Sunday, January 06, 2008

Let The Sharing Begin

[Originally posted at on February 27, 2006]

A week or so ago I got caught in a debate with a couple of friends, and, once again, I found myself having to defend the need for economic social policies aimed at helping disadvantaged citizens rise from their condition. Their narrow understanding of social programs, what they are, what they accomplish, and whom they benefit, leads to typical objections every time the issue comes up: "Why should I have to help them? No one helped me, but I still made it. I deserve everything I've got," and "Why should I help lazy people take advantage of the system?" my friends argued. These common objections show a lack of awareness of the genuine difficulties that the underprivileged face everyday in Anytown, USA. They also show that this country’s growing conservatism is far from compassionate, contrary to what conservative leaders would have us believe. To counter these attitudes, we need to promote a culture of sharing.

Almost invariably, the people arguing against social programs are white, in good health, and good wage-earners. They live in three-storey suburban homes and are convinced that anyone with the right work-ethic, attitude, and moral fiber can achieve what they themselves achieved, regardless of where they started. Their self-righteousness fuels a genuine distaste for social activism. From their position of privilege, they are hard pressed to show any compassion for those who lag behind. In their eyes, the difference in economic status can always be traced to individual characteristics and temperament. Circumstances hardly ever play a role in the success, or lack thereof, that people experience. What could possibly justify this highly judgmental attitude among otherwise seemingly reasonable individuals? What is it that fuels their Calvinistic worldview, this view that people always reap what they sow, and that the quality of land they sow and lack of resources are never a factor? How is it possible that compassion and sharing, in a land supposedly so Christian, have such a hard time finding fertile ground?

To begin with, much can be explained with the nature of modern American society. America is a nation raised on self. Self-help, self-advancement, self-appraisals, self-censorship, self-education, self-service, self-confidence, self-made, you name it. For sure, it is increasingly self-righteous. Americans are unquestionably among the most individualistic people on earth. They have unlimited faith in their ability to rise to the occasion and to overcome adversity. The American people consider themselves capable of achieving anything they sets their mind to, but this ability is the result of the sum of individual qualities. Rather than the collective spirit that guides other highly organized cultures (think of Germany, China, Japan), it is the unwavering faith that America places in the ability of individuals to rise above their condition, its extreme social Darwinism, that gives America its perceived edge over the rest of the world. The American people believe that the right combination of free-market and individual appetites can push the nation over any hurdle. Right or wrong, most Americans are religiously convinced that progress is more easily-achieved by healthy competition among individuals than by their disciplined collaboration.

Combine these national beliefs with human nature. We are always told that children are not born to hate. Children must be taught to hate, the consensus goes, because hatred is not innate. That may be true, but it is also true of things that we consider positive, like sharing. Indeed, without adult guidance and adult teachings, most children are neither good nor bad. If anything, children are little individuals who believe that the world revolves around them. If it does not, they throw tantrums every time their whims and their desires are denied. The only things that are innate in every child, aside from the bond with its mother, are a desire for self-expression and the instinct for self-preservation. Everything else is the result of societal influence. What our society teaches children from an early age--in ways both subliminal and direct--is the concept of private property and ownership. In other words, before it introduces the idea of sharing, society teaches children to respect other people's property and to defend their own. "No Timmy, put that down. That's Billy's. This is yours. If you want to use Billy's, you must ask for his permission." "Billy, won't you share your toy with Timmy?" Sharing is not taught to children as a priority value, one that should trump all other considerations of worth and utility. If it were, children would be constantly reminded of sharing's worth, and they would be severely punished for their refusal to share. Instead, sharing is seen more as a perk than as the right thing to do. Essentially, by the time most children learn the true the value of sharing, which often occurs through catechism and religious teachings, their view of the world is irreparably skewed in favor of ownership.

We all know that early teachings are fundamental in shaping our view and our understanding of society. Advertisers have long known the power of establishing their place early in a child’s life, and have come up with campaigns specifically aimed at “branding kids,” to gain their enduring loyalty from an early age. The daily bombardment aimed at the youngest in our society only serves to reinforce their sense that owning things is the true meaning of life, and a most powerful human experience. It is probably in part for the emphasis we place on private property and ownership over sharing that views like those expressed by my friends regarding social programs are possible. Higher tax brackets on higher incomes seem unfair to so many people because money equates success, which is in turn driven by individual prowess. The value of sharing is not pre-eminent in our society, because sharing and merit are unrelated. In fact, when it comes to social policies, sharing is often seen not as a Christian duty but as the stepchild of socialist policy, with its perceived baggage of rewarding mediocrity, laziness and the lack of personal drive. The conviction, held by many, that economic mediocrity is the effect of an individual's limited ability or drive is particularly confounding, because no one would argue that someone born in Manhattan does not possess incalculable advantages over someone born in the sub-Saharan desert. However, the same advantages are not acknowledged if we replace the sub-Saharan people in our example with residents of an inner-city neighborhood or some housing project. The fact that different outcomes can often be traced back to different circumstances is discounted when both terms of comparison are based within in the United States. Why?

Even if we accept the argument that we should only help those who genuinely want to improve their situation, all others being undeserving, we should view the help given to those individuals who are naturally predisposed to take advantage of the system as possibly better than the alternative. The alternative being that someone who does not want to try to advance his plight in lawful, if parasitic ways, will still look for a way to get ahead by unlawful means. While any system is open to abuses, the cost/benefit analysis might show that society would still come out ahead even in the presence of some abuse, if the good done by helping those eager to improve their condition would outweigh the overall cost.

Speaking of costs: Those who believe that we should help no one at all, for fear of the possibility that a few bad apples would scam the system, must realize that costs are redistributed across society anyway. Sure, the redistribution gets done by private sector entities rather than by the government. For example, the money necessary to help the uninsured in a medical emergency can come either from the government, in the form of higher taxes, or from higher insurance premiums for all insured people. Likewise, money that is taken away from socially beneficial programs is not saved. Rather it is reinvested into a fatter and fatter law and order system: more police on patrol, more courts, judges and jails. Eventually, the choice is not about spending or saving money. It is on where you'd rather money be spent.

Ironically, many of the people who oppose sharing in the form of more progressive taxation rules and social programs are right-wing conservative evangelicals, who--for a chance to advance their socially regressive agenda--have formed a rather unholy alliance with the Republican party, which fosters the corporate interests that are a major contributing factor, with their exploitative salary and benefits policies, in the condition of the lower-class and low-income earners. Further bitter irony is provided by the fact that, in denying help to the neediest of our citizens, including many children, these religious zealots betray the principal legacy of the very Christian faith they supposedly pledge allegiance to. What could be less Christian than denying a helping hand to "the least of these?"

Which leads us back to sharing. An abundance of data shows that the gap between rich and poor has increased since the Seventies. While this is a global situation, the rate at which this divide is growing is higher in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Many blame this rising inequality for much of the geopolitical unrest that has grown in intensity in recent years. As our planet becomes more populated and many third-world economies join capitalism, competition for dwindling resources will become ruthless. Presumably, this will lead to even more domination and conflict, which will continue until a catastrophic event, either natural or man-made, will realign the balance of power and resources across the globe. The road to a safe future for all lies not in hoarding and protecting our property. Let the sharing begin.

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