Saturday, May 09, 2020

Time and Chance (35)

Let’s back up and remind ourselves where we were last week in Ecclesiastes 8, because the subject under discussion in the first five verses continues just a little longer.

The Preacher was considering the temptations and opportunities that face people under authority in the performance of their duties; in this case, servants of the king. There are really only two possibilities: either the servant is doing the will of the king, or else he is using the king’s authority as cover to promote his personal agenda, or to advance some ideological position.

Do Your Job, Or Don’t

Now, we don’t have kings anymore, but the same principle applies to all of us to the extent we operate under authority: we can either do our jobs as instructed, or we can do something else.

The Preacher finished like this: “Whoever keeps a command will know no evil thing, and the wise heart will know the proper time and the just way.” The Preacher is strongly recommending doing the king’s will rather than the servant’s will, using one’s creativity and intelligence to carry out the king’s stated desires in the most effective possible way rather than attempting to subvert them.

He now continues on the subject of “times” and “ways”.

Ecclesiastes 8:6-9 — Of Times and Ways
“For there is a time and a way for everything, although man’s trouble [or evil] lies heavy on him. For he does not know what is to be, for who can tell him how it will be? No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death. There is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.”
Hey Nineteen

Governing is difficult. I have thought many times during the current crisis that I would not want to be in the shoes of those making choices for the civilian population. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything they are doing, or that all the rules they have imposed to date were coherent and well thought-through. That is demonstrably not the case. It definitely doesn’t mean that I trust the motives of Progressives in positions of power to make decisions for me. Liberals have a history of using crises as excuses to engage in opportunism and in tremendous overreach.

Former mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel famously said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste,” meaning that crises open up the possibility of enacting leftist social transformation more speedily and comprehensively than would otherwise be possible. There has been plenty of evidence in the last month that his fellow Democrats paid attention, especially those in Congress who have insisted on cluttering up emergency aid bills with funding for their favorite political hobby horses. Under normal circumstances these pork-fests would stall in the Senate, but the pressure created by a crisis of this magnitude presents the opportunity to skirt some of those inconvenient democratic hurdles.

Republican neocons are far from blameless in this department. 9/11 is almost twenty years into our collective past, but I see zero evidence that the Department of Homeland Security is in peril of being declared redundant (there is the CIA after all, and no less than fifteen other acronymic intelligence agencies). Nor is pointless and unproductive harassment of travelers in airports being dialed back or made more efficient. Moreover, despite many false starts and promises, troops are still not completely withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Political opportunism is a feature of any crisis, and its consequences for all of us are long-term.

Degrees of Difficulty

Nevertheless, I do appreciate the degree of difficulty under which those governing us today are operating. They have had to make high-stress decisions that impact tens of millions very quickly on the basis of limited, politicized information that is changing daily and weekly, all with their critics screeching at them about “lives at stake”.

I suspect it is this sort of burdensome decision-making the Preacher is referring to in verses 6-9. Think of the current situation: the Powers-That-Be have to weigh the number of lives which might be lost if they allow a virus to move unimpeded through the population (a thing not easy to quantify) against the number of lives which might eventually be lost or financially ruined if they tank the economy for a sustained period (a thing even more difficult to quantify because a far greater number of variables are involved). Either way lives will be (and are being) lost, massive amounts of accumulated digital and paper wealth are being destroyed, and no matter the eventual outcome of their decisions, people will complain that the Powers-That-Be either haven’t been doing enough, or else have done far too much — usually some of both.

And yet wisdom tells us some answers and some responses are better than others, no matter how evil the situation may be. And “better” does not mean “perfect”. When you are talking about the lives of millions, often there are no perfect answers to be found; there are only varying degrees of awful. The trick is always to find and impose the least-worst option, and few people will thank you for that.

Complicating the Picture

The Preacher then lists a number of factors which complicate intelligent big-picture decision-making:
  1. decision-makers cannot see the future (v7);
  2. decision-makers cannot control who lives or dies (v8);
  3. decision-makers cannot stop the great movements of history once they are set in motion (v8); and
  4. even removing moral constraints and limitations from our decision-makers does not equip them to solve some problems: “nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it” (v8).
Sometimes there is no good answer, and yet a decision still has to be made. There is a time and a way for everything, but that doesn’t mean those affected will celebrate the choices that have been made for them, often without either consultation or consent, even if those decisions result in an unexpectedly low number of lost lives and the minimum of retirement capital frittered away.

Why? Because hindsight is 20/20. The facts we have today are not the facts we had when decisions were being made, and so in retrospect those decisions may appear either inept or malevolent. And, you know, sometimes they were.

This is the case, the Preacher observes, in every situation in which “man has power over man”. Somebody is going to have their perceived rights violated. Somebody is going to get hurt.

It’s just a question of who that will be.

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