Materialism, Creativity, and the Size of Government

by Stephen Lampe

Have you ever wondered how the many things we have and would like to own may be classified? Bertrand Russell contemplated the question in a book first published in 1917 and came up with a simple yet sophisticated classification. Russell, a mathematician and philosopher who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, identified two kinds of goods, and described two sorts of impulses associated with them. He noted that there are goods which an individual can possess and there are goods in which everybody can share. Material possessions are an example of goods of the former type; creative and spiritual possessions belong to the latter category. Here is an illustration. I have some slices of nice whole wheat bread; if I eat one slice of the bread, nobody else can eat the same slice. The shirt that I am wearing now is mine; nobody can wear it while I have it on. Bread and shirt belong to the category of goods in which individual possession is possible. Associated with this type of goods is the impulse to possess. Such a possessive impulse aims at acquiring or retaining private goods and property that cannot be shared. On the other hand, knowledge, love, and beauty are examples of goods in which all can share. If one man knows a principle, that does not prevent others from knowing the same principle. Indeed, the more a person gives of his knowledge, the clearer and deeper his own knowledge becomes.

The beauty of a painting in a museum can be admired and enjoyed by as many people as care to visit the museum; one man's enjoyment of it does not in any way diminish its enjoyment by others. Associated with this category of goods are creative or constructive impulses, which seek to bring into the world or make available for use, goods in which there is no privacy and no possession. Material possessions can be taken by force and enjoyed by the robber. However, you may kill a philosopher, but you cannot acquire his thought for your exclusive use. Bertrand Russell's contemplation of these two types of goods and their corresponding impulses, led him to declare: “The best life is the one in which the creative impulses play the largest part and the possessive impulses the smallest”.

Russell stated that his conclusion did not amount to a new discovery. He referred to the statement in the Bible credited to Jesus Christ: "Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?" Jesus implied that the thought we give to these things is taken away from matters of more importance. And what is worse, the habit of mind engendered by thinking of these things is a bad one; it leads to competition, envy, domination, cruelty, and almost all the moral evils that infest the world. In particular, it leads people to think that might is right and to feel free to use force to acquire material possessions. The possessive impulse was a major motivating factor for colonialism and imperialism.

The ascendancy of materialism throughout the world is the cause of “big government”, a government that patronizingly seeks to do everything. As long as possessive impulses are highly developed in human beings, many countries will constantly seek to take advantage of and dispossess other countries to benefit their own citizens. The non-aggressive countries find themselves constantly having to defend themselves, lest they be enslaved, colonized, or otherwise dispossessed. This situation leads to many complex problems in international relations necessitating wars and threats of war, as well as the expenditures of huge resources on armaments by aggressive and peaceful countries alike. This scheme of things makes powerful and big governments appear necessary and encourages the dictatorial tendencies of leaders. Within a country, a government may also take on certain responsibilities as a way of protecting weak citizens from predatory individuals, that is, individuals with highly developed possessive impulses. Such protection is to be applauded but it should take the form of enacting just and equitable laws and enforcing them. It should not be a justification for a government to engage in all sorts of activities; nor can it excuse undermining individual initiatives, which keep the spirit alive.

In the New Time, in the Millennium, spiritual possessions and the corresponding creative and constructive impulses must, and will, become dominant. As we move in that direction, it is clear that governments would have less and less to contribute. A government does not produce beautiful paintings or write inspiring poems. A government may fund research but it does not produce new knowledge. It is individual human beings with creative impulses who do these things. Governments can only create an environment in which the creative impulses can be exercised. Nobody needs the assistance of a government to give and receive love, to show and enjoy goodwill, to reflect on the experiences of life; these are emotions and activities in which people engage only as individuals. They are activities of the human spirit in which governments have no direct role.

The forces of a new spiritual Millennium will cause possessive impulses to wane and materialism to decline, while the creative impulse will grow to ever greater heights. Two inseparable principles, Justice and Love will become dominant features in the affairs of human beings. Today, we have a fair idea of what justice means and implies. But true love is generally misunderstood. A false conception of love is one major reason why so many people tolerate or advocate the involvement of government in areas where it should have no business. True love is the unselfish and benevolent concern for the spiritual good of another. True love seeks what would give spiritual benefit to the one loved, not necessarily what is pleasing to either party. In the understanding that the purpose of life is spiritual and not material, true love would do to the loved one that which would advance his spiritual development, even if it brings him physical pain or temporary material deprivation. Thus, true love does not seek to create a life of indolent comfort and indulgence; it does not seek to foster a life free of care.

In this sense, parents who truly love their children do not accept a perpetual obligation to provide their necessities. On the contrary, they provide them education and other assistance so that as soon as they come of age, they can take full responsibility for their own lives and their own needs. When children attain the age of maturity, the obligations of parents cease, and so does the parental authority. Truly loving parents may counsel their adult children but they must not impose their will on them. The adult children must never be prevented from exercising their Free Will; they should make their own choices and accordingly follow their own paths of experiencing and spiritual maturing. This principle also implies that children should not have any automatic legal right to inherit the properties of their parents. But parents, of course, may freely choose to will their properties to their children. However, they may also decide to give them to charity or even complete strangers. What a person has striven to acquire, he/she has the right to dispose of as he/she pleases.

This same concept of true love applies to the larger society. It is not love when a government seeks to take over the responsibility of every adult to fend for himself (even if government were able to do so, which is usually not the case). Every inwardly alive individual wants to fend for himself, and requires only such help as enables him to help himself. Anybody who is content and happy to live on handouts from government or from other individuals cannot be described as healthy. The struggles connected with earning one's livelihood are healthy, both mentally and spiritually. People who, because of their physical or mental condition, are not able to help themselves are, of course, exceptions. Any genuine human being senses the absolute necessity to care for and support such members of society. And such acts of compassion must bring spiritual benefits to all those who participate in them, in accordance with the immutable Law of Sowing and Reaping.

There are some people (thankfully a small minority) who think that governments are not at all required. They are wrong and the evidence is overwhelming; think about Beirut when it had no effective government, and consider Somalia in 1992 before the American Marines went in to restore order and save starving millions from certain death, consider Iraq today. Governments are absolutely essential. But “big governments” are obstacles to the spiritual development of individual citizens. They necessarily become obtrusive and stifle individual creativity. They have been accepted or tolerated hitherto only because of the mistaken belief that they promote material well-being. Recent developments in many countries, particularly in countries of former Eastern Europe, have demonstrated that big governments are, in fact, a hindrance to sustainable economic development.

There are, of course, many people in every country who have a vested interest in keeping governments big. They include some of the worst parasites of society and some bureaucrats. As materialism declines and spiritual values take root, governments will become leaner and yet more effective. And corruption which is such a huge impediment to development in many countries will also abate. Moreover, philanthropic instincts, born of genuine love and an understanding of the need for compassion, will also flourish among human beings. And as a result, individuals as well as non-governmental voluntary groups will help take good care of those who for mental or physical reasons cannot earn a livelihood. If human beings are to attain the spiritual purpose of human existence, governments should play only a well-defined and limited role in the lives of the people; the role consists primarily of providing security, maintaining law and order, planning land use, and protecting the environment.