Friday, March 20, 2009

Ernest Copley Vs. Solzhenitsyn

From the title, you'd think old Ern was going to take it on the chin here. Who can stand in philosophical depth against the Lion of Russia? AVI, I never heard of this Copley guy. But Ernie's going to score points. Whether you end up siding with Aleksandr or Ernie is going to be up to you, but Copley will hold his own.

I am reading The Soul and Barbed Wire, an overview of Solzhenitsyn's works. It is reminding me of some approaches and understandings I held long ago, which deserve reconsideration.

By the early 80's, I had moved from the politics of redistribution to a mild Christianised socialism. If everyone would just be maximally generous, I thought, we wouldn't need to be discussing the politics of this at all. But, as people aren't maximally generous, and tend to turn away from seeing need, I reasoned, we are stuck with a rather onerous, inefficient, corrupt method of caring for the poor via government. Yeah, Jesus didn't say that, exactly, but He does want us to care for the poor, and this is the only choice on the menu to get there.

Solzhenitsyn believed that the goal of a people is to maximise the spiritual health and wealth of all, and this is true prosperity. However difficult that may be to measure, it's hard to argue with that goal. I acceded to that thought in large measure. For the American people to learn to be good and generous and unmaterialistic seemed an excellent place to put my energy. If the Christians could learn that, more people would want to be Christians, or at least dimly perceive a need to aspire to that society. The giving would be Enough, I felt, to create a sort of voluntary socialism. If people had basic needs met, however unevenly, then all this politics stuff would be unimportant. Opposed to this was the highly fundamentalist belief that this world was always going to be crap and unjust, and making heaven on earth was dangerous. I reconciled this with the running idea that I, at least, should do my bit to grow toward spiritual gianthood. The world might go wherever it would, and there would always be evil and injustice, but we Christians had a responsibility to develop ourselves for the next world and be an example in this one.

Enter Ernie Copley. The exact phrasing has long escaped me, but it was something along the lines of "If I were a starving person, instead of a system that makes you more generous, I'd be interested in a system that gave me more food." I squirmed against that at the time, but it stuck with me. Wherever else we go in the discussion from here on in, that is one large rock in the stream. The method that feeds, houses, and clothes more people has an enormous moral head start against all the theories and theologies that try to compete with it.

I didn't like the Life Competition idea that said we lab rats would get more food if you shocked us into jumping into a job and having to sweat it out for our daily pellet. It seemed cruel. Why should we work to build a society like that, anxiety-ridden, competitive, and harsh, when for just a little bit more effort, we could have a society where we lab rats were fed graciously and calmly? It would leave us time to pursue the arts, or nuzzling our young, or - did you hear this Jesus? - in prayer. If a few people have to go just a little bit hungrier in order to get there, that's too bad, but the best we can hope for in a fallen world. Right? Right? And if some rich people, insulated from the storms of life, have to confront the realities that others face, why, that might even be a good thing, mightn't it?

Except. Except it's not just a little bit more effort to get a lot more comfort-for-all. In practice, even a whole lot more of generosity via government doesn't seem to improve the general standard of living. In the long run, it looks suspiciously as if the cruel method feeds more people. That slow 2% GDP improvement year after year since the free market became the norm 200 years ago adds up over the 1/2% year over year improvement that preceded it for six centuries; which in turn was better than the 0% improvement for a few thousand years before that. A collapse caused by the free market looks like a catastrophe, because we can imagine how it could have been avoided if we'd all just suddenly gone big government six months before.

Except. Except we would just be trading off for some other catastrophe, brought about by that system.

Let's hold off right there for the moment. There's plenty to think about. But of course, I'm going to switch directions a bit and examine what we lose by that method. Reading Solzhenitsyn will do that to you.

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