Shaping the Age to Come

All the nations we thought solid, all the values of civilized life, all that made for stability in international relations, all that made for regularity in the economy . . . in a word, all that tended happily to limit the uncertainty of the morrow, all that gave nations and individuals some confidence in the morrow . . . all this seems badly compromised. I have consulted all the augurs I could find, of every species, and I have heard only vague words, contradictory prophecies, curiously feeble assurances. Never has humanity combined so much power with so much disorder, so much anxiety with so many playthings, so much knowledge with so much uncertainty” (Paul Valery, “Historical Fact”).

In this apt portrayal of our time, French poet and essayist Paul Valery exposes the sum of human fear—life in an uncertain environment—one in which we as individuals do not exercise ultimate control.

Today, however, there seems to be reason for optimism, particularly for those who have faith that the technological innovations and institutional advances of our fast-fading century are capable of providing the certitude they seek. They hope that through the application of millennia of acquired knowledge and collective experience, they can create for themselves a stable, sensible, lasting world order. And in so doing, they can ensure what humanity has long sought: peace and prosperity for all.

The reason for such optimism: progress in technology and government, which in the last decade of this century has eclipsed that of any previous century or millennium in human history. These advances, it is believed, account for the individual and national efforts at cooperation in addressing this planet’s most pressing political, environmental and economic problems. And it cannot but be argued that, in some ways, those efforts have been remarkable. So perhaps Paul Valery's observations, appropriate as they may seem, are unworthy of our attention. He did, after all, pen them in 1932—a very different time, a very different world. Or was it?

Before we relegate the poet’s thoughts to the recycle bin as interesting but inapplicable, we should consider them as the product of his experience. Paul Valery’s life spanned significant portions of the 19th and 20th centuries (1871–1945). He was a witness to the optimistic expectations for the future that characterized human experience around the beginning of this century. Then, as now, it was thought that innovative technologies, like electricity, and new socio-political institutions, like multiparty democracy, would make it possible to forge strong and stable societies capable of working together peacefully.

Economically, the world operated under the gold standard, and monetary growth was not heavily regulated by national governments. This enabled gold to flow rather freely across national borders, thus creating a global economy. The hope of prosperity that such an economy held for so many probably seemed less like hope than like a fait accompli.

But in 1932, with the world in the throes of economic depression, with one world war a recent memory and another looming on the horizon, the optimistic expectations that characterized the late 19th and early 20th centuries must have seemed part of a very distant past. In less than half a century, stability, certainty and prosperity, as Valery so eloquently noted, had been “badly compromised.”

Such a thought-provoking and accurate description of our age, even though written nearly three quarters of a century ago, cannot be ignored. It serves to highlight one of the great ironies of human experience—that the environments we construct for ourselves, and the forces that shape them, generally are not understood or even recognized until they have been superseded. Valery’s words bear testimony to the uncomfortable fact that our vision of the effect our present actions will have on the future too often falls woefully short.

Why? One reason is that optimistic expectations cannot create a vision for the future—the ability to see clearly the consequences of our actions before we act. Nor can technology, despite its usefulness in many areas of life. So what will prevent failure of the optimistic expectations for our age? The answer is individual, community and national action that is rooted in a righteous ethic—an ethic based on a clear vision of what to do and how to do it.

Global Vision

Such vision is important at all times, but particularly at critical transitional periods in human history—like ours. We also need an understanding of the ideas that influence our thoughts and actions. And our age may well be the most important one because of the magnitude of events, the speed at which they occur, and the tremendously destructive capacity humanity possesses.

There can be no doubt that the events of this century, and in particular the last decade of it, are truly profound. They are shaping another age of human experience—the next millennium. To understand how they are doing so requires careful thought.

Among the many significant events of this century, perhaps the most notable is the downfall of communism. Its collapse seems to have closed the book on an ages-old debate about the best way to organize human life. For with its fall from grace, democracy and capitalism stand supreme atop the world as the guiding ideology for an organized society. Consequently the message being received by so many is that there is no longer any need for government to intervene to protect society against the ravages of an economy run amuck.

Oddly, the world thought it had resolved that question more than a half century ago in 1944—with quite a different result. In January of that year, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in an address to Congress: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. . . . We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race or creed.” He was referring to the ideal that every American had the right to “earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.”

That same year Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill, published his government’s famous White Paper on Employment. It advocated that “the Government accept as one of their primary aims and responsibilities the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment after the war.”

The concern expressed by these two men, that governments act more forcefully to protect the less fortunate from being ravaged by an undisciplined economy, became the platform upon which the leaders who followed them would construct the modern welfare state.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, a mortal blow was dealt to communism. Socialism and welfare in their various forms are being reengineered as well.

Now a certain déjà vu prevails. Multiparty democracy and liberal economic institutions are shaping yet another age of human experience. The difference now is that these concepts are seen to have universal acceptance. The December 21, 1991, issue of the British newspaper The Economist, in an article entitled “The Hole He Left Behind” (he being Karl Marx, the “father” of 20th-century communism; the hole being its demise and the collapse of its promise of care for the poor), asserted that

If a serious new political movement is to fill the post-communist vacuum, it will have to start by recognizing the facts created by the collapse of communism.” 

The Economist, December 21, 1991

If a serious new political movement is to fill the post-communist vacuum, it will have to start by recognising the facts created by the collapse of communism. There is now no alternative to the free market as the way to organise economic life. The spread of free-market economics should gradually lead to a spread of multi-party democracy, because people who have got free economic choice tend to insist on having free political choice too. In short, the organisation of human life can now be based on many individual decisions, not orders from the top issued in the name of scientific certainty.”

That assessment is proving accurate. With the breach of the Berlin wall and the implosion of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, other republics and nations began to embrace capitalism and move to democratize politically. Even China, the only remaining communist stronghold and the earth’s most populous nation, is flirting with capitalism. And the revolution continues. Nations previously unfamiliar with free-market economics and multiparty democracy now aggressively pursue that which they perceive accounts for the remarkable prosperity of the United States.

But as in the early years of this century, there are problems. In July 1997, the world witnessed the beginning of what many experts are calling a global financial crisis. A financial earthquake, whose epicenter was Thailand, sent financial shock waves rippling through Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Europe, Latin America and the United States.

The result for some was financial collapse. So devastating was it, that some stock markets, specifically some within Asia, saw losses greater than those suffered in the Wall Street crash of 1929. In places like Russia and Indonesia, financial collapse has also meant economic collapse.

The speed with which nations have moved to assimilate themselves into the global free market and reinvent their political institutions to meet the cry for democratic self-determination has put the system under extreme stress. That stress has exposed some fundamental flaws within the system.

Moreover, the nations’ desire to participate in the global economy is creating unusual stress on the earth’s resources. Environmentalists are rightly concerned about the planet’s ability to supply the demands of developing nations—in particular nations like China and India, each with their more than one billion people.

Individual and national expectations notwithstanding, uncertainty in the world seems to be a part of our foreseeable future. Despite that fact, most nations still view the free market as the only viable way to organize economic life. Modern democracy, with its fundamental tenet of self-determination, appears to have a future as well. Consider Malaysia—a nation that deliberately abandoned the global financial system, inflicting substantial damage on the world’s economy as a result. Nonetheless, Malaysia continued to demonstrate its loyalty to free-market and democratic principles internally.

Freedom of Choice

So what does all this mean? After thousands of years of recorded human experience and experiment, one of the most important things we now think we understand is that there is no substitute for the free market as the way to organize economic life and no substitute for multiparty democracy as the way to organize political life.

The United States has great faith in these institutions. So much so that they are, according to President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright, the fundamental basis of U.S. foreign policy. But what lies at their heart?

Free trade and the free movement of capital across national boundaries characterize the free market today. On a personal level, the free market means, as former president Roosevelt declared to the U.S. Congress in 1944, that we as individuals have the right to “earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation,” presumably for ourselves and our families. More than that, the free market assures us that we have the right to choose for ourselves those things that suit our needs and desires. The only limitation to that pursuit is our own pocketbook. In all events, however, the basic needs are supplied—and at a level somewhere above poverty.

Modern multiparty democracy is not as easy to describe because it tends, in part, to take its shape from the culture in which it breeds. Its focus, however, is on individuals and groups more than on the “state”—the political structure that fulfills the functions of government. Of course, the state is the primary context in which we address democracy and democratic principles. At its heart, however, democracy is a form of self-governance that seeks to protect shared individual and group interests against a more powerful elite.

One objective of modern democracy is to invest smaller segments of society with a certain degree of political autonomy within a much larger society (the state). This is achieved only when individuals or groups are awarded some level of independence out of respect for their “need” for self-determination—the right of individuals and groups to determine what is in their own best interest.

As The Economist notes, the powerful ideologies of multiparty democracy and free-market economics are compatible. This is because, fundamentally, they both encourage us to govern ourselves. The basis for that government, however, is self-determination on the basis of self-interest. Democracy attempts to control self-determination that is destructive to itself and to society as a whole by subjecting it to the rule of law and collective decision making. The free market knows no such master. So, implicit in The Economist’s assertion that “the organization of human life can now be based on many individual decisions, not orders from the top issued in the name of scientific certainty,” must be the promise of a society in which self-governance operates without domination, coercion and exploitation—so often the hallmark of humans governing humans.

The promise of such a society is ostensibly the result of people being free to make choices about what is best for them on the basis of what a particular choice costs them in monetary or other terms. In matters that affect their life and future, people tend to consider their own decisions more trustworthy than they do decisions made by others on their behalf.

Before we accept that notion as truth, however, it would be wise to consider just how interconnected we are. Is it possible to make decisions individually without affecting others—or for nations to make decisions that do not in some way impact other nations?

And what becomes of the certainty we seek if, as we might expect, individuals and nations most often choose the alternative that minimizes their personal cost, despite its potentially greater cost to society? Again, consider Malaysia. When it removed itself from the global financial market, it relieved, at least in the short term, its own financial crisis, but at significant cost to others. That decision produced only a heightened sense of uncertainty about the global economy and its future.

Pursuit of Self-Interest

These are important considerations, because in our world today, economy is leading politics. That fact has serious ramifications if it is the case that “people who have got free economic choice tend to insist on free political choice.” Why? Because in the free market, the pursuit of self-determination on the basis of one's own interests is exalted to a moral imperative. Can we afford to have that kind of self-determination hold such a lofty position in economic, social and political institutions? And if it does, what will be the result?

In the free market, the pursuit of self-determination on the basis of one’s own interests is exalted to a moral imperative. 

One predictable result of such a course is limitless social and national fragmentation, where what people insist on is to be ruled by their “own kind.” When one’s own kind is not defined in terms of character—a righteous ethical and moral standard that is lived daily—then it devolves to a lesser standard—usually one defined by those who are most like us in terms of language, customs, place of origin or some other variable characteristic. Such a lesser standard only ensures fragmentation. In fact, the post-Cold War world has already witnessed this kind of fragmentation among nations on every continent.

Another predictable result impacts us more personally. The cost-versus-benefit approach that underlies the decision-making process in the free market may generally be satisfactory when purchasing an automobile. But we ought to ask whether it will produce satisfactory results if adopted as a way of thinking and decision making in other areas of life. Can an ideology that is essentially nonrelational and that exalts the pursuit of self-determination on the basis of one’s self-interest be capable of providing an adequate moral and ethical foundation for more important judgments in life? Judgments regarding family, community, relations within and among nations, care for the environment, matters of equity and justice, labor relations, education, and health care?

This is not the first time in this century that the world has been confronted with this dilemma. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the concern was about a free-market economic system that was driven by the Darwinian ideology of the “survival of the fittest.” Just as there was concern then for the “unfit,” we must ask how the pursuit of self-determination, extolled by both modern free-market economics and multiparty democracy, will ensure care for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised of our world today?

Our intuition and experience in this century alone should tell us that institutions of self-government, based on self-determination and motivated by personal self-interest, cannot and will not provide adequately for everyone. Moreover, we should know that we cannot expect those institutions to produce the kind of action necessary to sustain the relationships that are fundamental to peace and prosperity within society and among nations.

The difficulty, however, is that we humans believe that if we make the decisions that shape our future, we can take control of our destiny. That sense of control also gives us a sense of certainty and comfort. It frees us, or so we think, from the coercion, domination and exploitation of others. For these reasons we see wisdom in self-governance on the basis of self-determination. But are we being wise?

Consider an everyday example: “road pricing.” To curb growth in car ownership, and to reduce pollution, congestion and noise, several countries (and states within the United States) are implementing road-pricing schemes. Motorists are charged a toll to travel certain roads. The toll increases during peak periods. This is judged to be fair because motorists are charged proportionally for their contribution to traffic congestion. The solution seems a sensible one to begin to deal with crowded conditions. Travelers find alternative routes, pay for the congestion they help create, or adjust their work schedules to avoid travel during peak periods.

All is well if alternative routes are available, if one’s financial circumstances permit the luxury of paying to travel at peak times, or if one has sufficient control over one’s schedule to travel at off-peak hours. Such prerogatives and opportunities are, however, more readily available to executives and management than they are to laborers. This means that the burden imposed on motorists will fall most heavily upon those least capable of shouldering it. And the imposition of such a burden may mean that a family must move to a less desirable living situation or do without an important necessity—like an educational opportunity for a child, clothing, or even adequate food. Or they may have to seek other, perhaps less desirable employment.

Without the freedom and independence to make the optimal choice, the “right” to choose, at best, produces only the illusion of control. Under such circumstances, it would be difficult for a person not to feel coerced, dominated and exploited.

Though that may be a mundane example, consider what would happen in cases where there are critical national or global shortages of life-sustaining resources—and such shortages can most certainly be expected. How would the free market produce an equitable balance between the wealthier developed nations and the poorer developing ones if each group or nation does what is in its own best interest? More fundamentally, who determines the alternatives from which the various groups may choose? Are we to believe that there is no potential for coercion, domination and exploitation in such a system? And if the answer to that question is yes, then perhaps we should ask why economic sanctions are such an important diplomatic tool?

Self-Interest, Self-Destruction

We are not exploring these questions without some hindsight. It has been nearly a decade since the collapse of communism. In that time, the shortcomings of self-governance on the basis of self-determination within the framework of the free market and multiparty democracy have begun to show.

That is why, for at least the third time this century, an American president and a British prime minister are collaborating on a new vision for an emerging global society. They are calling for a “third way” in economic policy. Laudably, what these two world leaders seek is an alternative to the free market on the one hand, and to the kind of active intervention from government that produced the welfare state on the other.

What they propose is to take people from welfare to what they call “workfare.” Unfortunately, at this time their proposals go no further than a reform of national welfare systems in the major industrial nations. Their proposals do not address channeling financial and other more needful resources into nations that are currently submerged and drowning. Worse is the fact that, to date, “welfare to workfare” programs are based primarily on the same principle that necessitated their development—self-determination based on self-interest. These leaders and the “third way” simply reinforce the point that nations who embrace self-governance based on the principles of self-determination cannot forge a truly new direction for humanity.

In fact, if self-governance based on self-determination is truly our only alternative, and if it represents the ideology around which we will structure institutions and programs in order to move ahead, we cannot boast much growth in 6,000 years of recorded human history. For in reality, we have returned to where our first parents began when they decided to act in their own self-interest and determine their destiny apart from their Creator and His instruction. In that light, a reading of Genesis 3 is strangely contemporary.

Unlike Adam and Eve, however, we are faced with the immediate prospect that our acts of self-determination can bring to extinction not only human life but all life on this planet. A prophecy recorded in Matthew 24:22 speaks of this destruction as the inevitable outcome of human self-governance independent of the One who created us. Thankfully that same prophecy assures us that the One who created us will not allow us to self-determine all life out of existence.

The vision that would give us the wisdom we need to create a stable, lasting and certain environment does exist. And, as is the case with the free market and multiparty democracy, its basis is self-governance. Contrary to the free market and multiparty democracy, however, its ethic requires that we do not merely look to our own interests, but to the interests of others as well. That approach requires that we hold the interests of others in higher esteem than we do our own (Philippians 2:3-4), and that we exercise self-control at all times. Where the free market seeks to exalt self-interest to a moral imperative, this form of self-governance counsels us not to act out of selfish ambition.

Self-governance of this type does not require comprehensive legislative schemes or unwieldy bureaucracies to administer it. In fact, no law needs to be written to enjoin such a government to act, and no law needs to be written to forbid action by that government (Galatians 5:22-23). This is self-governance that is rooted in an ethic and comes from a mind very different from what we see at work in the world today. So to capture this vision, a change of mind on both an individual and a national level is required.

This model of self-governance is relational. It seeks to serve others and, unlike what we see at work today, it is a model of governance that leads economy. Therefore it does not make choices primarily on the basis of minimizing personal cost but seeks what is best for all. This is accomplished because each individual, to the extent he or she is able (sometimes above and beyond what seems possible), intervenes on behalf of others when and where there is a genuine need. As individuals, families and communities embrace this vision, the response, not unlike what we are witnessing today with the free market and democracy, will grow to become a national response to real global problems.

The free market and multiparty democracy offer the hope that domination, coercion and exploitation will pass from the scene forever. That would be something to celebrate. The hard reality, though, is that there will always have to be authority and government—if for no other reason than to frame, for us, the choices that need to be made.

The one other significant difference between the model of self-governance favored by the free market (and encouraged by multiparty democracy) and the model provided by our Creator is that His model provides for a structure of self-governance under the rule of a righteous judge and sovereign: someone who is capable of instructing people as to what it is they were created for; someone capable of making the earth, the only known life-sustaining planet, the kind of neighborhood worth living in.

Imagine, if you can, a world in which we can rely on one another to make choices based first on what is best for others. 

Imagine, if you can, a world in which we can rely on one another to make choices based first on what is best for others—a world where we can trust our leaders to be servants first and where leaders live up to a righteous standard. What kind of world would that be?

The uncertainty that so greatly troubled Paul Valery, and that troubles people today, would not exist. The fabric of society would be strengthened. Peace would be a way of life. The earth itself would breathe a sigh of relief. Business profits might not be maximized and financial markets might not be what they are today, but large profits and rising markets have never produced peace. And after all, prosperity is more than the measure of one’s wealth.

This vision of the future is not just an ethereal, unattainable dream. It is the reality to which this publication is committed—and about which we have much more to say.

What is immediately important to understand is that shaping the age to come is the responsibility of every individual and every nation. For better or for worse, this depends on the quality of our vision and what we do about that vision. Inevitably, the future we create is the result of the choices we make today.

We need to do more than just think about that.