A lively facebook thread and a recent convo with my wife are to blame for today’s post.
In any society, there are those who are happy and sorrowful, rich and poor, haves and have-nots. Any society has inequality. This is a fact of life, it seems. But for the observer who carries even a little conscience, who entertains even a little moral contemplation, this inequality leads us to a riddle:
“Is it fair?” we ask ourselves.
“Is it right?”
“Is it just?”
“And if not, what should we do about it?”
This two-part question is crazy loaded. So much so, that it is one of the prime movers behind all domestic social policy in our civilization.
A liberal mind sees rightly that those who have much are also able to gain much, and those who have little are in fact frequently mired in their scarcity.
Those who already have social connections, education, supportive family, and wealth, also have easier access to the most critical currency of our society: opportunity. Those who lack these prerequisites will also find their opportunities rare, and so life is more cruel to them.
The liberal says this problem is best corrected on a macro scale. He is sure that those who have benefited most from the existing social order should feel a gratitude of sorts, a social compassion; he reasons that this compassion should compel a corrective redistribution; they should be taxed in order to fund grants, scholarships, and social support programs which will enable those less fortunate to get a leg up in life. By levying this “gratitude” on a grand scale, the liberal can be re-engineer society and rebalance it according to his convictions.
While the liberal rightly understands the cause of the problem, his solution lacks imagination. He believes that by simply redistributing the currency of our civilization — opportunity — that he can bring prosperity to those who are marginalized. This approach is nobly motivated, but creates as many problems as it solves.
He assumes that those who have prospered the most will also feel the most compassion and charity toward those less fortunate, but we know this assumption to be false. By enforcing this compassion as mandatory, he creates a new and artificial enmity between the state and its taxpayers, and between the benefactors and the beneficiaries. The chief benefactors aka taxpayers will be forced to watch as their compulsory charity is funneled into bureaucracy and inefficiency, or into the hands of those “beneficiaries” who have in fact become dependent on, and addicted to, welfare handouts and benefits.
This is not to say that the liberal approach is outright failure. It is simply that liberals fail to adequately answer the second part of the question. Their solution is a mediocre one.
The conservative resists a top-down perspective on all this, and instead favors the lens of the individual. She believes that our society was made through the sweat of ingenuity and passion, through exquisite leadership, personal responsibility, daring hope, and perhaps a dose of good Christian resolve. She has made priorities of these virtues herself — she has worked hard, cared for those close to her, accepted responsibility for her actions, and in time, reaped the reward of her good choices. She wishes that all people could be as forthright and perspicacious as herself. But at bottom, she must believe that those who are stuck in the mud must have done something to keep themselves stuck there. She worked her way up, or knew somebody who did. Surely anybody at all, even in the lowliest of circumstances, is capable of mustering the willpower and virtue to exit from the pit.
Sadly, she deludes herself with such thinking. She may have indeed learned through the school of hard knocks, suffered through trying circumstances, even fought through the pain of tragedy or addiction or depression; she may have emerged finally triumphant and sound after all this, victorious and exhausted, and proud of her achievement. Let no one discredit her labor and determination. But, critically: she ignores the hidden mercies that have aided her steps. At some point along the road, she made a good impression on a teacher, coach, or employer; she had a parent, at least one, who loved her; she has the genes somehow for tenacity and achievement; or maybe it was none of those. Maybe, at a critical turning point, she simply had a good friend.
Any of these things could be enough to turn the tables one way or another.
But she doesn’t see it, and the determinism of such a thing is not compatible with her individualistic worldview. As such, she believes that those at the bottom must have in some way chosen to be there.
Thus, by reckoning the causes wrongly, many conservatives are able to fully excuse themselves from blame, from compassion, and from the charity that liberals would like to codify as public conscience. Their worldview answers the killer riddle in a way that vindicates them completely. And it goes without saying that such faith in the individual is incompatible with a state-run societal reengeering program. Conservatives would rather keep their hard-earned cash, and their time and energy too, and redistribute it as they see fit — more efficiently, and more selectively, and more personally, than the government could ever do. Or so they say.
This is not to say that the conservative approach of private initiative, and private charity, is outright folly. It is not. But the problem, of course, is that the conservative fails to see the world, as it it truly is, in the first place. She fails to answer the first part of the riddle correctly. She believes, at bottom, that this inequality has been earned rightly, and that it is ultimately just.
I have spoken so far with great oversimplification, and some hubris. But, I believe truly that neither conservatives nor liberals have succeeded in answering both parts of the great riddle presented at the top of this page. Both get some right, and some wrong.
Thankfully we are not limited to only these two hackneyed gambits. There is a Third Way — in fact, there are many Third Ways, but today I will discuss just one.
In consideration of the plight of the marginalized in our society, I submit that the critical resource they lack is not capital or opportunity. These things help, surely. But there are less tangible assets which help more.
Imagine or remember the tenfold yield that has been produced in your own life when these other things were present: a parent who loved you and nurtured you, even when you were a little shit; a mentor who encouraged, disciplined, taught, and counseled; an employer who believed in you, who gave you a first chance or a second chance or a third chance; a teacher who cared about your progress, about the incubation of your potential or the strengthening of your character; an advocate who stood up for you, who protested injustice on your behalf, no matter how petty.
Or just … a friend. A friend who listened, who let you vent, who let you mourn, who helped you heal.
Any of these things, as I have said, could be enough to turn the tide of an entire life. The economy of pain and joy is subtle and hidden … but love conquers all things, in time.
When I look at today’s conscientious liberals, I often see misguided dreamers, pouring their hopes into the impersonal corrective arm of the state, volunteering endless dollars in the hope of making the problem go away. When I look at our prosperous conservatives, I often see pragmatists blinded by delusion, voluntarily self-insulated from the truth of our society’s inequality. Rather than trying to solve the problem, they comfort themselves with the notion that the problem does not exist.
Taken together, I want to ask of both of them:
- What if our liberals would take to the streets and pour their hearts and wallets into local charitable initiatives? What if, rather than attempting to legislate their private convictions as public conscience, they simply followed their own private consciences with a quiet fierceness, and began transforming the corners of their own cities one block at a time?
- What if our conservatives could wake up to the hidden mercies of their own lives, and realize that their own prosperity was half-accident? And then, applying the grit and shrewdness of which they are so proud … what if they extended these hidden mercies purposefully to those people who were never so lucky to enjoy them by accident?
In short, what if we were to reject both the quiet private indifference of the right, and also the compulsory civic charity of the left? I propose that the former simply preserves the injustice of the status quo … while the latter creates an even larger storm of problems in the process. What we need instead is an awakening, a groundswell, which combines both the individual hardiness of the old conservative, with the lofty conscience of the postmodern liberal. We need to care, and act, and give, at eye-level, and on a massive scale. We need to become a society of listeners, counselors, advocates, teachers, and mentors. We need to care. We need to teach each other to care. We need to teach our children to care. We need to go to this task as though it is making war, as if we believe truly that we our lives all hang together in the balance.
If we do this, we could make all domestic policymaking debate obsolete in the next 30-40 years. I am nearly sure of it.
But, I am not confident this can happen. Or, not on the sole power of modern humanism. I don’t believe it. I believe we need Jesus for this. His vision was expounded to a crowd on a small Mount in ancient Judea, 20 centuries ago. All of today’s domestic policy has been obsolete, since then. We just need to catch up. This is the true story of the world, as I see it.