You Shall Pursue

April 14, 2012

Toward a Sane Model of Wealth Distribution

Filed under: Social Justice — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 6:38 am

Copying over some of the old posts from my blog, circa April 2011…

This post may come out a bit blurry, because it’s something I’m just starting to think about. But I think it’s super important to get these thoughts out on paper.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the budget cuts in congress, and how congress is not interested in increasing the tax rate on the wealthiest Americans to subsidize desperately needed programs to help poor Americans thrive. And lots of Conservatives are calling poor people lazy, and saying that it is not the duty of the government to provide a safety network for poor Americans, because small government, or private charity, or some other bullshit. And this is, of course, complete and utter bullshit. But I have for a long time trying to find a succinct way of explaining WHY this is bullshit so that conservatives would understand. I think I hit upon it.

So, in my family, my grandparents opened a savings account for all of their grandkids, and gave them all money to go to college. My grandparents had succeeded and lived a comfortable middle-class existence and decided to pass those funds along so that their grandchildren would have the same shot at a comfortable, college educated, middle-class existence. Similarly, in my town, sometimes there is a kid with cancer. And all of the neighbors get together to have a fundraiser for that kid’s medical bills because they are neighbors, and neighbors help each other out. I cannot measure the amount of emotional, financial, educational, and other support that I have received in my life from people outside of my immediate family. The reason that I am a success today is, I believe, firmly due to having an entire community of people looking out for my best interest.

This is more or less human nature. People are designed to help those whom they love and care about. It’s why women and men sacrifice themselves to save their children. It is why people give their incompetent relatives (or competent relatives) jobs at their businesses. It’s why, when a community is working right, the children in the neighborhood are parented not only by their parents, but also by neighbors, and friends of the family, and anyone else withing close proximity. Note, this does not mean that people are not horrendous assholes to people that they know and purport to love on a regular basis. But when something catastrophic happens, communities tend to band together and help each other.

However, there is another side to human nature, and that is the side that is really good at not giving a fuck about people we don’t know personally. This isn’t because we are cruel, callous, assholes (although that is the end product). It is because the first anatomically modern humans lived for tens of thousands of years in small communities where it was possible to know the life histories of everyone you ever came in contact with. It’s why we are so good at community support, and so shitty at supporting theoretical groups that we don’t know personally. Our animal brains are not designed to place the same import on members of the species we know and members of the species we don’t.

Here’s the problem. The way that human society has been set up for thousands upon thousands of years, most people interact with other people they don’t know personally every day. And in America, there is a social contract between some 300 million people. That is a lot of faceless masses. And because of that, there is a stratification of wealth, where people who started out with more perpetuate that moreness among their social networks of kin and friends, and people who start out with less do not have the opportunity to create personal bonds with people who have more, which is how smaller societies self-regulate and re-distribute wealth.

This is where the American government comes in. It has created a social contract with American citizens to provide “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I would argue that, in a society where it is impossible for every person to know every other person intimately, the purpose of government is to artificially approximate those interpersonal bonds that keep people in smaller societies from killing and oppressing each other out of apathy. I’m not saying that small communities don’t have murder and oppression, just that the imperfect mechanisms to temper those things grow organically, whereas in a society as big as ours they must be legislated. This is why the government provides for schools, and police, and the army. And it’s why the government should provide for things like universal healthcare, and daycare for working parents, and subsidized free lunch programs for students. A little redistributive economic justice is how humans naturally work on a smaller scale. On a larger scale, democracy needs to do its fucking job and protect the poor.

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