Americans' generosity, traditions of humanity beginning to come off a bit outdated
Editor's note: Robert Faber writes occasional columns for AnnArbor.com about aging, politics and other issues.
Beginning in grade school, we learned that ours is the wisest, most generous, most humane nation in the world. Graduation into old age, however, is making us increasingly aware of the many variables and shortcomings in that inventory.
Our Founders' denial of constitutional liberty for black people, our cruel relocation of the American Indians on The Trail of Tears, the lack of legislative integrity exemplified by the Teapot Dome Scandal among countless other examples, are all painful reminders of realities of our past. Still, on balance we have remained a reasonable example of honorable governance for the rest of the world — until lately.
Unfortunately, our traditions of humanity, while fairly accurate and generally applauded, may be somewhat dated. We are the same nation with the same people, but our silhouette is being adjusted by the performance of a legislative leadership primarily focused on reelection and concentrating more on the tactics of governance than on its goals. The question is who we are now, what are the broad goals of our society and how best — most fairly and effectively — can we achieve them?
In both attitude and performance, Americans tend to be a generous and caring people with a continuing concern for the well-being of their fellows. Whatever its roots, that sense of philanthropy was well articulated in a Constitution that envisioned “a more perfect Union” designed to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, ... promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” — an impressively high set of standards for a new nation just beginning its struggle for survival. In recent decades, however, that focus on the well-being of all our people has been narrowed to judging the impact its implementation will have on ourselves — an approach that minimizes meeting the needs of our neighbors.
As one example of many, political and social conservatives may reasonably support cutting taxes for the most affluent on the theory that it will improve economic conditions and inspire the wealthy to invest in new business which then will provide jobs for the poor. An improved economy, they reason, could better carry more productive relief programs for the most needy (also known as “trickle-down”). The idea is reasonable, but if the goal is relief for the poor, a more reasonable approach would be concentration on the mission of relief rather than on the politically self-serving tactics of the game.
There is the complaint of the more financially comfortable that there are limits to what can be done with available funds. Our country’s treasury, they say, already is strained. and our national debt has skyrocketed to record levels. There simply is no way to supply all the humanitarian benefits those liberal dreamers want to provide. We all feel badly for those most in need, after all, and would like to do for them all that is reasonable, but after a point just giving such costly services to everyone is expensive beyond our country’s ability to pay.
And that is not all wrong but the final determination must be made by the needs addressed, not as an afterthought to how much money is left over after tax cuts for the most advantaged have taken their toll. The argument that our generosity must be reined in is not without validity, but should apply to our broader society, not concentrating on programs designed to aid our nation’s most needy.
Adequate service for our larger society is properly recognized simply as a fact of citizenship, like filling potholes for automobile drivers and accepting police protection and the services of the fire department without a fee. These benefits accrue to every individual simply on the basis of being an American citizen.
Those benefits do not come cheap, of course, and must be borne — and they are — by gasoline taxes and income taxes and various municipal taxes. They are paid for by those who have the means with which to pay them. The question, then, is why should these universally accepted benefits be judged, distributed and funded differently from the most basic of society’s humanitarian services?
This revolutionary idea had become a bit more centrist in 1788 when our revolutionaries saw the need to embed it in the Constitution “in order to form a more perfect union [and] promote the general Welfare.” Concern for the well-being of all our citizens is a basic part of our national identity, an example of who we believe ourselves to be and how we wish to represent ourselves to the world.
Obviously this brief representation vastly oversimplifies the extent and nature of the problem, but the concept remains feasible and fair. And following the path set by our country’s founders, whose wisdom, foresight and idealism have made our nation unique in all the world’s history, these humanitarian principles should be embraced and implemented.
Understanding and shaping the goals of governance requires much analysis and discussion, but the tactics for success must not be allowed to interfere with the humanitarian principles underlying the effort. As a nation — as a people — we are much more than that.
Robert Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at email@example.com.