I challenged a discussion group, whose members are graduates of my alma mater, to think about why our motherland Pinas is behind in a lot of areas. Somebody responded that may be we need to be more generous, and really care for the poor.
I am generous, and I see what he is saying, but I have a different view of what is virtue, and therefore of what is good for the country. I have just re-read Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, hoping to see in Rizal’s ideas something similar to my own. I do admire the stories told in these two great novels, but I did not see exactly the ideas I was looking for. May be it’s there and just did not see it.
What I am looking for is a definition of what is freedom. To the communists, the ideal is that everybody gives, not to the poor, but to a ghost called “the common good”. Their big problem is that if someone doesn’t get it, doesn’t get the ideal, he is punished for it, and punished heavily. In the end, the freedom from want that is sought, for the common good, leads exactly to the opposite, which is total control of a whole population.
God gave each one of us the means to survive: we have our own limbs for making food and building shelter, our own minds to make decisions for ourselves, and our own stomachs to feed. Of course, there are some who are unfortunate, and I would love to spend time with them not as a benefactor but just to chat. But the unfortunate ones are an exception as much as those brimming with talent are also exceptional. God equipped us mere mortals of the means to survive. God did not equip us with a giant stomach to which we are all connected to get sustenance. He gave each of us our own digestive system. He did not create us with only one brain shared by everybody, and so I believe that what He has in mind is freedom for each of us.
What kind of freedom is most appropriate for us? I don’t think it is freedom from basic wants. We all aim for an abundant society, but none of our basic needs can just come down as manna from heaven. If we define freedom as freedom from want as opposed to the freedom to work towards our purposes in life, purposes that do not harm anybody else, then we will gain neither the former nor latter type of freedom.
Many people confuse freedom with the absence of rules. The absence of rules leads to anarchy and therefore also loss of freedom. Freedom is simply allowing people to do good, to be the best in what they do, while not harming anyone else in the society they live in. Instead of the common good, I think it is much more virtuous to think of the primacy of the individual. Rules are there to protect the individual from society, and it is only in fewer cases where we need to protect society from the individual. After all, there are much fewer criminals than good citizens in Pinas. For me, the term “rule of law” is meant to limit the government instead of constraining the individual. The ideal situation is that in which the government is simply a mechanical signal light, unforgiving and indifferent in its application of the rules; but as a functioning traffic signal light, it prevents us from colliding with each other. It does not tell us where to go, it just prevents us from running into and harming each other.
And so by building our ideas (of how people should live in society) on the foundation of the primacy of the individual (as opposed to the common good), I believe we will gain more freedom and prosperity. The system that we come up with will not guarantee equality of outcome and freedom from want, but it should guarantee equality with respect to application of the rules. In Pinas we have always strived for equality of outcome, but for as long as I can remember we have always had the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer, and it is not too often that we find equality before the law either. The common good is not good for everybody after all. The common good is just a figment of a politician’s imagination, but you and I as individuals are real.