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Is There a Single, Most Fundamental Issue that Divides Americans Today?

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

Paul Krugmann

Is Paul Krugmann correct that the single most important and governing division in our society today is not race, nor ethnicity,  nor sexual orientation, nor religion, nor perhaps even social class, but instead the division between the “I earned it and I have the right to keep it” crowd, on the one hand, and the “modern welfare state” crowd, on the other hand?  I myself think you could make a case — I don’t know how strong of a case, but a respectable case — for Krugmann’s notion.

That is, it seems at least arguable that most — perhaps all — of the major divisions in our society today have more or less become fronts for that one fundamental division between those who think they are entitled to every last penny they own in life, and those who think they owe society some portion of the wealth they own.   For instance, don’t the Republicans use the gay rights issues to work up  support for their candidates come election time (and later more or less ignore the people who voted for them on those grounds)?  Don’t the Democrats use the same issues to the same ends — changing only which side of the issues they are on?

I don’t know whether Krugmann is entirely right, but my guess is he is at least partly right.

Yet, for a moment at least, let’s assume for the fun of it that Krugmann is substantially right.  That would mean the single most fundamental issue that divides Americans today is rooted in an absolutely absurd notion of what it means to be human.

There are things about human nature as yet unknown to scientists.  There are even things about human nature as yet unknown to the rest of us.  And finally, there are even some things — a very few things — about human nature as yet unknown to our pets.  But only the most oblivious squid living in the deepest ocean doesn’t know that humans are a social animal.

We live together and cooperate with each other to not only survive, but to also boost the quality of our lives.  It is true that a single human,  adept at surviving in nature, can live by himself in the wilderness.  But no human can live as well alone in the wilderness as he can live in a community of his fellow humans.  Humans, unlike bears, are not well adapted to living absolutely alone in nature.  We are a community animal.

It’s obvious, isn’t it, that even our so called “self-made” billionaires would never recover their current standard of living if society made them outcasts — if society cruelly transported them to the Canadian wilderness and abandoned them somewhere between the headwaters of the Yukon and the Arctic.   Please don’t tell me a man or woman is truly “self-made” until you can show me one — just one human — who has walked into the wilderness with absolutely no gifts from society,  and then returned five or seven years later — having never seen in all that time another human — but nevertheless in possession of a fine business suit, and rounded out with an education equivalent to a Harvard MBA.  That would be a self-made human.   But the rest of us must content ourselves with owing at least half our success in life to our fellow humans.

So long as we are a social species, we will owe some portion of our success to our society.   The “I earned it and I have the right to keep it” crowd is wrong:  They might have earned it, but they could not have earned it without the society they lived in and relied on to earn it.  Consequently, they do not possess sole rights to it.  Instead, they owe society some portion of it.

But how does one determine what portion of our earnings we owe to society?


5 thoughts on “Is There a Single, Most Fundamental Issue that Divides Americans Today?”

  1. those who think they are entitled to every last penny they own in life, and those who think they owe society some portion of the wealth they own.

    The former, I can understand, but find a bit selfish.



    “Is There a Single, Most Fundamental Issue that Divides Americans Today?” – – Yes. I believe we both now see economics as that.

    Many if not most in the United States would cling to the religious views of Christianity v Muslim v Jews v Atheist. Few have the ability to see this fundamental truth.

    Most fundamental is almost never called MOST IMPORTANT. I do not believe it ever is. Life is not like scuba diving in that way. The most fundamental need of air to breathe is obvious to everyone.


  3. While this is certainly the most important POLITICAL issue, I don’t think it’s the single greatest difference.

    This may well be the single most important issue for the rich, but I think the greatest difference is between Christian Fundamentalists and those who believe in personal freedom.

    t’s just that the rich have learned how to effectively manipulate Christian Fundamentalists with other issues such as abortion and gay rights. In fact, most Christian Fundamentalists I’ve known were anything but rich.


    1. Maybe Fox TV is the opiate of the masses. Okay, enough with the Marx riffs, but I never cease being struck by the way people make decisions against their own interests. The children of union steel workers here in Pennsylvania are not taking in the evidence of their eyes: That mom and dad owned a house and car, that the family had medical insurance, that one salary was enough to support the family. That they themselves need two incomes to support their children, that fewer of them receive health insurance at work and that those who do find co-payments overly-burdensome, that if their retired parents become unable to provide childcare a parent must stop working, and so on. They do remember that unionization made steel expensive and they see that the American steel industry is dead. So, these people are not being irrational. They’re choosing a wingless bird in the hand over two birds in the Chinese steel industry. However, it doesn’t seem to occur to them that countries like Indian and China are still out-competing us now that our unions have been demolished. Nor does it seem to occur to many people that some of our service industries, like healthcare, are largely immune from being outsourced. Even so, I meet countless numbers of people who don’t believe their own companies need unions. Recently, a nurse aide friend was informed that absences due to illness would not be excused unless the employee went to an emergency room. Aside from the sheer silliness of essentially encouraging caregivers with bad colds to come into close physical proximity to fragile, elderly nursing home patients, consider the sheer meanness of requiring employees to pay the prohibitive ER copayment, not to mention all the time spent being sick and uncomfortable in ER, exposed to other people’s illnesses in ER, and just not being able to stay home and recover from their illnesses as quickly as possible. My nurse aide friend’s colleagues are anti-union because they feel that being self-serving has no place in nursing. How, one wonders, do they justify the self-serving (certainly not patient-serving) nature of their management? Management that earns sturdily middle-class (or higher) salaries and that decides against supplying adequate equipment or sufficient staff to ensure that patient care is appropriate and that aides do not become crippled doing their jobs? I simply do not understand a society in which so many people are embracing that which kicks them hardest in the teeth.


  4. And a comedian shall lead them…

    “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

    ~ Stephen Colbert


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