The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius — Latin for Swifter, Higher, Stronger.
Does anyone else, in light of recent events, see the inevitable dilemma this motto creates?
The words are comparatives. It’s unattainable. Unlike excellence, which might theoretically be achieved, by choosing the comparative form Baron de Coubertin condemned athletes to a perpetual striving, even when they come to the very end of themselves. It elevates progress above other values, like safety. How swift… how high… how strong… is Enough?
I don’t know that I would have recognized this trend had it not been for an article I recently read by Bob Goudzwaard called “Economic Growth: Is more always better?” reprinted in Steve Rundle’s book Economic Justice in a flat world: Christian perspectives on globalization. In the article, Goudzwaard points out that in the Old Testament, economic mandates addressed the “inputs” rather than the “outputs”. In other words, God cared about the people, the land and justice and let the Gross Domestic Product take care of itself. Who’s to say if ancient Israelites actually put this into practice? What matters, I think, is that the principles are not limited to early Mediterranean agrarian societies. Imagine how much healthier we would be as a family/nation/world if we focused on nurturing our labor force, protecting our environment and advocating justice in our capital markets and let production fall where it may?
The trouble is that managing inputs is difficult to measure and it’s values-based, meaning it would be very difficult for politicians to agree upon the standards and even then, success would be nearly impossible to quantify.
The other trouble is that the world is moving at warp speed into a integrated global financial system which is pitting not just nations, but individuals head-to-head against peers from all over the world, creating cutthroat competition with razor thin margins and timetables that are measured in seconds. In this environment, the mere mention of values beyond Efficiency and Growth are suspicious as Unpatriotic.
What does this have to do with the Vancouver Olympics, you may be wondering. Well, my hypothesis is that if we keep our current political motto of Faster, Bigger, Smarter, Nodar Kumaritashvili won’t be the only casualty making headlines.
Although I believe the principles of maintaining human dignity, caring for the environment, and justice in our financial dealings are universal, the “living out” must be very localized, based on many factors, not the least of which will be culture.
What it comes down to is volitional restraint. By choosing to prioritize good stewardship of our labor force, environment, and capital, the United States might put itself at a competitive disadvantage. We might not have the biggest corporations or the highest national income… Scary thought: We might not be able to afford the world’s largest standing army. This is where the rubber meets the road. In a battle of ethics, which one trumps? On one hand you have justice and stewardship; on the other, wealth creation and security. All four are good and important values. Is there a way to maximize the benefits and minimize the risk?
I return to the emphasis on volitional restraint. Goudzwaard uses the analogy of a tree. An apple tree grows vertically for a season, then stops, and directs its energies towards production and reproduction, making leaves, flowers, fruit. If the apple tree decided it wanted to be a sequoia, and kept pushing itself higher and higher, it would never fulfill its purpose as an apple tree. We would have no shade, no way to climb branches, no fragrance, no apples. So the tree, by utilizing restraint in one area, grows in a more meaningful way.
However, if someone got a hold of this principle and decided to help the apple tree by planting it under a ceiling, so that it could grow so far and no farther, one of the two things would happen. Either the tree would find a way to grow around the ceiling, or it would be stunted and the desired result would be forfeited.
I see the same principle at work in economics. Planned economies don’t work. They just don’t. No politician or think-tank will ever be able to mandate a cohesive, sustainable solution for our ever-increasingly-complex system. People will either go around the regulations or be stunted. So, within a free market, how do we make sure people, oceans, and monies are managed in a just way?
There is a so-called “Soda Tax” being proposed to help fund healthcare reform. The idea is that by adding a 1 cent tax for every teaspoon of sugar in certain beverages, companies will add less and consumers will consume less sugar, which should improve our national bill of health.
Unfortunately, this tax would reduce beverage companies’ profit, reduce consumer buying power, and put pressure on the sugar industry (which could have foreign policy implications).
Now, I’m not saying that Americans shouldn’t consume less sugar. In fact, with a son who has three diabetic grandparents, I am keen on reducing sugar intake. BUT! I don’t think it’s the role of the government to legislate nutritional values. Instead, I would like to see consumers take the initiative, clamoring for reduced sugar in beverages. I would like to see companies limiting the amount of sugar they include, so that one can of soda doesn’t exceed an average human’s daily value of sugar. I would like to see voluntary restraint in accordance with the values of health and consideration of others’ wellbeing.
Naive? Perhaps. Idealistic? Certainly. Difficult to effect? Surely. In fact, I’m not sure how one goes about changing the value system of a culture which celebrates excess into one which celebrates moderation. Art, probably. Education, perhaps. However it works out, it will have to be on a individual by individual basis. People thinking critically about what really matters and making sacrificial decisions to live with integrity.
So far as mottoes go, I’m still a fan of the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
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