My wife and I donated five thousand dollars to a local no-cost medical clinic, the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic. My visit was amazing. It’s a new building, and is at least as nice as my doctor’s. Probably nicer. It was built recently with 100% donations and grants! For an individual making up to about $25,000 a year or a family of four earning around $50,000 annually, primary care and many other specialties are free. Free. It felt like a wonderful asset to our community, which sits in one of the poorest states in the country. Many folks, however, believe that anything “free” is not only a waste of resources, but morally offensive. That is the cult of the individual, and it runs afoul of an important belief underlying progressive politics and moral decency: the responsibility we have for our fellow man (and woman).
A libertarian might point to my use of the word responsibility and be pleased, noting that doing so must indicate that I am going to tout the Republican-themed concepts of personal responsibility, rugged individualism, and “you’re on your own.”
I do get that individuals have some fair measure of responsibility. However, as we go down the totem pole from the wealthiest, most capable, most powerful individuals to the poorest children, handicapped, mentally and physically ill, and elderly citizens, it starts to run more and more counter to progressive principles. I believe. Here is Jared Bernstein:
“One central goal of the [You’re On Your Own] movement is to continue and even accelerate the trend toward shifting economic risks from the government and the nation’s corporations onto individuals and their families. You can see this intention beneath the surface of almost every recent conservative initiative: Social Security privatization, personal accounts for health care (the so-called Health Savings Accounts), attacks on labor market regulations, and the perpetual crusade to slash the government’s revenue through regressive tax cuts—a strategy explicitly tagged as starving the beast—and block the government from playing a useful role in our economic lives.”
It really is a fundamental difference between liberal and conservative ideology. At the bottom, libertarians and their more religious partners, standard conservatives, believe that it is up to each individual to be fully and completely responsible for themselves. It’s a “sink or swim” mentality that most progressives have a problem with for a number of reasons.
One is that most of the problems we find as we look around are not caused by the youngest, the poorest, the most marginal. The Great Recession – much like the Great Depression – was in fact engineered or at least engendered by this “You’re On Your Own” philosophy. The environmental problems we face: older, wealthier, corporate types have outsize responsibility for such rapacious capitalism (yes, we all drive cars and use air travel, but the lion’s share of responsibility lies with the governmental and corporate power-brokers in society.
Bernstein notes that messages sent by the ruling class to the middle and lower social classes “…stress an ever-shrinking role for government and much more individual risk-taking. Yet global competition, rising health costs, longer life spans with weaker pensions, less secure employment, and unprecedented inequalities of opportunity and wealth are calling for a much broader, more inclusive approach to helping all of us meet these challenges, one that taps government as well as market solutions.”
“Hate is not the opposite of love, the opposite of love is individuality.”
Progressives don’t believe that no one should have any personal responsibility, but that much of what is happening to the individual is akin to the pond in which a dying frog population lives: the frog is responsible for catching its own flies, but pollution in the water, pollution in the air, encroachments by land development, shifts in predator territory, and general ecosystem changes play a huge role.
Progressives would say it is pernicious to the point of repugnance to tell this figurative frog that “you’re on your own” to find food, mates, and survive – all while fomenting significant and largely invisible changes that affect the frog so greatly. It would be (to mix metaphors) to place a child with a learning disability in a standard classroom and expect that they should exercise their personal responsibility and perform up to grade level. That is the kind of thing that makes a criminal, actually, in times-past because of the noxious messages about one’s self-worth and normalcy that the learning disabled person internalizes.
This is part and parcel of capitalism: the strong survive and the weak die. It’s just how it is. You’re on your own.
Progressive economics thinks this is unnecessary and draconian. In an era and country such as the United States, is it not a shame to the point of apalling that the older generation has accumulated so many social problems? Is it not gross that those with the most money and power “look out for Number One” largely to the exclusion of others in the country? When the most capable people are largely interested in feathering their own nest, which America endures a horiffic number, breadth, and depth of social problems, something is morally amiss.
“…love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person, it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person in the world as a whole, not toward one ‘object of love.'”
A survey gauged the most pressing social problems, according to millennials (SOURCE). You will find that few if any are particularly personal, solipsistic, individualistic, or self-concerned. “Nearly half (48.8%) of the survey participants chose climate change as their top concern, and 78.1% said they would be willing to change their lifestyle to protect the environment” according to the source above, which cites a World Economic Forum survey of the young. Talk about taking responsibility for others!
Indeed, authors of the Business Insider piece cited above indicate that “Despite the dire state of the world today — and the stereotype that millennials’ are selfish and apathetic — the generation aged 18 to 35 cares deeply about global issues, and they’re determined to tackle them.”
Other key social problems on the global stage include: lack of economic opportunity and unemployment, safety/security/well-being, lack of education, food and water security, government accountability and transparency, religious conflicts, poverty, and so on. It is true that America fares better in some of these measures, but not very impressivly in any of them. We have an alarming amount of poverty here in the United States.
As can be seen in this short YouTube/The Economist clip, there are 40,000,000 poor people in the United States. Forty million people. Many are children, elderly, veterans, handicapped, people of color. Libertarians and conservatives have to answer for that if they claim that such deep and significant societal dysfunction are due to a massive amount of lack of personal responsibility. Progressives just don’t believe that. We believe that few folks would be content to be poor if there were better alternatives that are legitimate and truly open to them. I know for a fact that there is a local hunger charity called Lowcountry Food Bank and it is insanely busy.
Why so many people with food insecurity, hunger, poverty, and lack of health care? It seems obvious to me that these are knotty, horrendous, and complex social problems that are caused primarily by our economic ideas in this country. When Mitt Romney famously paid 17% in taxes (during his campaign) and these corporations paid 0 income taxes last year, we have a big fucking problem. People suffer when we spend so much money on stuff like defense and don’t take in appropriate amounts of revenue. From the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy:
“Taxes are the building blocks of a thriving economy and society, providing the resources for necessary investments in our communities. But as it is, our tax system too often fails to raise enough revenue to fund our common priorities, and state and local tax systems ask more of those who have the least. We believe the nation will be at its best when it lives up to the ideal of broadly shared prosperity for all.”
SIDEBAR: It’s not like this in many Scandinavian/European social democracies, Canada, New Zealand, etc. That is why those countries tend to be happier than we are in America (LINK)
I have a very close friend who is in certain ways a hard-core libertarian and I think, objectivist. Here is a not-too-far-off characterization of his ideology. I point this out because I think it illustrates nicely a contrast between the progressive quotes that aptly sum up my point of view (to follow):
- Collectivism is bad. The group will make me do things I don’t want. I’m a rugged individual.
- Governments are corrupt and take from me and give to themselves and undeserving others.
- You’re on your own in this society, so why would I want my dollars taken for use by another?
- What happens out there in the world has little effect on my house and its residents.
- I’m a good person because I have good and respectable morals and I raise my many children right. I help others when I can and when the deserve it.
- I vote to withhold taxes from most social programs.
- I want my chosen liberties, and you can have your chosen liberties if I believe them to be moral and right (as with abortion rights).
- I will not interfere with you, you leave me to my own ends. I trust you will live your life right for you, and I live my life right for me.
- Don’t collectivize and organize and force your opinion on me in the form of democratic governance. Democracies are mob rule and must be avoided in large part.
- I shouldn’t pay for your social goods and I will not ask you to pay for mine.
“Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”
So, about the idea of free. Is it wrong of me to support a local free medical clinic? I think it is mostly laudable and completely defensible. I felt wonderful when I learned of the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic‘s approach to social service. So many people and organizations have donated money, time, and medical expertise it was truly inspiring.
Do I care – do I find it morally condemnable – that folks can receive free medical treatment there? No. One, the care is probably better and it is obviously cheaper than any other alternative. Health care matters both for individuals and for society at large; I want to imagine that people in the Charleston area can go to bed without hunger, without untreated and debilitating disease, and free of violence, hate, and discomfort. Christians share this view of the world.
SIDEBAR: Distributive Justice: “Because societies have a limited amount of wealth and resources, the question of how those benefits ought to be distributed frequently arises. The common answer is that public assets should be distributed in a reasonable manner so that each individual receives a fair share. But this leaves open the question of what constitutes a ‘fair share.'” ~ Michelle Maiese
I have been fortunate and I see many of the problems around me. The Clinic is a bright light of goodness against this backdrop of rugged individualism, greed, and political dysfunction. It is morally praiseworthy and is run efficiently and transparently. They are mostly volunteers helping folks in need. The clinic demonstrates progressive values in action. It beautifully illustrates the thesis of this piece: the responsibilities of prosperity.
It is vitally important that we create the kind of society, through policy, education, and social welfare, in which children grow up with good hearts – willing to help. Raising up children to have integrity, responsibility, and goodness. As Alexander Pope counseled, “As the twig is bent, the tree is inclined.” This requires both personal action and societal coordination of action. We must not just inculcate in children that their main charge is to “be a success” or “make a lot of money” or “outdo everyone you compete against.” No, we want to encourage the development of children into adults that is unimpeded by genetic, environmental, and social problems. Things like lead paint, expensive daycare, a missing parent, communicable (and preventable, in many cases) disease, and malnutrition are woeful markers of a sick society. We can, and must, do better in this very prosperous America.
Have you ever seen those video clips of someone who jumps right in to help when they encounter someone in need? How about stories of the folks who bring their kids to volunteer – to learn to give time and to interact with folks who can “do nothing for you.” When you listen to the Judeo-Christian ethic, you hear about not harming others (and hopefully engaging in some self-sacrifice to “do the right thing”). The Hebrew words Tikkun Olam mean “heal the world”, not “look out for #1”. Rotten kids grow up to be selfish adults who seek out professions (or criminal activity) that take, take, take. No, this blog considers responsibility from the perspective of gratitude, paying it forward, and taking a moment to empathize with others and show them compassion.
The author and psychoanalyst Jim Hollis shows that there are 1,000 routes to the kind of life that I would call “a life of value.” Some call it a good life, some call it emulating Jesus, some call it being a good person. Here is a paragraph that I think blends responsibility with the very person he is. Thus, his work is more like play than sustained labor:
“I am moved to see the resilience of the human spirit in people who have been battered by life. To see them survive, move through suffering, and reach a different place makes me happy, for the while, because it floods me with meaning. To work [in psychotherapy] with people in their traumas, disappointments, even their despair is so meaningful I cannot adequately describe it! To be allowed on a daily basis to share the journey with such souls is so meaningful that I am humbled by the magnitude of the privilege.”
The best way for me to flesh this concept out further is with some quotes about responsibility and quotations about prosperity:
“The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love, is brotherly love. By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life. This is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says: love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48). If you have heard that line of wisdom, you know it means we are held responsible for what we have. If we have been blessed with talents, wealth, knowledge, time, and the like, it is expected that we benefit others.” ~ Casey Duhart
“First, by any measure people in the lower part of the income distribution are much better off in Nordic societies than their U.S. counterparts. That is, there is a lot less misery in Scandinavia — and because everyone has some chance of falling into low income, this reduces the risk of misery for a much larger share of the population” ~ Paul Krugman
“Many people don’t realize that childcare is actually synonymous with something called early learning. That’s because when a kid is in a high-quality child care environment, they aren’t just being supervised as the phrase ‘child care’ would lead you to believe. Instead, they’re being engaged with by highly educated teachers and specialists who are carefully leading each child through a curriculum that will expand their brain as much as possible. High-quality early learning is the single most important indicator of success in school and in life. And because high-quality early learning is only available for purchase in this country at a steep price, it’s the sleeper ingredient to creating an elite educated class.” ~ Annie Fadely
“To be humane is the objective of being human.”
“The best practical advice I can give to the present generation is to practice the virtue which the Christians call love.”
“We need to shift our mindset and see things from other people’s perspectives. Really appreciate and respect their perspective, not just be thinking how our’s is morally superior. We need to give more than we get in all interactions with others. Live to serve and to help make a difference in other’s lives. In short, leave this life better than we found it.” ~ Robert L. Lloyd
“From the fear-mongering headlines marking passage of $15 statutes in New York and California, you would think nobody ever dared raise the minimum wage before…. Nonsense. We have been raising the minimum wage for 78 years, and as a new study clearly reveals, 78 years of minimum-wage hikes have produced zero evidence of the ‘job-killing’ consequences these headline writers want us to fear.”
“We need people to be empowered to talk about, think about, and share ideas about love, compassion, and kindness. We need to see love as very much a part of our lives, especially if we wish to heal our societies and the planet. A quote from the Dalai Lama reinforces my view: ‘Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.’”
“You will discover that you have two hands. One is for helping yourself and the other is for helping others.”
“Love and kindness are never wasted. They always make a difference. They bless the one who receives them, and they bless you, the giver.”
“Inequality is out of control and the American Dream is in peril. We can’t fiddle with the dials anymore and pretend that everything will go back to normal. It’s time to let a new generation of policymakers have their chance. It’s time to stop listening to people…who already had their time at the levers of American power and fucked up in the most disastrous way imaginable. It’s time to think big and set the agenda for the next fifty years.” ~ Paul Constant
“The devil loves nothing more than intolerance of reformers.”
“There was a little boy once upon a time who in spite of his young age and small size knew his mind. For every copper penny and clover he would find [he’d] make a wish for better days, and the end of hard times, for no more cold feet.”
“The question you should be asking is, Can I do one small thing tomorrow to make things a little bit better?, and the answer is almost always ‘Yes'”.
“We need to try to save the Earth at least as fast as it’s being destroyed.”
“A first step toward socializing [e.g., teaching] altruism is to counter the natural in-group bias favoring kin and tribe by personalizing and broadening the range of people’s well-being should concern us. Daniel Batson (1983) notes how religious teachings do this.”
“He that plants trees loves others besides himself.”
“Altruistic action is easy to recognize as ethical, but much ethical behavior is quite compatible with regard for one’s own interests.”
“The heroes we need to celebrate should be men and women, but particularly men, who root themselves in connection rather than separation, and who measure their achievement by standards of care as much as individual accomplishment.”
“Love each other or perish.” ~ W. H. Auden
“Real maturity is to imagine the humanity of every person as fully as you believe in your own humanity.”
“If we accept that others have a right to peace and happiness equal to our own, do we not have a responsibility to help those in need?”