Saturday, July 07, 2018

Noble Man, Noble Plan

“I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.”
— Milton Friedman

I’ve liked that quote for a while now. In our current political climate it seems apropos.

It can certainly be read optimistically: If you can’t get people of good character into positions of responsibility, at least there’s a chance that a determined populace might motivate the bad characters with real power to dance to the tune of public opinion.

Perhaps there’s some hope in that.

A Disappointing Circularity

Think about it for a while, though, especially when you take into account a little more context, and you may discover a disappointing circularity to Friedman’s formulation. He correctly identifies a lack of character in leadership as a major problem, but his solution involves creating a “climate of opinion” to drive the leadership in a better direction. In a democracy, that requires that a majority first be convinced of the right way to go, which in turn requires someone (or someones) willing and able to “establish” that climate of opinion in the first place.

In other words, to get our bad leaders to dance to the tune of good people, we need good leaders to motivate the people to be good.

Ugh. Not likely, I’m afraid.

Nobles and Scoundrels

Isaiah expressed something a bit more achievable:
He who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands.”
Here the prophet contrasts the noble man with the “scoundrel”, which is an old word, but one that still works. In fact, we still live in a world in which powerful scoundrels plan wicked schemes and quite literally ruin the poor with lying words, just as Isaiah described thousands of years ago.

Scoundrels convince mothers to murder their own babies. They incentivize the breakup of families. They whip great swaths of the low-information citizenry into a continual state of unrest by convincing them they are innocent victims of evil, entirely uncomplicit in their own misery and unable in any measure to reduce it. They take repentance off the table and substitute revolution, which solves nothing.

These problems are modern, these specifics are current, these details are different … but Isaiah was correct. Scoundrels today exploit the same people scoundrels have always exploited. They act according to their character. The policies for which they advocate reflect the evil at home in their own hearts.

A Prince of a Man

In contrast to the scoundrel stands the noble man. He too acts from the heart. His character is evident in his deeds and it is rooted in a solid foundation of sustainable good.

The word “noble” is one of those rare English words that embodies the precise sense of the original Hebrew. In Hebrew, nadiyb is used to refer to a leader of the people (we often translate it “prince”) as well as a certain sort of desirable character best described as liberal or generous. So we may speak of “nobles”, meaning men of rank, as well as the quality of “nobility”, which, sadly, not every noble displays.

The Lord Jesus taught something about character and its consequences not wildly dissimilar to the words of Isaiah:
“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
A good person has good treasure in his heart. That suggests the sort of permanent spiritual transformation that is not our subject here, but is critical to any real hope for consistent character and nobility in both leaders and followers.

Princes Rule in Justice

But the Lord’s second clause is very much on point. Sure, as Milton Friedman pointed out, bad people can occasionally be coerced or otherwise motivated to act in a noble manner when such behavior coincides with their own best interests. But they can’t keep it up. It’s impossible for them to act nobly in any kind of consistent way when there is no true nobility in them. Who we are at the core impacts what we do and how we are perceived. It can hardly be otherwise.

So, yes, persuading a bad man to do a good thing is certainly better than nothing. At least for a moment he stops making the world worse. But let’s not put our hopes in that. In fact, I suspect we will never see “princes rule in justice” until the day comes when Isaiah’s prophecy of a king who will reign in righteousness is finally and fully realized.

In the meantime, a noble man may indeed make noble plans and take his stand on a foundation of generosity and integrity. But for the time being, he will probably have to do it very much on his own.

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