Friday, 8 August 2008

How much can government do?

A commenter on yesterday's post on fertility rates queried whether government can really do much about these issues given that what is really needed is a change in the culture.

It is an important question - the Pope has been urging us to participate in the 'public square' but I think many Catholics are sceptical about how much government can (and should) really do.

Laws and practices as moral instruction

It is true that Government can't do everything. St Thomas Aquinas for example, didn't think that the law could be used to repress all vice.

Nonetheless, Dr Rowland argues in her book Culture and the Thomist Tradition that St Thomas did see civil law as having a capacity to instruct and correct - laws are an instrument for our moral education. She goes on to argue that practices embedded in laws and policies affect our implicit or explicit beliefs and thus our moral formation and prudential decision making, a kind of moral equivalent of the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi.

Incentive structures

The second point is that there is a lot of evidence that it is possible to influence behaviours, at least to some degree, using incentives like prices, tax concessions and so forth.

Economics isn't the only factor, and certatinly not the most important one, we do or should take into account when we make decisions of course. All the same, it would be naive and foolish to ignore it altogether. If child care becomes much cheaper, more women will enter the workforce; if having a child becomes more risky (because you will lose your job and jobs are scarce, or because there is a good chance your husband will runoff and leave you with the kids) then you may be reluctant.

The problem in influencing fertility rates in this way is that the 'costs' involved are quite high, so the amount of government intervention needed to make much difference if all you are relying on is financial incentive structures alone is very high, creating lots of other 'losers' and thus (generally rightly) making governments reluctant to use this approach in any serious way.

Leadership: narrative and symbolism

And that brings us to the third, and arguably most important factor in what government can do, namely lead!

What I mean by this is telling a storyline - finding ways to convince people that there really is a problem first of all; persuading them that the consequences of not acting are too high; and convincing them of the merits of the solution being proposed.

Laws, policies and actions from this perspective don't necessarily need to be that effective from a purely economic incentive point of view, the more important dimension is their symbolic value in signalling that 'this is important, and we need to do something about it'. A good example of powerful symbolic actions (even if I don't much agree with it!) was the Earth Hour a while back, designed to show that people actually do support action on greenhouse.

Leadership in this sense is of course very difficult to pull off - it is much easier to give people what they want rather than try and persuade them to a higher cause!

And there are some obvious problems in finding a storyline on fertility that will resonate with Australians. Such a storyline needs to be able to persuade people that having children is actually ecologically responsible. Moreover, standing up and saying that the choice is between having children ourselves or having our children grow up in a nation that will be Islamic in x years time might well work with many - but it is not likely to go down well with our regional neighbours! And trying to persuade people that God demands that we abandon the culture of death even more challenging.

All the same, finding a storyline that works on these sort of issues in my view is what true government is really about. And my view is that leadership, combined with the use of symbolic measures (including some appropriate and modest incentives) can have a big impact.

A Scriptural example

A rather nice example of all this is contained in the story of King Hezekiah's restoration of true worship in 2 Chronicles 29, which I'm reading at the moment as part of the Scripture Reading Plan I'm following. The King's father had closed the Temple and set up altars to idols everywhere. Hezekiah, on coming to power, immediately set about restoring the Temple.

He started small - had the Temple cleansed. At first, the priests were rather lax in undergoing the ritual purification needed to restore full practice. But he made some important symbolic gestures - inviting those from the other Kingdom to come, shifting the date of the celebration of the Passover in order to get the maximum number of people involved, and relaxing the rules somewhat in order to make it happen. The celebration was an enormous success, with more and more priests undergoing the full purification ceremonies, and the celebration itself being extended for an extra week.

Importantly, it laid the foundations for the future. Hezekiah managed to turn around a country from being completely given over to idol worship to one, led by his example, extremely generous in its offerings to the Temple. Through leadership, he persuaded the people to rely completely on the Lord for help even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds in the face of the Assyrians (and despite attempts at internal subversion by their agents). And his faith and leadership was repaid in the destruction of Sennacherib. There are some lessons in this for us I think!


Cardinal Pole said...

The law aspect is true enough; clearly, laws direct man to his end and help him determine the means to his ends.

But it's in the incentives aspect that your argument breaks down. Priesthood and religious life aren't the only vocations that are supposed to be characterised by self-emptying--husbands and wives should trust in God and welcome as many children as He blesses them with, without fixating on the cost. But this is clearly counter-cultural in contemporary Western society, and this is what I mean by cultural change being necessary.

Terra said...

Two points. First, even faithful catholics can practice abstinence -and Humanae Vitae does talk about 'responsible parenthood' taking into account economic conditions as a potentila serious moral reason for deferring having children for a time.

Secondly, how do we bring about cultural change for those who aren't faithful catholics? I'd argue that getting people to rediscover the joys of larger families is an important step short of the full conversion that is obviously needed. If we can get people to reorient themselves towards the natural law, they will be more open to hearing and doing God's will.

majella said...

I thought being married and having children or not having children was all about sin not economics ???

Terra said...

God made us rational creatures, so we do respond t economic incentives - but of course he also made us capable of transcending the purely economic.