Picking the moment when a friend's house collapses due to choosing a location in the path of a hurricane to lecture him on his lack of prudence seems as insensitive as writing about greed while Wall Street melts down. Many of us make foolish choices, and many plutocrats are undoubtedly corrupt, but it would have been better to point this out when it required some moral courage to do so.
The Bible writes about a man named Job who suffered after a prosperous period. His unctuous friends came to instruct him on his obvious sins. God took a dim view of Job's friends and I would rather not be one of them.
It is hard to blame politicians for acting as Job's friends to Wall Street since their public demands it, but pundits on the payroll of media conglomerates show little taste by piling on. As many essentially decent traders and workers go broke, it is unseemly to lambaste them for their vices even if they are real, but apparently all human sympathy is lost for one if they happen to work on Wall Street.
The failure of a great business does not have to be the result of evildoing. When things don't turn out the way we like, it is natural to look for scapegoats, but dangerous. The temptation will be to reduce our liberty to prevent the possibility of failure.
Failure is the tribute that any craftsman pays the cosmos for the possibility of success. Success is deeply meaningful to us, because in the world of liberty that God created, it is not guaranteed. An attempt to live in a cosmos without the possibility of failure is unreal and will inevitably lead to tyranny. If the God who would have the right to create such a system did not, perhaps government bureaucrats and regulators should refrain more than they do.
When this sad period is done, we will discover that some men were bad and others good. Good men who failed should be pitied and their friends should aid them in making a fresh start. Honorable failure is no shame.
Bad men who broke the law should be punished regardless of their wealth or position, but men who simply failed should not be. Certain forms of moralistic proclamations should be left to pulpits and not to politicians. Greed is certainly bad, but God help us if it becomes illegal!
The difficulty in times like this is treating the powerful with justice. Some demagogues will wish to punish the rich for business failures to gain popular approval. Others will curry their favor and try to cover up crimes in order to gain wealth. Both actions are unjust and both are temptations that have long been with humanity.
American culture has been able to be free for so long because most individuals have resisted either form of corruption. Our courts are not perfect, but on the whole the rich are treated with justice. Money cannot buy acquittal, at least not often, and the public is not allowed to punish the businessman merely for failing. This can only continue if we teach and encourage people to be good.
Liberty requires good men and women, so friends of liberty would do well to pray for a genuine religious revival on Wall Street and in government. We need people who will not bribe regulators even if they could get away with it due to badly written laws. We need regulators who will not show favoritism to, nor discriminate against, the wealthy. These government officials will not posture for the public and punish the innocent for public acclaim, nor will they develop cozy relationships with fat cats for their personal gain.
Without morality on the individual level, no laws, contracts, or rules will help our society. Bad men will always find a way to cheat. Given that we shan't be in utopia soon, there will always be bad men and so always the need for a police power to keep bad men from harming the public, but if too many men are bad and the police power grows too great, then liberty will be lost.
The founders of our nation knew this, but we are sometimes in danger of forgetting it. Media often mock the moral or are bored with moderation and then are shocked when immoral or immoderate men threaten the culture by their wickedness.
Today then is a good day to look with pity on those whose dreams have failed. We should pray for those whose lives have been devastated as surely as victims of a hurricane. Many of the hurting had no more responsibility for their failure than the devastated homeowner who took the risk of building or purchasing a house in a flood zone. Both risked and both failed and it is only human to feel sorry for their failure. We should pray for justice for the wicked who exploit the honest and innocent.
Most of all, we should be thankful for our liberty, even the liberty to fail.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute and associate professor of philosophy at Biola University. This article first appeared on his blog, Scriptorium Daily.
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