Friday, May 14, 2010

A Society of Selfishness

Michael Kinsley is the latest to take on Tea Partiers:

“Personal responsibility” has been a great conservative theme in recent decades, in response to the growth of the welfare state. It is a common theme among TPPs—even in response to health-care reform, as if losing your job and then getting cancer is something you shouldn’t have allowed to happen to yourself. But these days, conservatives far outdo liberals in excusing citizens from personal responsibility. To the TPPs, all of our problems are the fault of the government, and the government is a great “other,” a hideous monster over which we have no control. It spends our money and runs up vast deficits for mysterious reasons all its own. At bottom, this is a suspicion not of government but of democracy. After all, who elected this monster?

That's a fair point, but I think Kinsley hit it closer to the mark with this comment:

The Tea Party movement’s goals, when stated specifically, are mostly self-interested. And they lack poetry: cut my taxes; don’t let the government mess with my Medicare; and so on. I say “self-interested” and not “selfish” because pursuing your own self-interest is not illegitimate in a capitalist democracy. (Nor is poetry an essential requirement.) But the Tea Party’s atmospherics, all about personal grievance and taking umbrage and feeling put-upon, are a far cry from flower power.

We've become a country where empathy is scorned. The Golden Rule has evolved into "Look out for number one." This isn't limited to the Tea Party, by any means. We see it constantly in the short-sightedness of legislators and the polling numbers they take as gospel. Unfortunately, it seems to be the founding principle of the Tea Party. Their scorn of "big government" isn't matched by any actual policy suggestions that could meaningfully shrink the size of government. They don't want to be on the hook for anyone else, but they're fine taking Social Security and Medicare checks. Most of them likely dislike "welfare", but what is Social Security if not welfare for the elderly?

Examples of this abound, and it's seen on both sides of the aisle. You can't look at the downfall of the US auto industry without seeing the damage done by an overzealous UAW. The short-term goal of better pay and benefits for their workers caused the companies to sink beneath the weight of their own labor costs.

Investment banks jacked their leverage up to incredible heights, handed out sub-prime mortgages, and traded securities they didn't understand because of the massive profits involved. Unfortunately, they also managed to cause a global economic meltdown. But that didn't bother Wall Street, since most of the firms are profitable and back to the same old tricks, with the help of massive government guarantees. (Lehman and Bear Stearns being the obvious exceptions.) They're even fighting the reforms proposed to prevent another crisis from happening. What do they care about the millions of Americans who are still unemployed, and have been for months? Wall Street got theirs.

The list is nearly endless. If I started going through recent issues that show this attitude, this post would be New Yorker length. Far too many people look out for their short-term self-interest, and screw everyone else.

This, I think, is both the strength and the allure of the progressive movement for me. It is a movement based on on empathy. It is a movement of people who are willing to sacrifice to help others. It is a movement that includes the very wealthy people that I met while canvassing who would respond to my crack about their neighbors calling me a socialist with "what's wrong with socialism?", knowing full well that they're advocating something that would be bad for them financially. It is a movement that leads unions like the SEIU to go to bat for President Obama's health care plan, despite the fact that union members have some of the best health insurance in the country and despite the fact that the plan included an excise tax that would hit their insurance plans.

Conservatives have a tendency to ascribe motives to progressives that just don't exist. Progressives are accused of wanting government for the sake of government. That's the logical opposing viewpoint from the conservative viewpoint that "government IS the problem," but it just isn't true. Progressives have policy goals like providing a social safety net, ensuring that all Americans have access to health insurance, and preventing the eventual boiling of our planet with greenhouse gases. In these areas, the markets have failed, so progressives look to the government to help. It is to their credit that progressives look upon their fellow citizens with empathy and a willingness to help. That empathy is something we could all use more of.

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