How We Take Care of Each Other

Reviewing a book titled, Man’s Better Angels, by Philip Gura, in the Wall Street Journal, Carol Bundy raises points worth considering with regard to welfare programs:

Linking the cultural and intellectual ferment in the 1840s to the economic failure of 1837 is particularly appropriate at a time when only the oldest Americans can remember pre-New Deal America. Softened by Social Security, Medicaid and the various federal handouts that are now on the chopping block, contemporary Americans can barely imagine how an old-fashioned depression smacked people sideways with bankruptcies, penury, displacement and biting shame. “The land stinks with suicide,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1837; “society has played out its last stake; it is checkmated. The present generation is bankrupt of principles & hope, as of property.” …

George Ripley, objecting to how “unchecked capitalism . . . stunted the practical realization of . . . America’s democratic promise,” was the founder of Transcendentalism’s cooperative Brook Farm, whose residents, he hoped, would achieve inner perfectibility and in this way realize “that living in the spirit trumped a good rate of interest on their investment,” as Mr. Gura puts it.

There’s a good bit of myth-making to this; Brook Farm didn’t work, for example.  There is also a bit of mixing of issues; Emerson’s aristocratic friends melodramatically playing up financial losses from his aristocratic standpoint bespeaks quite a different thing than those nearer the bottom of the economic ladder falling back on Social Security and Medicaid.  And of course, Bundy credits the changes of a century to a single factor; the New Deal had the good fortune of coinciding with long economic growth built on the temporary boost of a destroyed Europe, an inherently time-limited reliance on national debt, and technological advancement.  (We won’t even get into the question of how “unchecked” capitalism actually was, and how much government policy was actually empowering the consolidation of wealth.)

For all that, though, we’d be missing an opportunity if we didn’t ask an important question: Perhaps some of the people Gura profiles offered a necessary corrective, but was big government the only answer?  I simply don’t believe that a society with the wealth and technology of ours would fail to filter wealth down to those who would otherwise starve.  Indeed, just as I suspect obsession with using government to correct racial disparities has prolonged racial division, I would make the case that government manipulation of the economy, mixed with the attitude that caring for others is the job of government, not individuals, has kept our society from curing poverty to an even greater extent.

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