Tasty Little Morsels

This past week has been remarkably productive–and if you can already sense the sarcasm, you’re brilliant. Although this past week hasn’t been without merit, mind you: I’ve drafted a new month of goals, I’ve begun digitizing (and reviewing) my calculus notes, I’ve taken more time to study set theory, and I’ve exercised as much as (if not more than; I lost track a bit) I vowed to do. I’ve also posted on my blog and saw a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event.

What’s notable–or rather, one thing that’s notable–is that I’ve been able to do any of this at all. I have a house that I live in, a car that transports us where we need to go (even if I can’t drive it yet), and a world–or perhaps an area of the world–that allows for such mobility in the first place.

But if you ask people how great life is, they’ve probably got a lot to say–and most of it probably isn’t good. There aren’t any jobs. Eating healthy breaks the bank. The government has its hand in our lives too much–and in other areas, not enough! There’s issues with health care, immigration, taxes, the environment–and there really is no end, and on no issue is there any agreement.

It sort of makes today’s teaching all the more controversial.

3.2 Rabbi Hananiah, the Deputy High Priest, taught:

Pray for the welfare of the Government, for if the people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive.

At first glance, it’s not especially encouraging. I want to be more than a tasty little morsel. I want to think of our country as a lot more than just tasty little morsels trying to eat each other if not for the sake of some overlord hovering above us. At second glance, this teaching requires I look to some other teachings I’ve had to better understand the message it’s trying to give us.

Last fall I took American Government. We began the semester by discussing why governments developed, what their function is, and the different ways they’re conducted. A government is a social contract: The governed makes a pact with the governing to behave in a certain way to receive certain protections, or to say it another way, the governing guarantees some rights in exchange for others.

For example, without governments, people would have no protection against theft, so they would have to carry all of their belongings around with them. This might not be much in today’s world when everything you own can fit easily inside your pocket and still have the processing power of supercomputer, but back when wealth was measured in livestock and farmland, this was impossible. So the people give up certain rights–or rather, agree to obey certain laws–and the government comes in and says it’s illegal to steal from others. You can now move about and leave your possessions safely at home. The world has opened its doors to you.

All because of government.

I’m not saying all governments are perfect all the time. That’s illogical and empirically untrue. However, if we remove the human element–the corruption, the greed, the egocentrism and xenophobia–we end up with a remarkably sensible system that affects everyone–and usually for the better. We just sometimes forget the only mess in government is the people running it.

All of this makes a logical case for why we should pray for the welfare of the government. If the government is good, the country is good, and therefore the people are good. Everyone prospers. There is a golden age where peace and progress reign. And if the government isn’t good, well, any newspaper–global or otherwise–will prove a perfect case study of all the things that could happen.

Where I disagree with this teaching is in the implication that fear makes government work. On the one hand, from a basic knowledge of psychology, we can explain that if people are afraid of a negative consequence, they’re more likely to avoid a particular action, in this case, an unlawful action. Furthermore, if people fear the might of the government, they’re less likely to revolt and harm the processes that make it a great country. But on the other hand, fear leads to oppression and oppression is the opposite of what a good government should guarantee. I don’t believe fear should be the motivating factor for any of this.

So what should be? I believe a culture that values others, one that cherishes responsibility and duty, will foster a sense of collectivism in which people follow laws as an act of compassion, in which supporting the government isn’t an obligation, but a privilege and a right. This utopian ideal is far from the United States, however, with its rampant “me first” individualism. If it doesn’t ensure only the best and brightest for me, if it doesn’t hand everything to me, if it doesn’t concern me, then I don’t care about it. And it’s precisely in a culture like this that fear becomes necessary.

Am I saying the government should use force and control by fear? No, not at all, but an element of fear may in this environment be the only way people will follow the government’s laws–and therefore not swallow each other alive like the tasty little morsels I refuse to believe we are.

However, I still can’t reconcile the idea that fear is the only way a government can do its job with my personal beliefs. Yes, I believe fear is the primary emotion from which all other human feelings are spawned, but raw fear should not be the basis upon which government is built. A government should be built on the principles of guaranteeing inalienable rights and supporting the welfare of its people. Fear is nowhere in this equation.

I suppose this brings me to an impasse. I won’t concede to the necessity of fear in government more than I have–as a situational means, not a fundamental tool–and certainly, the teaching isn’t changing. All of this does beg for some kind of conclusion, however. Should we fear the government? Should we fear each other and forget the government? What should we do?

I think the lesson to be learned from all of this is that the government–especially the United States government–is not an exclusive other separate from us. All governments are a form of social contract between all parties–the governing and the governed. The President and the people. Congress and a country’s communities. All of this together creates a government; the elected officials and the appointed bureaucrats are not all there is to be spoken for. There is also all of us.

So when I read “pray for the welfare of the Government, for without fear the people would swallow each other alive,” I think of prayer in terms of actions–the people should stand up and work alongside the government so that fear is not necessary to keep people from devouring each other. Maybe this isn’t the original intent of the teaching, but it’s still one more lesson learned.

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4 thoughts on “Tasty Little Morsels

  1. Read it, not much to add. In lieu of substance, have some proofreading:

    >and I’ve exercised as much (if not more; I lost track a bit) than I vowed to do.

    Should it be: “[…] and I’ve exercised as much as (if not more than; I lost track a bit) I vowed to do?” Sans the question mark. Quotations are grammatically tricky.

    As you can see, your blockquote mark-up bugged out.

    • You are absolutely correct–and thank you doubly so for letting me know the blockquoting failed. I typed this on my WordPress iPad App, which is handy, but it doesn’t let you preview the post in HTML as it appears online, so formatting mistakes like that can slip past really easily. I will watch out for them more carefully from now on.

  2. Oh, I did find something substantial. When you say the following:

    “On the one hand, from a basic knowledge of psychology, we can explain that if people are afraid of a negative consequence, they’re more likely to avoid a particular action, in this case, an unlawful action.”

    You are technically making a very crucial mistake. If an entity is afraid of a negative consequence, i.e. a punishment, it will be more likely to avoid entire sets of actions (including, but not limited to, the particular action). Punishments depress entire behaviors more than specific circumstantial actions.

    That is why many prison systems are grotesquely inept. They rely on punishment, and not rehabilitation (i.e. release is a REWARD for bettering and changing behavior), which causes high rates of recidivism.

    Not to say your point doesn’t hold true on a philosophical level as to the necessity and the nature of functioning of governing, but in a technical sense that sentence is incorrect within a psychological context.

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