On the 47% and the semantics of victimhood

“..a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them free to otherwise to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.  This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801


“When an American asks for the cooperation of his fellow citizens, it is seldom refused; and I have often seen it afforded spontaneously and with good will.”

Alexis de Tocqueville


“That is the central issue in this election. It is a moral issue. Who are we as Americans? Are we citizens who join together to form a great nation? Or are we isolated individuals, with no commitments to each other, at the mercy of corporations whose central goal is their short-term profit?”

George Lakoff, Reader Supported News

Back when I was coming up in linguistics at The University of Chicago, George Lakoff was already a prolific linguistics scholar and author on the West Coast.  His resume must be voluminous by now.  At one time he teamed with his wife Robin, but I think they split, since she now includes her maiden name and writes separately.

In recent decades, George has turned to cognitive science and what it has to tell us about politics. I just don’t know about his RSN contributions. They seem very elementary (address the audience via its frame of reference if you expect to communicate) and not at all informed by the tools and concepts of linguistics. I should read one of his books.

Liberal blind spot

Anyway.  George has a BIG blind spot where his liberal views are concerned.  By “citizens who join together to create a great nation” ( = good) he means “ardent supporters of every effort by government to invade every area of your life and take care of you cradle to grave, at a price, to be paid by future generations.”  To a liberal, there’s no other way to join together to create a great nation.

His alternative is “isolated individuals, with no commitments to each other, at the mercy of corporations whose central goal is their short-term profit.” 

So the alternative to a socialist paradise is a Dickensian hell, full of (as The Daily Show’s John Oliver once put it) "orphans, factories, and orphan factories."

This is the talk of a Jewish middle-class academic, by definition a liberal, as so many Jews have always been: it was the only way to oppose tyrannical kings and czars.  His blanket statements, his black-and-white differences between happy collectivism and miserable individualism…belie his non-understanding of real life.

Real life, George

In real life, George, there are (according to the Small Business Administration) as many people employed by small businesses as by corporations.  And corporations are SUPPOSED to be run for the benefit of employees and communities, not just senior executives and large shareholders.  Sure, they focus too much on the stock price (not entirely their fault), and they do a lot of shitty things…but don’t we have laws in place to limit and punish this kind of behavior?   

Of course we do.  It’s just that the people regulating corporations are often people who came from those corporations.  (The early railroad barons loved the idea of the ICC, because then they would have a say in the laws that affected them.)

In real life, George, we have LOTS of commitments to each other, through families, social organizations, ethnic and community groups, and (though I hate to admit it) religious institutions, among others.  America’s bedrock tradition (as often ignored as observed) is people voluntarily helping each other, so that each individual can thrive and pursue happiness. 

As John Stossel pointed out on his TV show last night, mutual aid societies and lodges (Moose, Optimists, Red Men, Kiwanis, Shriners) once flourished in this country and provided many social services, but government charity crowded them out.

Noticed early on

According to the deToqueville Society, “Alexis de Tocqueville was a French aristocrat who applauded the unique spirit of volunteerism in American society. His observations formed the 1835 work, ‘Democracy in America,’ a detailed study of American society, culture and politics. Perhaps his most important observation was that Americans helped one another in times of need. He recognized, applauded and immortalized the volunteer spirit that lives in the hearts of Americans.”

Voluntary, collective contributions to individual happiness:  It’s a delicate balance — and one that does not need the heavy hand of government. 

Who knows how much good private charities (with a much more efficient use of funds than the government) would have been done with the billions (or is it trillions?) spent on the War on Poverty? Never mind the fact that Black incomes were ALREADY rising when President Johnson launched his Great Society.

Third way

So yes, George, there is a third way: voluntarism.  A delicate flower that is culturally nourished – but crowded out by inefficient, coerced government charity.  This is the humanistic way: it maximizes human choice, responsibility, and dignity.   

I speak from experience. 

I used to write United Way kickoff speeches, and during the research, I discovered that there were (mid-90s) some 440 UW/Crusade of Mercy charitable organizations out there, directly administering medical care, counseling, food, clothes, day care, and many other services.  440 organizations in the Chicago area alone!

That, if nothing else, convinced me that there is a lot of real and potential altruism in this great land…and that government never should have gotten into the charity business.  But it did, because policy-makers believed that the poor were society’s victims and therefore did not need to work.  This is the mentality that Mitt Romney attacked in his famous “47%” remarks.

Who’s a victim?

He’s way off, especially since Clinton’s welfare reform. No doubt some who get more net government benefits than they pay in taxes (about 40%, not including me) think they are victims. 

But it’s a matter of perspective: I, for instance, think some who are credited with great altruism are victims who don’t think they are – notably, volunteer soldiers.  Yes, I can see the army’s a career opportunity for poor kids — who are victims of their own limited opportunity and the government’s propaganda.  "Service," "duty," "honor," "courage"…all these the politicians corrupt to mean “willingly do the politicians’ bidding.”  

I cringe when I hear them talk about “serving their country” and “defending freedom.”  Exactly who in Afghanistan is threatening my freedom?  Saddam Hussein did not.

From my POV, physically and mentally wounded vets are victims, and more are created every day by the government’s insane foreign wars.  The impact on those who “served” – and on their families — is ongoing, perhaps permanent.  The peak year for veterans’ benefits from World War I was 1965!

So voluntarism is both cultural  (cf. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s writings on the “pathology” of black families) and individual, which is to say that it could even be genetic.  It’s hard to apply genetic causality to military and police families, because there’s so much cultural pressure to be what Dad or Mom was. 

The story of B

So let’s narrow it down to my cousin B.  He is adopted.  Whereas the rest of the family is rife with professionals and achievers, B likes to do things the easy way, and he proudly proclaims it. He has not a particle of altruism.  He supports himself by walking people’s dogs (last I heard – this isn’t a life I follow with interest). 

B is a strong argument for the personal/genetic roots of altruism, as is Melville’s Bartleby (and the real-life Bartleby I know, whose father, by contrast, has a terrific work ethic).  There are also plenty of rich people who have no social conscience and spend it all in conspicuous consumption…oh, well, I suppose they’re creating jobs in the travel and airline industries.

Are humans naturally altruistic?  Well, some are. Even animals have showed altruism.  The studies vary.  One recent one suggests that people are more likely to care for each other in times of stress.  Another, cited by Malcolm Gladwell in Tipping Point, showed that people were more likely to be altruistic when they weren’t in a hurry. 

Continuum of altruism

At the individual level, it’s more of a continuum.   At one extreme we have soldiers, people who volunteer for dangerous and lethal work just because some politician tells them to.  Then there’s a whole range of professions that attract altruistic people for little pay.  Finally, the large mass of us, who act altruistically as best we can and when the situation requires it.  We’re certainly not like B, though society does have its share of B’s.

And that’s the bone I have to pick with George and with Mitt Romney.

You’re both wrong. 

Mitt is wrong because not all the 47% think of themselves as entitled victims, although the government encourages them to think that way – why else would there be identity politics and the oppressive dogma of affirmative action/diversity (of which I am a “victim”)?  Some are victims but don’t consider themselves as such.  Everybody in a VA hospital is a victim.

And yes, some do think they’re entitled.  I once had a discussion with a woman about welfare, and she sharply cut it off with “Well, people don’t take of their own, so somebody has to!”  Clearly SHE wasn’t taken care of by HER own.  

Well, I was.  Our family has come to each other’s aid financially.  We’ve accomplished it all with no direct help from the federal government (yes, I know, everything’s now subsidized, but somehow I don’t think that this was what the Founders had in mind).

But I daresay much of the 47% genuinely needs help, from somebody.  It doesn’t have to be government! 

As a transition to 100% private charity (except for veterans benefits), I would recommend income tax credits for charitable contributions.  Hell, I’d give all my tax bill to charity if it meant that the government didn’t get a cent.

Cancerous growth of government

Admittedly, I made it without government help because I grew up in a time of economic expansion – but the cancerous growth of government in the last 30 years has pretty much taken care of that.  Now the debt threatens to overwhelm us.  Social Security’s ratio of workers to retirees continues to narrow. 

Bush did not veto a single spending bill.  If entitlements grow at their expected rate, they will soon consume the entire federal budget.  Neither of the two state-approved candidates (the Libertarian will once again be edited out of the contest) mentions this disturbing fact.

Both Mitt and George, lovers of government, ignore the power of altruism, of voluntary collectivism.  It takes an effort to ignore it.  It’s in the news every day – people, organizations, foundations, CNN heroes…even Bill Clinton, ever seeking to be in the spotlight and remove that stain. 

The alternative

This is the alternative, the third way.  No need to get radical about America’s problems.  There’s a lunatic fringe in this country that actually expects a violent confrontation with the government.  Guys playing with guns.   Read the Constitution, everybody.  For short version, see Jefferson quote above.

In the first debate, Mitt actually mentioned “liberty,” tossing a bone to those Republicans who still care about it.  Obama never did.

A limited government with limited powers.  Check out the Ninth and Tenth Amendments – a lot of decisions are to be made by the States and the people.   

We don’t need a violent revolution.  We just need to vote these assholes out and replace them with politicians who really care about the future of this country.  If we don’t get some soon, the country won’t have much of a future at all.

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Comment by Alan Perlman on October 7, 2012 at 12:26pm

Thank you so much.

I have long argued exactly this point: that govt. should be the problem solver of last resort, only when all private, voluntary means have failed to solve the problem -- instead of first resort ("Got a problem?  Get a program.") the way it has been for many decades. 

And, oh, yeah, let's make sure there IS a problem to begin with, e.g., marijuana prohibition: was there such a danger to society that such blanket prohibition and harsh penalties were justified?   (There was, as is often the case, a govt.-manufactured problem - pot made Black men go crazy and want to rape white women.)

Liberals' faith in government is touching, given govt.'s few sucesses, many screwups (a long record of unintended consequences, as in your example), coercive nature, and obscene wastefulness.

Comment by jay H on October 7, 2012 at 8:44am
Great post.

There is a difference between communitarian actions and coerced communitarian actions, that difference is usually government. Even religions that tithe don't usually force it.

You are also correct, that despite the dogma (do liberals have so little faith in human nature?), people can and constantly DO organize and cooperate to make things happen.

The coercive power of law should be something used only as a truly last resort, when

1) the need is so pressing that it actually justifies over-riding peoples' freedom (hint: almost nothing is that pressing). Peoples moral or esthetic preferences do not count either.

2) No other approach can possibly accomplish the task

3) That making a law would ACTUALLY accomplish the goal, without egregious side effects.
This is a frequent failure point: something bad happens and people demand 'make a law, make a law'. But laws often fail. They may be unenforceable, they may criminalize legitimate activity, they may cause worse problems. [Example, years ago pickpocketing was a problem. To 'solve' the problem, laws were changed to increase the penalties for pickpocketing, resulting in the disappearance of pickpocketing to be replaced by the much more lucrative 'holdup'. The change in the law removed the incentive for less dangerous, non confrontational theft.]

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