Lately I’ve been preoccupied with novelist Saul Bellow’s observation that people, especially Americans, seem readily willing to hate the very things that make their lives possible. But alas, I think the reason is so simple and straightforward that it’s easily overlooked. Bear with me while I explain.
We have an enormous volume of psychological research available on the difference between the worldviews of liberals and of conservatives. The simplest and most consistent criteria for discerning the variance seems to depend on whether or not a person is open to new experience.
Testing this theory, numerous studies have shown that it’s possible to determine with significant accuracy whether toddlers as young as three or four will grow up to be liberals or conservatives. Children who relish autonomy and are drawn to novelty grow up to be politically liberal, and those who are fearful, wary, anxious, and distrustful about change and uncertainty grow up to be conservatives.
Given our history, it’s clear that both of these postures are useful and necessary in order to sustain and maintain society. There are times and situations in which both approaches are critical to the well-being of society.
More basic, though, than our political inclinations is the compelling mound of evidence that we humans are a tribal species. It is in our nature to pay sharp attention to differences among our fellow human beings and to associate food shortages and pathogens with strangers. We are predisposed to favor our own customs and our own kind, period. The notion that cultural differences should be celebrated does not fare well globally.
To see how these tendencies play out, consider the state of the economy. Since the partial financial meltdown in 2008, every media source informs us constantly that America’s middle class is in free fall. What does this portend? In a nutshell: scarcity. What happens when we face the scarcity of anything of value? Simple: scarcity is a call to focus.
This brings us to the crux of tribalism. What are people who are fearful about change and uncertainty likely to focus on? You guessed it: the other. Outsiders are perceived as freeloaders simply because they are outsiders. And who stands in, both figuratively and literally, for the other? Again, you guessed it: the government because the government caters to everyone, including strangers.
Granted, all human beings have a built-in wariness against free riders. People who don’t pull their own weight threaten our success. But there’s something most people simply do not get— especially hard-right conservatives—and it’s critical to furthering the goodwill necessary to sustain ourselves as one nation.
Yes, we have free riders in our midst, people who expect something for nothing and who whose mission in life is to game the system. Short on virtue, these individuals are found among the rich and poor alike. They will always be with us, and we do indeed need to take steps to curb their behavior.
But, if we’ve paid attention to our actual history, we know that we are way ahead of the free riders. It’s not a contest, and this is something liberals are much more likely to observe and acknowledge. Free riders in our society are simply rendered unimportant because they are overshadowed by those in our past who have sacrificed their very lives for the rest of us. The cost of free riders is dwarfed by the contributions of our fellow citizens who remain strangers only because we lack direct knowledge of their sacrifices.
Up against Arlington Cemetery, the free riders don’t even warrant a mention. Our men and women on active duty in the armed services, those in law enforcement, and firefighters stand ready and willing to risk their lives in service of the rest of us. Millions of our citizens are dedicated public servants, and millions more spend their whole lives working tirelessly in the shadows for the betterment of society.
We have the lowest tax rates in a half-century, and yet the carping about high taxes is unrelenting. We are more than $2 trillion behind in the maintenance of our hard and soft infrastructure, but that doesn’t stop the thoughtless handwringing about being overtaxed. Nor does it burst the fantasy bubble of ideologues who envision a dynamic country with a strong middle class, a small and powerless government, and very low taxes, even though there has never been an example of this kind of economy in the history of civilization.
That our government is in need of reform is painfully obvious, starting with the uncoupling of its entanglement with special-interest lobbyists and corporate influence. But hatred of government among egregiously ill-informed citizens is so pervasive today that it results in political support for underfunding successful government programs and then using the diminished capacity of the government agencies as proof that they weren’t needed in the first place. That critics can use this approach to enrage ill-informed people against the very thing than sustains their way of life is a tragedy that defies adult logic.
We are free in America because of our government, not in spite of it. If you doubt this, take a quick look at Somalia. Without the stability behind our laws, regulatory agencies, social programs, and public services, we are anything but free.
I share Saul Bellow’s torment and sense of irony over those whose major contribution to society is to whine constantly about a government that they clearly could not live without. And yet their limited involvement is to jump on the government-hatred bandwagon. Then, in their next breath, they declare we are the greatest country on earth, believing themselves to be totally self-reliant citizens who owe everything they have to their own glorious efforts and to no one else.
I don’t deny the enormous amount of waste in government programs perpetuated by corruption and kept in place through a standoff somewhere between spite and contempt. We can’t even stop the military industrial complex from making weapons we don’t need. But all one has to do to imagine the country without a federal government is to envision professional football without rules or referees. If enough people would get off the hate-the-government bandwagon, we could fix it without the anguish of perpetual punting.
Sunday, 16 November 2013