Carrot and Stick Morality

All eyes are on Washington these days—and on the Republican Contract with America. The pundits continue to assess the first hundred days of the new Congress. But the issue isn't the number of bills passed. The real question is whether all this activity is changing America's direction. The question is: If we offer enough incentives, can we—as the politicians argue—legislate our way to a more virtuous society? For the answer let's look at just one explosive issue: welfare reform. During the recent House debate on welfare, three experts—James Q. Wilson, Bill Bennett, and Glenn Loury—testified. As expected, all three of them decried our current system, which they implicated in the explosion of illegitimacy. But then they surprised a lot of people by arguing that simply cutting off welfare benefits would not solve the problem. As Professor Loury put it, while pulling on a thread can unravel a sweater, pushing on the thread can't put the sweater back together. He's absolutely right. Reliance on incentives and disincentives begs the question of why people bear children out of wedlock. It doesn't tell us why they reject self-control and self-reliance. Conservatives believe that achieving the "good society" is simply a matter of getting government "right." Liberals made government too big, so conservatives just have to downsize it. Liberalism created incentives for bad behavior; conservatives have to create incentives for good behavior. The problem is, it's not that simple. As former Reagan aide Don Eberly recently argued in the Wall Street Journal, to create a good society we must recover the sense that man is foremost a moral creature. He wrote, "The twentieth century has traded in moral man for economic and psychological man." And, he added, "If we are to recover as a society, the twenty-first century will have to recover a vision of man bearing inherent moral value and moral agency." He's absolutely right, and the good news is that the public seems to have caught on. For example, in a recent Newsweek poll, 75 percent identified the major source of their dissatisfaction as "the moral decline of people in general." People intuitively understand that the fault lies not in what kind of carrot-and-stick programs the government offers, but in the state of our souls. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is right when he says it's impossible to sustain a civilization in which 12-year-olds have babies, 13-year-olds die of AIDS, 15-year-olds shoot each other, and 18-year-olds receive diplomas they can't read. But he's wrong if he thinks that overhauling government programs will solve these problems. These problems are the result of a radical break with the moral tradition that has sustained this country from its founding—one that insists on personal virtue and a belief in moral absolutes. Only a return to these truths can reverse the process. With everyone looking to Washington for solutions these days, it might be well for Christians to remember that the burning question of our day is not who will govern us. It is the question asked by the Jews of old: "How then shall we live?" The moral revitalization of American society depends on our willingness to live by a commitment to the very Source of virtue and truth itself.


Chuck Colson


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