The Opium of the People
By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 14, 2022
The alluring prospect of a materialistic heaven on earth fuels an insatiable appetite for government guarantees of peace, security, and worldly comforts. Karl Marx said, “Religion is the opium of the people.” He would have been more accurate if he said massive government programs are the narcotics of voters.
Perhaps the most compelling—and neglected—social justice issue of our time is the immense national debt: the result of decades of feeding our appetites for “free stuff.” The debt threatens to cause severe economic dislocations, including inflation and dangerous government economic interventions. Very few of us grasp the enormity of the accumulation of government deficit spending, and we tend to underestimate its cost in dollars, freedom, and human dignity. Few of us take responsibility because, as the saying goes, no single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood.
Good laws are reasonable, just, and serve the common good. Good laws are humble, not harsh, respecting our freedom because they coincide with human nature. Laws forbidding crimes such as murder and theft reinforce good behavior and do not threaten upright people.
Although inherently costly, bureaucracies have been with us always and have a rightful place. Oversight and implementation of arrays of laws and regulations require reasonable organizational efforts. In the Old Testament, the priestly tribe of Aaron administered the 613 precepts of the Mosaic Law. There is always a need for leaders to provide for the common defense, negotiate treaties, and adjust policies according to circumstances. The best bureaucracies are small and widely dispersed.
However, in recent decades, a subversive phrase has emerged disclosing a pathological abuse of the law. Accelerating the use of the law for social engineering and regulating the economy, failures prompt authorities to promise: “We are going to establish policies, procedures, and programs to ensure that [fill in the blank] never happens again.” The promise is unrealistic—with a subliminal denial of Original Sin—and dangerously expensive.
Promises of the fail-safe guarantees of big government are unprecedented in cost and scope. Over the last century, there has been a growing reliance on government programs (e.g., the “war on poverty”) and a declining reliance on our families and communities. When institutions fail (some are deemed “too big to fail”), we demand even more spending to avoid failures that would punish irresponsibility. Guaranteeing heaven on earth through government programs is expensive.
Church leaders have also placed faith in bureaucratic legal machinery, perhaps in part to deflect criticism. After the revelations of clerical misconduct, the bishops promised to establish policies and procedures to ensure that their dereliction of duty never recurs. (Episcopal negligence is indeed impossible when policies transfer the responsibility of our shepherds to lay boards for resolution.) Such secular and religious guarantees feel good, buy votes, build bureaucracies, are immensely expensive and, ultimately, their promises are illusory.
By promising programs that vainly “guarantee” good results at any price, laws become instruments of raw centralized power—in the eager hands of the few—rather than serving justice. The crushing national debt and the consolidation of government power undermine our freedom and threaten economic well-being. Some have compared government programs to mafia protection rackets. The comparison is unfair. Government programs are much more costly and unforgiving than mob extortion.
The proliferation of bureaucracies smothers freedom and responsibility. (Imagine the logistics involved in distributing free drug paraphernalia at taxpayer expense.) Presumed fail-safe procedures often break down because of the boredom, distractions, and incompetence of those charged with administering them. Only big institutions have the financial resources to establish programs that presume to guarantee that the violations will “never happen again.”
Government programs, born in arrogance, promise to transform communities, schools, businesses, and large segments of society into bureaucratic police states. (Not even a tube of toothpaste can pass unmolested through an airport security checkpoint, and vaccine passports are on the horizon.) So we need social workers, tax professionals, lawyers, and advocates to guide us through the labyrinth of bureaucratic paperwork. Do not go to the hospital without a bookkeeper. Meanwhile, the bureaucratic promise of heaven still on earth remains elusive. We fall ill; we suffer; we die.
When God revealed the Ten Commandments to us through Moses, He disclosed the way of life: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” (Dt. 3:19) The Ten Commandments do not restrict our freedom; these Commandments express our freedom. When the law punishes those who transgress just laws, we not only protect society. We also protect human life and human freedom.
Jesus teaches, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Jn. 14:15) The measure of the justice of any law is whether it promotes authentic human love: love of God and love of neighbor—love of family, community, and country. Sins are not mere external violations of policies and procedures. Transgressions reveal our souls. Jesus teaches: “… out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” (Mk. 7:20-23) Bureaucrats may use policies, procedures, and programs as instruments of indoctrination and social manipulation, but they cannot account for the good and evil in our hearts.
Jesus promises that when we keep His commandments, our joy will be complete in Him (cf. Jn. 15:11). Jesus and His commandments help us restore our humanity even if “normal” is now on the secular index of forbidden judgmental words.
Laws cannot guarantee happiness. They can only guide us in one direction or another. Let’s examine our consciences and identify the entitlement mentality that threatens our nation and salvation. (We do not need a USCCB “Office of Excessive Government Spending and Systemic Entitlement.”)
Government failures are likely to accelerate and to do us great harm. We have alternative “bureaucracies” that are too small to fail. Let’s return to the biblical view of law, grace, and generosity—including humble practicing Catholic “family bureaucracies”—that struggle with our social problems and direct us on the path to peace of soul and eternal life.
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