Friday, December 3, 2010


Yesterday I wrote - Light has the power to overcome darkness; not by combating darkness, but by being exactly what it is: light. The light of love is always present, even when it does not at first appear. The eternal light shines in the life of each of us, even in times that seem darkest, like now. So here’s something for us to be proud of, a way the light is shining right now.

“With wealth comes responsibility to help make the world a better place,” Ted Turner said. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett agree. According to the Christian Science Monitor’s 11/22 issue, these attitudes “represent a particularly American vision of the common good – one that includes proclaiming a cause with all the moral fervor of an evangelist. It’s a vision that highlights stark differences between this country and the rest of the world. Even in today’s harsh economic climate, Americans as a whole gave about $304 billion in 2009, but that’s down from $315 billion in 2008.

“When Alexis de Tocqueville observed the peculiar traits of an emerging American society in the 1830’s, he noticed how Americans struggled to find a balance between their unprecedented commitment to individual liberty and the needs of the common good. It’s a struggle that continues, in many ways to define American political discourse to this day.”

De Tocqueville noted that Americans formed “voluntary associations” as a way to bridge the gap between the common good and the commitment to individual liberty. “Rooted in a deep ambivalence about the sweeping power of government,” these voluntary associations worked well for a long time.

But here’s where the light begins to fade and the darkness seeps in. Voluntary associations seem to be fading, see the book “Bowling Alone,” and transforming with the internet, so that more and more individuals are abdicating their responsibility for the common good, practically abandoning it to government at all levels and for profit corporations running prisons and hospitals, that used to be a community responsibility.

As this ‘professionalization’ of the common good has gone forward, costs have gone up, as might be expected, and starting with Proposition 13 in California, Americans are experiencing a tax revolt, as people refuse to pay for professional services and at the same time refuse to take responsibility for providing them. So, the common good goes begging. Corporations won’t do it for nothing, government can’t raise the money to pay for it and the private associations are disappearing.

If de Tocqueville were to come again, he would note that the struggle to balance the common good and individual liberty is being lost; deep ambivalence toward the sweeping power of government and the commitment to individual liberty is gaining and the common good is losing. So while philanthropy is a shining light and Americans lead the world in it, unfortunately we are in great need of it and it will never replace what is being lost as government retreats and private associations disappear.

But a little light, it need not be this way. We can still find ways to balance the common good and individual liberty, we can still build a world that works for everyone and everything.

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