The Journey series
This week’s Mustard Seed examines the right to property. Ownership is closely related to liberty. One first owns their self. People apply their efforts – labour, ingenuity, creativity, and innovation – to resources. Value increases as resources are transformed or brought closer to market. The wealth created is divided among the participants. Their share becomes their property. In our free market economy each participant is free to use or trade their resources as they choose.
Because we must consume to survive there is continuous demand. We weigh our interests and abilities against the needs and desires of our community and assess where we might best expend our resources to produce enough to keep or trade to meet our needs and desires. We may join an existing enterprise or begin a new one. I chose to start a construction company.
During the recession of the 1980’s I built a fish and chips restaurant for two of my friends. They paid for all materials but, because jobs were scarce and my friends didn’t have much money, I exchanged my labour for credit in their shop. I wasn’t able to eat all my wages before one friend died and the other retired.
I once built a house for someone who sold tires. Imagine if I had been paid in tires and then had to exchange those for the things I needed. If I took a tire to the bakery to exchange for bread would I need to accept a whole tire’s worth of baked goods? Would the baker be driving around on four mismatched tires he’d acquired from four different customers?
Both examples show why money was created. It is a convenient means of exchange. It is both easier to divide and more portable. Unfortunately, it also obscures both that our remuneration is a share in the effort we contribute to our chosen enterprise and that any transaction is the exchange of a share of the effort and resources we contributed to an enterprise for a share of others’ contributions to their enterprises. Money, which exists only by convention, has become an end rather than a means.
We agree that scraps of paper and metal have great value by virtue of the imprints they bear. We covet, hoard, and jealously protect them. Increasingly we trade in electronic blips which are mere symbols of symbols. We lose the tangibility of actually exchanging our efforts towards the needs of others for their efforts toward our needs.
I count myself fortunate because I worked directly for my customers. I knew who enjoyed the fruits of my labour. In many cases my customers also owned businesses. I could see the hard work they were doing for their customers.
I often contemplate how someone might feel working in a silicon chip factory. Each day they don protective clothing to isolate their workplace from the outside world. They enter a huge clean room the size of two football fields and man monitors which instruct robotics to perform one of hundreds of steps in producing a semiconductor chip which is then sealed robotically in its shield.
The parts are moved about the factory inside hermetically sealed containers. Nobody ever actually sees the chips. Even if they did, the etchings are so small they are undetectable without a microscope. The chips are then sent off to other manufacturers to be used in who-knows-what.
How do people who oversee a robot which performs a less than .2% contribution to something that goes off to be buried inside some unknown product come to appreciate their contribution to society? Will they never know who benefitted from their effort? Will that chip become part of a machine a doctor uses to save lives? Will it become part of a weapon that is used to kill many?
When I plant, tend, and harvest tomatoes in my backyard, I know they are the fruits of my labour. I built many houses and they stand to this day as monuments to my efforts. When I got the occupancy permit and handed the keys to their house over to my customers I knew what I had given them. I knew each customer and knew they worked hard for the cheque they gave me. I knew the things I bought for my family with that money actually came from my work on that house.
With today’s urbanization, specialization, and importation it’s easy to lose those connections. It’s easy to work for the money. Tomatoes come from Safeway and they’re mine because I bought them.
Next week: Charity.
This week’s Mustard Seed continues to examine rights. Participation in community has been viewed as a social contract since at least the time of the ancient Greek sophists.
One explanation claims the social contract is between ruled and ruler. Individuals defer to moral, social, and legal principles, rules, and institutions in exchange for state protection of their rights. Another theory understands the social contract as an evolved compendium of agreements which would rightly have been derived by rational individuals. Either way, society is claimed to exist as a web of contractual exchanges. We give as we expect to receive; we forego actions contrary to the good of others as we expect them to withhold acts harmful to us.
This is inadequate to sustain a society. It is the nature of contracts for participants to maximize gain and minimize cost. What is received must be perceived greater in worth than what is given or the transaction does not occur. One trades from their excess to procure their needs and desires. The goal is always to increase one’s personal position relative to others. We take what we can and give what we must.
It is easier to understand things by going back to the basics; the basic unit of society is the family. Society at this level obviously didn’t evolve from a cost/benefit analysis. Husband and wife marry to be together. Love overrides logic. Marriage flourishes only through unconditional giving from both parties. If either spouse takes out the scales they’re both in for a heavy time. There would absolutely be no next generation if procreation was subject to expected returns exceeding anticipated costs.
Society evolves from man’s longing for companionship with his equal. In the story of creation God brought every animal to Adam for him to name but Adam found no suitable helper among them. They were all inferior to Adam. God then created Eve from Adam’s rib to be a suitable partner. God didn’t create another Adam. He created woman, equal but complementary to man. Community comes before reciprocity. Contracts evolve incidental to companionship as we realize we each have strengths and weaknesses which complement the weaknesses and strengths of others.
Participation in community is better understood as a social covenant. People don’t come together in order to trade what they have for what they desire. People desire to be together so they offer what they can to sustain their community. Viewing society in this light it is easier to understand the line from JFK’s inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,”
Next week: The right to property.
This week’s Mustard Seed looks at the right to pursue happiness. All things we do we do to be happy.
Through both philosophy and psychology four tiers of happiness have been discerned.
1) External happiness comes through our senses from things.
2) Ego comparative happiness comes from a perception that our situation is better than someone else’s.
3) Contributive happiness comes through helping others.
4) Transcendent happiness comes from experiencing truth, beauty, goodness, and God.
At the first level the cause and effect of pleasure is easy to recognize. Much of it is necessary for survival. Eating relieves hunger; clothing and shelter relieve cold and wet. The reward comes soon after the effort. The rewards, however, diminish. One’s tenth bite isn’t as satisfying as the first and their hundredth may verge on painful. Rice three times a day for weeks on end grows tiresome. This type of happiness is also specific to those receiving the stimulus and ends soon after the source is removed.
As we rise through the levels happiness becomes more pervasive, enduring, and deep but more time and effort must be spent in acquisition. We must forego some immediate pleasure, or even endure suffering, to achieve greater anticipated pleasures.
Happiness at each level is good. We must engage in the first two levels to survive in society but to make those pleasures our ends becomes counter-productive. Peace is rarely found there. Dwelling in first level happiness will be a constant strive for a rush that ever ebbs and wanes. Second level happiness as a goal will lead to some depressing losses, some conciliatory ties, and some hard to hold wins. In both levels happiness will be just beyond where we are. Unfortunately, it is estimated that 70% of society is stuck in these two modes. Much of the malaise of society arises because idle time is spent escaping from a quest that can’t be won rather than striving for higher ideals.
As a teacher and during charitable activities I experienced and witnessed the far greater contributive happiness. At this level there are only winners, no losers. I challenge everyone to get involved with charities and service groups. Don’t just give money; give time. I guarantee the joy you receive will surpass the effort you give.
Transcendent happiness is becoming rarer as we become busier. Society demands so much that we have little time and energy left for leisure. Truth, beauty, and goodness are abandoned for the economy. Universities focus much more on commerce than arts. Scientific research focuses on products more than on discovery. People focus more on themselves than on God.
None of my greatest joys came from things or achievements. They all touch on the eternal; my marriage, the births of my sons, and a sense of connection with God during deep prayer and meditation. A few eureka moments during my studies are close contenders; times I was inspired with knowledge as if a switch flipped from darkness to light. There was also a time when I was looking up at the stars somewhere in the mid-Atlantic during a six day crossing. I knew then how small and insignificant I am, we all are, the Earth is in this vast creation.
How do we resolve the enigma of transcendent happiness being superior while lower levels are more urgent? Our society seems more and more to dictate that we forego the transcendent. Perhaps transcendence is reserved for the privileged. I suggest we listen to the scriptures. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.
Next week: ? (I’ll pray)
This week’s Mustard Seed looks at the right to liberty. Liberty is the exercise of freedom bound by the constraints of community.
I worked for a time rebuilding a summer camp for children. There was a creek running through the property which provided fresh water. A small tributary ran off to a low area where the water sat, became fetid, had a decidedly foul odour, and gradually flowed over a fallen log down to the beach where it disappeared into the sand.
As part of my project we carved out a bench on a hillside to accommodate a new infirmary. I used the excavated material to fill the low area, leaving a rock-lined channel to direct the water down to the beach. The area was transformed from a fenced-off bog that bred mosquitoes to a favourite place for small groups to gather and talk. Instead of driving people away, the water now draws them near.
That project came to mind years later when I heard a talk likening the banks of a river to moral limits. The speaker pointed out how powerful water is as it flows down a river is toward the sea and how water ceases to flow and stagnates if it breaches the banks. He explained that limits don’t tie us down; they direct us toward our goal. Sin leads us astray. Not to anywhere, but away from our proper end.
I thought further of my time as a computer programmer/analyst. Setting limits was critical. The project scope was documented and approved very early in the process. Setting the scope too narrow rendered a project ineffective; too wide threw budget and schedule out the window. Scope, budget, and schedule were closely tracked and reviewed. Significant variance in any one parameter required revision of the others. I pictured a three-panned scale. The complexity that extra pan added was immediately apparent. I quickly realized that three pans were not enough for life; there are many variables. Some are flexible; some are not. One can apply oneself and become proficient in many areas but study in a subject for which one has no interest or ability is of little avail. There are also physical limits. As my son’s basketball coach said, “You can’t teach tall.”
It was about then my head started to spin; time to step back and review my thoughts. If we’re stuck in a bad place, not going anywhere, it’s time to introduce a few more limits. When our limits restrain us bounce back into the stream. When our limits confuse us turn to our interests and abilities. We will get farther by staying within our limits than by banging our heads against them. We are not free to do as we will; we are only free to do as we can. Even with things we can do, time will constrain us. We must choose. We also do not live alone; at times we must defer to others.
We limit some personal freedoms to live in community but living in community frees us from many personal limits. We need much more than we can accomplish. We offer our excess in exchange for our wants. Our interests and abilities complement those of others. On the flip side, our dislikes and inabilities complement those of others. We must recognize and respect both sides of that coin.
Next time you hit a limit don't despair. That limit isn't an obstacle barring you from your goal, it's a sign post pointing to a greater opportunity.
Next week: Right to Pursue Happiness
Peter T Elliott