The formula for a successful nation was spelled out a long time ago by Chinese sages. Nothing in the modern world renders it obsolete. It is one of those universal truths that remain true for all times and for all people.
"The men of old … first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts," the sages said.
One of the traits that distinguish the modern liberal is the belief in systemic problems and therefore systemic solutions. The conservative recognizes that all human problems begin with the individual. The liberal, believing that crime is a result of societal conditions, thinks that if the society is corrected, crime will disappear. The conservative knows better.
While all humans must adapt to their environment, happiness is not dependent on the environment, but rather on the individual’s assessment of his environment. More importantly, the environment cannot change the individual. A wise Jewish doctor who survived the death camps discovered that Sigmund Freud — who believed that if the restraints of civilization were lifted, people would revert to animal savagery — was wrong. In the camps where those restraints were destroyed, he said those who came in good remained good; those who came in bad remained bad.
In other words, whether one is kind or ruthless is not a product of the environment. It is a product of what is in the individual’s heart. To use a more common example, all that alcohol does is lower inhibitions. Therefore, a "mean drunk" is a mean person even when sober. A ruthlessly selfish person is a ruthlessly selfish person even in ordinary circumstances.
That is why government’s ability to control individuals is quite limited. It can attempt to manipulate their minds, and it can apply sanctions to certain actions. But laws and penalties against murder cannot change a killer. If they could, there would be no homicides. Laws and penalties against fraud and theft cannot change a crook. Therefore, just as the Chinese sages realized, all reforms must not only start with the individual but be carried out by the individual.
While extreme circumstances, such as poverty that threatens the life of a man’s family, might cause an honest man to steal to keep his family alive, such a person remains an honest man, whereas the dishonest individual will steal even when he is rich. The corporate crooks we see today were already rich beyond the dreams of the average person, but they stole anyway. Avarice rules their hearts.
One of the advantages of religion is that virtually all the major religions recognize the reality of human nature, which is flawed and fallible. Therefore, they concentrate on helping the individual rectify his own heart rather than seek societal changes. George Washington recognized this. He pointed out that a free republic requires virtuous citizens. Religion is the only force that can teach virtue to masses of people. Therefore, anyone who is an enemy of religion is an enemy of a free republic.
Organized religion, of course, cannot escape human nature. Priests, preachers, rabbis and imams can be bad people, too. But on the whole, religion will reform more people than a million laws. It is well to remember that the greatest mass murderers in human history — Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao Tse-tung — were all atheists. They were men who carried secular modern liberalism to its logical extreme.
Imperfect humans will never create a perfect society or a perfect government. But we get closer if we aim correctly. Today, the major emphasis in our country should not be on immigration or the war on terrorism or global warming, but on the family. We should always judge each law and each policy on the criteria of what effect it will have on the family.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.