We are a freedom loving, egalitarian society. To top off that contradiction, we put into our most sacred document, the one in which we explain ourselves to the world, our assertion that we are entitled to not only the “inalienable rights of life and liberty…” but to “the pursuit of happiness” as well.
As part of our love of freedom, we hate taxes. There is no point beating around the Bushes. We don’t merely dislike taxes, we hate the damn things. My Democratic friends simply, sometimes, fail to take this simple fact into account.
On the other hand, we Americans believe in essential fair play. We do fervently believe in an egalitarian society where everybody has a fair chance. This basic sense of fairness is in America’s DNA. That fact is something my Republican friends frequently forget.
Oh, I know, there isn’t a Republican alive, except maybe Karl Rove, who gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror, smiles a wicked smile, issues a chortle of dastardly glee and asks him or herself, “Who can I screw today and how can I make it the most painful?”
I also know there is no Democrat living, or dead, who goes to sleep at night with sweet dreams of ravaging some Republican’s bank account to make sure some welfare mother has a new Cadillac. Not even Al Sharpton does that…well, maybe Al does that.
Be that as it may, it is absolutely true that there are a large number of us for whom the goal of freedom, and all that entails, is far more important than making sure everybody has a fair shake in life. Conversely, it is also true that there are large numbers of us to whom the need for society to make things as level for all players as possible is paramount. It really is that simple and, at the same time, that complex. Some of us value freedom over egalitarianism and some of us reverse those values.
The former group will say that insuring everyone has an equal chance to be free is egalitarianism. The latter group will say that freedom is relative based upon the bearer’s ability to utilize it, there is no freedom without the ability and resources to pursue it happily. The first group will then accuse the latter group of trying to limit their personal freedom in the service of social engineering and the second group will accuse the former of selfishly trying, in the service of themselves, to limit the potential of other humans.
The next thing you know calm discourse is gone and there are people standing up in public screaming that the President of the United States wants to kill your grandmother.
I think the screaming divide comes in over the “pursuit of happiness” business. The founding fathers knew that, for them to be free, they had to be able to pursue happiness wherever that pursuit led. While the fathers did not dream this pursuing of happiness stuff would ever extend to the founding mothers or the founding slave population or any of the other myriad demographic cohorts present and yet to arrive, they wrote it down anyway. That is when all the trouble started.
It is such a catchy little phrase. Any advertising executive would be delighted to have it associated with whatever soap or feminine hygiene product he or she is trying to sell. Indeed, in retrospect, it is obvious the sub-prime mortgage people wrapped their marketing efforts in the phrase and never let go. I ask you, if not the pursuit of happiness, what else could the recent debt bubble have been about?
Even though it is catchy and it defines what it is to be American better than any other single phrase or statement, it can be dangerous. It gets dangerous when I begin to believe whatever you are doing or proposing to do is going to interfere with the pursuit of my happiness. Likewise, you will place your ass firmly upon your shoulders when you conceive the notion of me doing to same to you.
So, my Republican friends get all huffy and boisterous when any mention of new government programs to create a level playing field are mentioned. These new programs will, they perceive, inevitably require funding and that will mean more debt or more taxes or both. “Either way, the new funding will impinge upon my happiness and pursuit thereof,” these hypothetical Republicans will say, more likely shout.
The proposing Democratic friends will then say, or shout, that society needs to be fair. If you oppose simple fairness, then you are evil. (The Democrats have grown bolder as Karl Rove has shown the effectiveness of bully-boy techniques. Note to Karl: We never destroy our enemies, we only make them more like us.)
So, Republicans, sensitive to infringements upon their liberty, fear constraints. Democrats, sensitive to barriers and impediments to equal opportunity, fear an unjust society.
This is the hard nut of the issues, all the issues, surrounding our current lack of political discourse. Republicans are selfish pigs and Democrats are bleeding heart nitwits eager to fix some unworthy person’s problems with my money.
The sorry truth is, as a society we are splintering along economic class lines. This process, and the results of this process, are not anything anybody is going to like. While there may be some temporary satisfaction to be had from the occasional setbacks of your enemies, mostly, everybody is going to lose.
The continued stratification of society will result in a less civil society. There will be more crime, more anger, more violence and more of almost everything else nobody likes very much. Even the Republicans, who apparently believe the only social cost incurred in this life is taxes, will not like it when civil security completely breaks down.
You don’t have to go far to see what a frayed social fabric looks like. Venture to almost any of our Latin American neighbors and you can see these effects on societies with wide separations between economic classes. On the other hand, you don’t have to have a great memory to remember how well radically socialist societies have fared in the world.
Here are some baseline facts:
1. The people in society need to have a sense of personal security. Not just security from common thieves and foreign threats but security in their lives, persons and properties. No government can guarantee this but a good government positions society so that such security is possible.
2. The people in society require the sense that it can be better for their children than it was for themselves. In today’s America, among many, it is no longer fashionable to have children, much less live for them. However, for most people this remains a primary motivator in life. A man or woman can have a very satisfying life, even in the face of the death of his or her own, personal dream, if life can be so arranged that the children can, and do, do better.
3. The people in society require the sense that there is a loyalty, a bond, between each individual and the state. If the time comes when there is no “skin in the game” for a large segment of society, that society, and that state, is in real trouble.
4. The people in a society need a sense that they are not going backward. They need to believe that they are progressing as individuals, as families and as a nation.
5. The people in society need a sense that, if they work hard today, the future will not be a scary, dangerous place.
Each and every one of these “needs” is universal. None of them apply only to rich people or only to the middle class or only to the poor. Each one applies to everybody. No legitimate society, no legitimate government, can exist without dealing straight with the people, all the people, on everyone of these needs.
We don’t have to agree on all the particulars but we have to believe that the people in charge are trying to do the right thing. Giving tens of trillions of dollars in grants, loans and guarantees to the financial industry while bankers pay themselves hundreds of billions in bonuses with which they buy homes in gated communities protected by private security forces ain’t getting it done. Offering a health care program that leaves fifty million without access to regular, rational health care ain’t getting it done. Maintaining a health care system that will, within ten years, leave, current trends continuing, a majority of Americans without access to regular, rational health care ain’t getting it done. Reducing support to public education at every level ain’t getting it done. Maintaining a rigid economic and trade policy based upon replacing domestic exports with foreign imports, resulting in the permanent loss of jobs with no plan to replace these jobs, ain’t getting it done.
Civil society is not a particularly fragile thing. Because everybody wants it, like a weed, it can grow in many a forbidding environment. Never the less, if you spray enough Ortho Death on it, and keep spraying it, you can kill it.