution for the needy at Christmas time.
“Are there no prisons…and the Union workhouses?” Scrooge asked.
Told they were still in operation but that “many can’t go there; and many would rather die” Scrooge replied “if they would rather die they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”
Now a Union workhouse (Poor House) of that day was a true “hell hole.” It housed the sick, the orphans, the elderly, the poorest of the poor and living conditions were, in fact, unlivable.
For example, “tasteless food” as described by one observer of the times “was rationed and the poor were always hungry. All the food had to be eaten by hands as there was not cutlery”
The facilities were not sanitary and no medical care of any kind was available. I thought of Scrooge when in 2012, at a Republican Party primary debate, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked a candidate who was resisting the idea of Government provided medical care what he would do with poor people who had no insurance, “let ‘em die?”
Immediately, from the audience came a number of loud, unabashed shouts of “Let ‘em die!”
Fortunately, the candidate said he wouldn’t do that and I think those shouters are a decided minority of Americans.
Still where is the majority today on the central question of what do we owe each other, meaning “how much are we our brother’s keeper”…and how much should Government be the instrument to enforce the answer.
Since Roosevelt’s reforms and Lyndon Johnson’s reforms and Barack Obama’s attempt to make medical insurance available for millions who were without it, the so-called “Safety Net” for Americans has been strengthened.
And over the years, even before FDR, “Reforms” in wages and worker benefits such as paid leave and company provided medical insurance, child labor laws, work place safety conditions, community standards of sanitation, environmental protections and many other reforms that help people have been emplaced.
But today, the “Safety Net” and the “Reforms” are under truly savage attack.
Today’s Republican controlled Congress, following a modern GOP playbook, empowered by a vain, self-absorbed, ignorant president, is in the process of:
-repealing many of those “Reforms” and the Regulations enforcing them
-degrading in a continuing effort to destroy Government provided medical insurance and medical care
-proposing to cut Federal benefits under Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (food Stamps) and Public Housing for low-income families, the elderly and persons with disabilities all in the name of frugality (while conferring huge tax benefits on the wealthy)
-weakening environmental regulations, thus denying science’s warning that we humans are destroying the earth’s atmosphere and living space
-hamstringing consumer protection agencies and programs
-and in so many other ways attempting to roll back the clock on the “Common Good “ in the service of the “Selfish Good.”
Regardless of how much one concludes we owe “our brother,” the three philosophers – Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau – differed on Government’s role in enforcing it.
Hobbes argued for a Monarchy, a single ruler, because he said to be safe in what he described as a life which is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” people must do what they are told and someone must tell them.
Locke believed mankind was essentially good and ought to have freedom to live under a government which had the consent of the governed and was both limited and liberal (in the classic definition).”
Rousseau believed in a collective Government of the whole body of citizens. A Countries’ people should band together to make the laws while a “legislator” enforces the will of the people.
He argued “a country cannot subsist well without liberty, nor liberty without virtue.”
Our Founders followed Locke and Rousseau, not Hobbes, and our Constitution, as amended, guides us to this day.
But we get to decide the fundamental questions of our own Social Contract.
We are clearly approaching a “tipping point” in deciding how much we should be our brother’s keeper.
So, who wins on this important issue if our new Civil War?
Do we go forward in strengthening our sense of obligation to each other, to our brothers? Or backward toward an individual struggle toward survival?
Our Constitution can not give us the answer, only our own sense of moral purpose and what I believe is an enlighted philosophy far older than outlined by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.
You’ll find it in Matthew 7:12