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Occasionally, someone makes a statement that is so concise and profound that it warrants repeating—often. Here’s one I heard recently:
If you don’t do the right thing without coercion, then coercion will be required.
(Here is a definition of coercion: The action or practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.)
The man who said it was Rev. Dr. Kenneth J. Barnes, who was being interviewed by John Anderson, former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.
It is worth watching!
The conversation was about business ethics, among other subjects, though the statement about coercion applies to all of life. But what human being consistently does the right thing, especially as a child, without coercion? There is no doubt that I required a lot of coercion as a child and well into my teen years! Usually, the fear of unwanted consequences puts some limits on our otherwise rampant selfishness.
Our human capacity to make choices is bent towards selfishness from the moment we arrive into this world, and it is the unenvious responsibility of parents to introduce enough coercion, or consequences, into the lives of children to bend them towards right choices and selflessness. Every parent will know that this often feels like a constant and thankless task.
Even in early years, we discover that we can sometimes obey the exact commands we have been given, but still act out of selfishness. We can be technically right in our efforts to evade consequences, but wrong in heart.
As we grow older this ability becomes more sophisticated. To illustrate, I live in a town where under-age drinking has been a problem for years. Some of the pubs have a reputation for allowing young people to order drinks without proof of age, so it is not unusual for parents to order their teenagers to avoid those pubs. More than one of the pubs has a “beer garden”. So, a young man comes home about midnight, smelling of alcohol and his dad, who has waited up for his late appearance, asks the obvious question, “Have you been to the….pub?”, to which the teenager replies, “No!” His answer might be technically correct because he stayed in the beer garden, but he is still attempting to mislead his father. Within his own definitions, the young man has complied with his dad’s order, but he has violated the intent.
Dr. Kenneth Barnes, in his interview with John Anderson points out that few business schools at Universities teach ethics. They used to, but now they teach compliance. The idea underlying this shift in education will destroy the freedom and wealth that the economic system of Western nations has provided. Many businesses no longer ask the question, “What is the right thing to do?”. Rather, they hire clever lawyers to look for every loophole in the law in their search for more dominance in the market and more profit.
Ethics are Essential
Our system only works well, however, if free individuals act ethically. They must often ask themselves the question, “What is the right thing to do here?”
As commitment to ethical behaviour declines in our free nations, our system is nearing collapse. Many young people are intensely aware of the rampant self-interests of many big businesses and are demanding that the capitalist system should be dismantled. Is it the system that is wrong, or is it the individuals in it?
As I write, the Black Lives Matter movement is dominating headlines. I looked at the placards being carried by some of the protestors and they were large photos of Malcolm X and one of his more famous quotes: “You can’t have capitalism without racism”. What are they saying?
What Do We Want?
They want a fair distribution of wealth. But how could that happen? The only approach being suggested now is for “the people” to own all the businesses. That means government. Does any government anywhere in modern history consistently run businesses well? Our governments in Western nations are already extremely powerful, especially since they are the only authorities who have the right to use coercion, even deadly force. Do the protestors and their mentors really want to give government more coercive power?
Lord Acton is the person credited with first saying, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Thoroughgoing socialism has been implemented many times in the last 100 years but to implement it, the socialist party in charge must take absolute power to itself. In every case, the record of human rights violations speaks for itself. Loss of freedoms comes first, then progressive poverty.
Some people would say that China is completely different. And that is true, in terms of economic development. But the story is the same when human rights violations are considered. Has the Chinese Communist Party succeeded in their objective of a more equal society? Not at all. The part is full of super-rich families, but hundreds of millions still live in poverty and oppression.
The peaceful protesters in the streets of our cities and the violent mobs are all part of the same powerful statement of dissatisfaction with the status quo. But what do they/we want? Do we intend to destabilise our democracy and the regulated free market and replace it with a government that is empowered to seize wealth from businesses and private individuals and then redistribute it? Do we really think that the concentration of power will turn out well?
A Glimmer of Hope
There is another hope—though it seems small at the moment. At the most basic level, this is not a systemic problem, it is the collective result of the loss of ethical behaviour by individuals. Changing the system won’t help, it will make things much worse.
Let’s shift our focus from changing the system to reforming the system. We want to keep the system that has brought more wealth and liberty to more people than anything in history. But it must be reformed, or perhaps it is better to say redeemed. That is usually a slow process because it consists of countless individuals experiencing a change of values and behaviour. But that is the only way forward.
Government can’t change the values of individuals. It can affect their behaviour with the threat of coercion, but we don’t want more of that! Values are shaped in families, clubs, schools and, most of all, religious influence. But not just any religion.
Over 500 years ago a monk named Martin Luther “rediscovered God and changed the world”, as Eric Metaxas writes in his biography of Luther. The forms of government and economics that grew from the Reformation proved to be the most desirable the world has ever known. The flow of immigration over the past 200 years bears unarguable witness to that.
Christian, You Must Engage!
Our struggling, hurting world can be redeemed. It was the Biblical faith that first gave rise to the acknowledgment that all people are created equal. It is time to proclaim it again. It is time for Biblical Christians everywhere to re-examine the beauty and desirability of the truth they hold. It’s time for business schools to teach ethics again, not just compliance. It’s time for schools to extol the values of ethics and morality as taught and illustrated in the Bible.
If you are a Christian, BE BOLD! Be kind. Be generous. Be compassionate. Be honest. Be transparent. But, with all that, stand up and speak for what is right and expose what is wrong!
There is a way forward, but we must all decide to engage.