Friday, March 13, 2009

Calvin's Promise

One of the central tenants of Conservatism, American-style is, we are told, that if you work hard, follow the rules and pay your dues, you will succeed in life. Indeed, we're told that people fail (or even become failures, when they're being really uncharitable) because they didn't follow these simple precepts. No matter where you grew up, you're likely to have encountered someone who preached the values of hard work and sacrifice, and extolled the eventual benefits thereof.

But whenever someone says, "Okay, I've upheld my end of the bargain - time to pay up," the line seems to change, and quickly become: "You aren't entitled to anything. You haven't done what you needed to," as young Morgan Oliver found out, when her story was told on NPR. Some of the responses were withering. Seems that working your way through college has become the easy way to get a job. Absolutely no hard work or sacrifice involved. I wish someone had told the faculty and staff that back when I was in school.

But after thinking about for a while, I understood that the real problem was that many of us misunderstand the message. Modern conservatism has some of its roots in Calvinism. And it occurs to me that Calvinism (as it was explained to me - and I could be badly misunderstanding it myself) didn't offer a path to salvation - it simply sought to show how to recognize those who'd already made it. So the philosophy wasn't: "If you work hard, follow the rules and pay your dues, you will succeed in life." It was: "Those people have have succeeded in life have worked hard, followed the rules and paid their dues." (Note the lack of the word "because" in that last sentence.) It was more of an after-the-fact justification for success than a before-the-fact recipe. But that doesn't fit in very well with modern-day conservatism, which tends to downplay risks (in much the same way that modern liberalism is generally blind to opportunities). And besides, work hard, follow the rules, pay your dues then hope for the best is hardly a ringing endorsement of the virtues of hard work and sacrifice. I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't preach that, either...

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