Thomas Edsall has some interesting thoughts about the Kulturkampf and the jobs crisis–go read. I don’t agree with everything he writes–for example, I’m sure that he’s wrong to declare victory on behalf of the Left in the culture war, because the beauty of the Kulturkampfen mentality is that there’s always another front to advance to when forced to retreat on other fronts! But this part of his argument caught my eye:
On a more sobering note for Democrats, a slight majority (51 percent) of voters agreed with the statement “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals” compared to 43 percent saying “Government should do more to solve problems.” This despite the fact that, as The New York Times reported in a Feb. 11, 2012 story, “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It”:
The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007.
The story points out that many people
say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.
And yet, of course, no Americans are refusing to cash unemployment or Social Security checks! Some of them are voting for pols like Mitt Romney and Ayn Ryan, perhaps to assuage their guilt and feelings of failure. (Like all of those “pro-life” women who get their safe, legal abortions and then go back to voting “pro-life.”) It is interesting to consider the possibility that the most passionate foes of the welfare state are its own beneficiaries, not the 1%.
This may point to a truism about human nature and charity that runs deep in the American character. In particular, it reminded me in particular of one of the reflections in Benjamin Rush’s (1746-1814) Travels Through Life on his (at that point) thirty years in private medical practice in Revolution-era Philadelphia:
I have found the least gratitude from those families in which I had performed the greatest services. The slightest act of inattention has often cancelled the obligations created by years of attention and even friendship. Many families whom I attended in low and obscure situations for nothing, or for very small compensations, left me when they got up in the world. They could not bear to be reminded by my presence of their former poverty or humble employments, (107.)*
Rush was kind of a crank by the time he wrote this (ca. 1800), and eager to grind some axes over what he experienced as his rejection by the majority of the Philadelphia medical community (and indeed, the sometimes vicious public attacks on him) over differences as to the origins and necessary public health measures over the Yellow Fever epidemics of 1792 and 1793. Nevertheless, I’m sure he’s right that people may have abandoned him after they benefited from his generosity, because recognizing that generosity would require a recognition of the fact that they were once in need.
Americans can be so generous when presented with a crisis. Why can’t they be generous with themselves, and therefore with others in need of temporary assistance in tough times?
*Source: The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, His “Travels through Life” together with his Commonplace Book for 1789-1813, ed. George W. Corner (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society and Princeton University Press, 1948)