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Safety, Risk, and Morality

My day job includes managing an education newspaper, and I’ve been discussing with several friends and experts lately on how teachers unions change American education. Here I’m not about to discuss unions as political actors, or delve into their history to make the typical caveats about how they were clearly helpful to many people in the poor working conditions of earlier eras, but rather consider how institutions and structural arrangements can either promote or retard individual morality.

I recorded a podcast last week with Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. He was on the show to share his writings about the dichotomy and complimentary relationship between truth and power, interesting in its own right. Right at the end, he says something pertinent to this topic: “When an institution is safe, it stops improving. And when it stops improving, it quickly becomes moribund and defunct.”

Immediately following our conversation, I began thinking of how that applied to me, and its implications for public policy that structures around and in sync with how humans actually behave and think.

I like to be safe. All humans do. It’s long been considered at the top of essential human needs. But there’s a dangerous quality to safety for sinful human beings, which manifests itself in an easy comfort with our defects. If we create conditions where humans seek comfort to the exclusion of, well, perfection, or even movement towards perfection (“improvement”), we actually increase immorality by making ourselves comfortable with it. Security becomes entitlement, and a sense of entitlement degrades our personal and communal morality.

We see this across the civilized world in outraged protests by citizens and public workers for, among other things, unsustainable pensions. Now, look, of course I want old people to have money to live on. But that’s not the point of contention here. We’re arguing about the best way to ensure that as many old people as humanly possible have enough to live on when they can no longer work to provide for themselves. Is it a system that cravenly promises ever more lavish benefits on ever-younger workers that no economy, not even the United States’, can sustain? These promises are not only mathematically impossible, they cater to our greed and laziness—not exactly the type of morality best to encourage in individuals and society.

What sorts of institutions, then, create the conditions for morality? I submit to you they are those that encourage freedom and individual responsibility. This may or may not be an “unfettered” free market, as my mind is still out to lunch on how far to pursue laissez faire, but I think it’s simple to conclude from human nature that systems should tilt heavily towards it.