The Last of Deuteronomy
Follow only the path that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you so that you may thrive and that it may go well with you, and that you may long endure in the land that you are about to possess Deuteronomy 5:30
There seems to be a perpetual conversation among policymakers about how to motivate people to do the right thing. While everyone agrees that a law-based society like the United States proclaims to be needs rules, and while all but the sociopaths among us agree that laws apply to everyone equally, the role of regulation in our country is the subject of some disagreement.
Certainly, there are some things that are illegal to prevent people from doing them. Aside from big prohibitions like murder and theft, there are smaller (though no less significant) laws that are designed to prevent drunk driving, fouling common areas with trash or effluence, and loosing pets. These laws are about respect for the well-being of others, safe conduct and/or the ability of most (if not all) to have quiet enjoyment of their community.
And certainly, there are some things that are designed to collect revenue to enable government to function by funding first responders, education, physical infrastructure and the like. It is correct, I think, that without a tax structure – whatever it is – the citizenry would not volunteer enough money to support local, state or federal government to conduct itself in the manner to which it has become accustomed.
And certainly, there are some pieces of legislation that are designed to address inequality or inequity that would otherwise create unfair disadvantages for some. Physical accessibility, the ability to cast a vote, a fair chance to purchase a home – these are but a few of the things that, without specific legislation, were not available equally or equitably to all the people created equal in our country.
I like laws. Though I may flout convention from time to time, I have always considered laws to be the way we agree to do the right thing. I like to think I wouldn’t lie, cheat or steal anyway, but I get satisfaction knowing that I am in good company. And, as I have said before, I consider paying taxes a privilege. (That’s not to say I enjoy it, but I see the value for my dollars.)
A well-known (at least by me) Talmudic teaching admonishes us to be faithful to God’s instruction for the sake of being faithful. “Be not like the servant who serves the master with an expectation of a reward,” it says. “Rather, be like the servant who serves the master without expectation of a reward.” There are enough anachronisms in that teaching to distract from its essential message, but it boils down to this: do the right thing because it is the right thing.
I have this teaching in mind constantly as I listen to debates about what is often derisively called “welfare.” Legislators who oppose government-funded support for the poor and unemployed will frequently argue against what they consider to be overly generous payments on the basis that it will discourage recipients from seeking jobs. It is more an insight into the legislator than the recipients when the former puts words into the mouth of the latter: Why should I work if I can make more by staying home?
I am sure some people will game the system if they can take better care of their loved ones with a government grant than an inadequate paycheck. But I imagine that being encouraged by a “servant of the people” to do the right thing, combined with their own desire to live a productive life would engender better results than being accused of being a laggard, only in it for the money. Better, I think, to appeal to our better selves than to be disrespected and offered a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I like to imagine that this Talmudic teaching, though coined by Antigonus (a Jewish scholar with a Greek name) many hundreds of years after Deuteronomy, is a reaction to the notion expressed in the verse above. We should not do the right thing “so that it may go well with [us],” expecting a reward for our service to the just and the good, rather because it is the right thing to do. As Antigonus concluded his teaching, it will keep us in God’s awesome presence.