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.
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?