It’s your own damned fault that you’re poor! You haven’t worked hard enough! You should reap what you sow! The Nanny State is destroying America’s economy! I shouldn’t have to pay for my neighbor’s well-being! It’s socialism! All of these arguments and more will be knocked down in today’s edition of… The Nanny State is Evil! And Then We Woke Up.
Many of those who deplore U.S. entitlement programs maintain the perspective that because they worked hard and were able to succeed, everyone else is able to so long as they work hard enough. Hell, who can blame them, that’s the God-damned American Dream. Unfortunately, it’s also a logical fallacy. Just because you went out and worked hard and were able to get and keep a job, get medical benefits, save for retirement, etc., doesn’t mean that hard work was the only reason that things worked out. There are many Americans out there who are extremely driven individuals, some of whom likely work much harder than you or I on a daily basis, and yet because of a slew of other major factors (including sheer luck) they will never manage to breach the poverty line.
“So what?” You may ask. “I got mine and they can get theirs.” And to some extent this is true, there are many people out there who will. Every now and then though, things go wrong. Companies go under and renig on pensions. There are thousands of instances of financial abuse (especially of the elderly) in our country, and such cases often go unresolved because the people no longer have any money to hire a lawyer. Some people are born with mental or physical handicaps. Some people are not intelligent enough to learn to read. People who can’t afford a kid get pregnant (and remember, most conservatives are against abortion). Some people will never be able to afford to go to college, and will only be able to get jobs that hire high school diplomas and pay accordingly. Some people get involved in gangs as a means for survival, and end up on the wrong side of a prison wall, later emerging into a society that significantly stigmatizes any kind of criminal record. There are hundreds of different cancers, most of which your insurance probably won’t pay to treat long-term, and none of them are cheap to treat. That’s not to mention that with the current state of our health care system, we are all just one major accident away from having to declare bankruptcy.
America’s entitlement programs are in place to address these kinds of injustices. One of the failings of capitalism is that at its core it is a socially Darwinistic enterprise. Our society’s way of acknowledging and addressing that failing is through democratically socialist entitlement programs (not to be confused with socialism). A sufficient percentage of red-blooded Americans did in fact vote to put those programs into play. The people who voted for those programs were acknowledging the ailments of a capitalistic society with no safety nets, and were reacting to the innate human desire to address them (see: The Golden Rule).
It is our modern disconnection with the practical realities of the world, combined with the self-centered perspectives that are the result of our evolutionary nature, that have driven a large percentage of the American population to take the opportunities that they have had in life for granted. The result is that there are people fervently advocating policy changes that will leave some of our country’s most vulnerable and needy in the lurch.
Yes, there will be fraud. Yes, there will be people who try to take advantage of the system. Yes, there will be people who spend their entitlement benefits on crack cocaine. But we have ways of addressing these issues. We can improve these systems to more carefully monitor their beneficiaries. We can (and do) impose drug testing and provide treatment for addictions. We can and do fight back against fraud and prosecute fraudsters. Fraud will always exist, as in any similar system, but it is not an excuse for cutting funding to the program as a whole. Cutting funding results in the punishment of all beneficiaries, rather than those who have defrauded the system. Additionally, it reduces the resources that are needed to police and prosecute violators. It’s a clumsy and broad stroke for but a few pencil-thin problems, and I’m sick of that kind of bullheaded thinking. I’m especially sick of the lazy thinking that says the solution is to get rid of entitlements altogether.
One of my fellow law students was telling me that he considers any form of taxation to constitute a confiscation of personal property (he’s a big libertarian, so this was rather unsurprising). He went on to say that because he acknowledged that the state does collect taxes, it should only be justified in collecting taxes that result in a benefit being conferred upon him. What does that imply about his opinions on wheelchair ramps? Well one might reason that a wheelchair ramp is something that we can all get behind, because were we to one day be bound to a wheelchair, we would suddenly find them to be massively helpful.
The example of the wheelchair ramp is ripe for analogy. In this analogy, the wheelchair ramp is our safety net of entitlement programs. The chance of becoming wheelchair bound is the chance that you may not have enough money to feed your kids, or the chance that your pension will go belly up, or etc. There comes a time where we must put aside shortsighted and irrational notions that we are invulnerable to the inevitable chaos of the world we live in and admit that in creating a safety net for others, we create one for ourselves. If you want to talk about taking responsibility for your future, and your children’s future, then I can see no sounder path.
One of the most common tactics being proposed by conservative representatives today is that in order to help the economy, we should cut spending on entitlement programs that millions currently rely on, such as Medicare. They offer this as a means to reduce the deficit and stave off our country’s growing national debt. While I would agree that we can and should “trim the fat” on government spending, I think the last place we need to do it is in the social services department. Conservatives know that the democrats in Congress will not go along with such a cold-hearted proposal, so that makes it clear that the true Republican intention is to create a stalemate so as to make Obama look like he can’t get anything done. Mission fucking accomplished.
A more practical and reasonable solution overall would be to raise taxes on the rich, particularly given that the top 1% of our population now possesses over 70% of the nation’s wealth. In addition, we should close tax loopholes being exploited by large corporations, and even just enforce the current corporate tax rates. It does not make sense that our Congress is considering cutting Medicare benefits while simultaneously GE paid no taxes whatsoever last year and in fact received a refund. It’s a travesty, and it’s morally indefensible.
Now I can understand where some of my libertarian and conservative colleagues come from when they advocate against socially democratic programs and policies. These attitudes stem from an ideological adhesion to the principles of personal property and an idolization of the free market economy. What I don’t understand is how they can ignore the results. Our country has been running that course for some time now, and where has it gotten us?
America is comprised of some of the most self-righteous people in the world. We constantly parade about claiming to be number 1 in every respect, despite the fact that we are rarely in the top ten in any regard (if you don’t believe me, go search for statistics on our world rankings in health care, education, teacher salaries, life expectancy, corruption, or democracy- they aren’t difficult to find). We’re overweight, we drive massive cars that produce massive amounts of pollution and CO2, and we endorse retributive systems of crime and punishment despite evidence that systems of crime and rehabilitation are not only less costly but more effective. I could go on, but I’ll save it for another day.
When faced with all of these realities, we, as a nation, simply shake our heads and cling to our previously held beliefs. As with religion, these beliefs are not based on logic or evidence, they are based on what we have been told by similarly deluded individuals as well as how we already believe the world to be. What we believe frequently has little or no bearing on reality. If we can comprehend this simple lesson, perhaps one day we can leave behind our nation’s propaganda and self-denial, and begin to truly progress.
Painfully. Slow. Progress.