When my mother was seventy-eight, she asked if she could give someone twenty-five-thousand dollars. She said this person really needed it and she wanted to help her. She asked me because I was handling her finances for her. She had enough to live on. If she didn’t get some dreadful disease, she would have enough to live out her life comfortably. But if the costs of her care went up in her later years, her financial security was not so certain. I told her she shouldn’t give away that much. She might need it herself.
Over the years she asked me again and again whether she could make that gift. I kept saying no. Sometimes our discussions got a little heated. She wanted to do what she wanted to do and resented being told she could not. I was just being responsible, I thought. I had actuarial tables and the escalating cost of nursing care to back me up. She had only her desire to be kind to someone in greater need than she.
I share this story not to expose my heartlessness--although I regret to this day not letting her make that gift, all the more so since she died with plenty of money in the bank--but to explore why I resisted her request and why, if she were still alive, I probably would still be resisting.
I have a feeling that many in the Tea Party are more like me than I like to think. Whether you are thinking about your aging parent or your country, planning not to run out of money is tricky. The Tea Party doesn’t want the government to spend more than it can afford for the same reason I didn’t want Mom to: they don’t want the burden of the loss to fall on them.
I used to believe it was just plain selfishness that caused some people not to want to help others. Maybe so in some cases, but I think most of the time people are just worried that somehow the whole thing is going to blow up on them and whatever it was they were expecting out of their country and their life is going to be unattainable.
We have this fantasy in America that with hard work and perseverance anyone can do anything. Perhaps I shouldn’t call it a fantasy. It can happen. It does happen. But it certainly doesn’t happen to everyone, not even most. The thing is, we believe it can, and we don’t want to let go of that belief, that hope. It’s our national religion.
Even the heartiest individualist understands that the essential services government provides are the underpinnings of freedom and economic opportunity. But what, exactly, is essential? Police and fire protection? Roads? Electricity? Clean water and air? Most would agree on those. How about day care for single mothers? If you’re not a single mother, and don’t much think anyone should be, that may not be high on your list. Food stamps? If it came to it, you think you could find a way to put food on the table, so why can’t they? If you’re working hard and getting by, it can be difficult to put yourself in the place of someone who has lost his job and health benefits and wakes up one morning to find a lump under his arm that he’d never noticed before.
It’s not naked selfishness that’s behind what we take for a lack of compassion, a flinty ungenerousness, it is fear. Fear that what has made this country great, what has created the opportunity for all who came before, will bleed out of the national body through a million tiny puncture wounds inflicted by sloth, waste and fraud.
December is the giving season, the time we all gather round and watch “A Christmas Carol,” tut-tutting at what a mean and selfish man Ebenezer Scrooge is and smiling approvingly at his post-haunting epiphany. It’s his change of heart we applaud, his moral awakening. It would be a far less resonant story if the Ghosts of Christmas simply shook down old Scrooge for the price of the Cratchit family Christmas goose. Scrooge was a skinflint, alright, but it wouldn’t be right to force him to give to others. For it to be the right thing, for it to be something real and lasting, he had to want to do it himself.
That’s what a lot of people feel: that it’s not right to force them to give to others. Especially people they don’t know, people they suspect could do more for themselves if they just tried harder. They’re glad to give to the charity of their choice, but they don’t like paying taxes for social safety nets.
For many government is like a parent, and those people lined up to collect welfare are its children run wild. But what if one of them was your son? Would you turn your back on him? Probably not. Perhaps, though, neither would you rush in with an open checkbook every time he slipped. You’d want him to work it out himself if at all possible.
We’d all have a lot more confidence in government if we were sure it was operating this way. We’d be happier to trust it with our money. Let’s face it, we just don’t think government, particularly the federal government, is a very good parent. It’s too inattentive, too indulgent. We all know how kids of parents like that turn out.
Government has to regain our confidence. It’s not enough to say you want to help people in need, you have to show you know how to do it. You have to show you can tell someone who truly needs help from a charlatan gaming the system. Government hasn’t done enough to gain our confidence that it can do that. It has been aloof. It has been imperious. It has been wasteful. For proof, one need look no farther than the current Congress. Few among us any longer trust those gridlocked, preening pontificators to look after our common welfare.
Government needs to learn to be a better parent. It needs to explain its decisions. It needs to make us feel they are fair and evenhanded. It needs to be a parent we can respect. Otherwise, the children are going to keep running away from home.