THE BLOG

What Comes First: Society Or Government?

02/25/2016 03:09 EST | Updated 02/25/2017 05:12 EST

I saw a clip of a woman asking Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson how he reconciles traditional Christian values, specifically the caring of the indigent, with present Republican policies to cut welfare and limit other assistances to the poor. Dr. Carson offered what I thought to be an interesting answer. He maintained that it is obviously important to help those in need but that this should be the responsibility of "the people," not the job of government.

To, illustrate, he presented an example from what might have happened in the nineteenth century if a person was facing difficult times. Let us say that a farmer, while harvesting his apple orchard, fell from a tree and broke his leg thereby making it impossible for him to complete his harvest. It would be this person's neighbours who would step in to assist, completing his harvest and thereby ensuring that his family would not suffer. It was not the role of government to assist then - and this, Dr. Carson presents, should be our goal for society today as well. The "People" themselves should step forward.

To Dr. Carson it is indeed obvious that a well-functioning and moral society assists those in need. The real question is a more practical one: what mechanism should be employed to achieve this end? Behind Dr. Carson's position is clearly a belief that this goal would be best met if the dominant role was left in the hands of "the people," with government playing a minor role if any.

Indeed there are many arguments for why such a vision of society may be the preferred one. What caring person did not feel moved when Dr. Carson spoke about how a historical community would come to the assistance of this farmer in need, thereby ensuring that his accident would not cause permanent hardship for his family. The reality of a society fully functioning in this manner to meet the needs of others would clearly be better than any government solution. The challenge is though whether our modern society would and/or could meet such a challenge. This is not necessarily because the modern human being is more selfish. The nature of our society is not as coherently connected.

What Dr. Carson is maintaining is that government should limit its assistance: not for lack of need but because it would be better if this need was addressed in a different manner. This, though, would actually create a demand for a different society and it is this essential transformation that then should be recognized as the real issue. My follow up question to Dr. Carson would have been how he intends to foster the development of such community caring that would be able to take the place of government assistance. Pursuant to his own argument, as there is real need, it would actually be inappropriate for the government to lessen assistance without first laying the groundwork for an alternative solution.

To be honest, conservatives on both sides of the Canadian-American border have in some ways recognized this necessity through their changes in tax legislation to increase the benefits of charitable donations. The problem is not solely that this is not enough. Individuals such as Dr. Carson are maintaining that we should cut back on government assistance because the people should accept the responsibility but they do not then explain how they are going to foster and ensure that the people will accept this responsibility.

A plan cannot only be to set in place less government involvement but it must also be concerned with how to foster the public responsibility that is to take the place of government. The idea that we -- as individuals and as a collective society -- are responsible for each other is a noble and beautiful one - and an ideal to which we should all ascribe. It, though, cannot just be easily assumed. A plan to cut government assistance must include a plan to foster such an ideal - and the definition and active claim of this ideal must be presented first. If you extinguish the old candle before lighting the new one -- how will you even find this new candle to light it in the dark?