American conservatives are half right: America is in decline today due to a broad failure of personal responsibility. However, they’re wrong on a very important detail. While it’s important to take responsibility for yourself – I think it’s equally important to develop a sense of personal obligation and a responsibility for helping other people. Yes, you are responsible to take care of yourself as best you possibly can. I expect everyone who is able to support themselves to do so. However, in addition to that, I say that it is also our responsibility to help our neighbors. This is true regardless of whether they ‘deserve’ it to any extent.
The main fallacy of modern American conservatives (at least the mouthy ones) might be summed up as “I got mine, screw you.” To be more polite, it’s usually stated along the lines of, “I worked hard and sacrificed for what I have, why should I give any of that up for people who didn’t work as hard as me?” This shows up in the tea party gripe about “confiscatory” taxation, but also in callous attitudes toward all sorts of suffering. Blame for suffering or want lies squarely with the sufferer. The illegal immigrant should have been born here if they wanted better opportunities. They broke the law, you know? They get what’s coming. The single mother should have known better than to get raped at age 14. Did you hear that daddy’s little girl wears a ‘promise ring?’ The drug addict should have thought harder before getting hooked. The impoverished old person should have saved more during her working years. Social security was only ever intended to cover a third of post-retirement needs!
Note that I’m not talking about expanding any particular social program here. I’m very specifically not talking about whatever proposed increase in government spending is lighting up the airwaves today. That’s where American Liberals tend to fail – they want things done – but they don’t want to do them personally. They would (to make a broad generalization) rather pay at the door than get their hands dirty. Somehow “the society” should be generous – but without any need for too much up-close-and-personal individual generosity. In this worldview, blame for ‘the plight of the poor’ lies with large scale social forces. It never seems to come down to helping that one individual person, the one right over there. We hear a lot of talk about tidal pressures of society – about institutional racism and sexism – but surprisingly little talk about personal sacrifice and involvement.
At our best, we are a nation of people who stop at traffic accidents and see if anyone needs help. Our heroes are the people who step in and wrestle criminals to the ground – the people who run into burning buildings to save people they don’t even know. Our ‘greatest generation’ put their lives on hold to save other nations from totalitarian, genocidal invaders – and then turned around and rebuilt the continent ravaged by war. While those were large scale efforts, I think that the property that makes them so compelling is the level of volunteerism in society as a whole. The level to which we stepped up to improve our own lives – and the lives of those around us.
When people talk about America being ‘great,’ they mean a lot of different things. The best of these involve world leadership in science, technology, human rights, etc.. The worst involve a mindless sort of rabid-sports-fan loyalty.
So my point: At our best, we take things personally. We step in to make things right – even when we don’t have to – and even if nobody else seems to give a damn. I strongly suspect that if we develop this better part of our nature, that a lot of the little problems will get solved – as if by magic – along the way.