Sunday, May 22, 2016


Remember when Jimmy Carter said "Sometimes life isn't fair?" Libertarians, never mind conservatives, get kicked for saying that now, but not so long ago, even Democrats realised that it was not the job of government to fix all ills.  I doubt Birdhouse still feels that way, but I believe he did then.

Piggybacking on Texan99's comment, it is true that almost all of us these days want to mitigate some of life's unfairness.  The political difference is that some of us want to restrict the mitigation to those unfairnesses that are clearly that are caused by our society. There is some messy agreement that unfairness caused by our government is also our responsibility. What with the EPA, crony capitalism, the Legacy of Slavery, public education and public debt, Not In Our Name, and police intrusion we have enough disagreement to last a lifetime, but if that were the remaining debate I believe we could get there.  We could wrestle out the type of compromises common to the Constitutional Convention, theoretically unsupportable by anyone's definition of government or morality, but enough to go forward.

It's the cosmic unfairness that is our real split, however.  In the major British founding groups of the American colonies, having terrible things happen to you was not at all considered the problem of anyone else in society-at-large. They might attribute vessels lost at sea to Providence, or to Luck, or to Fate, or to Skill, but no one thought your widow and children deserved anything thereby. It might be a problem for your immediate family.  If you had a serious reversal of health, business, or environment your culture might insist that your town, your extended family, or your parish might be on the hook for some assistance. Might. There was no belief that the colony as a whole, never mind the whole nation, had any obligation. And these were the groups which in all the world in the 17th and 18th C's cast their nets widest in terms of supporting the poor or unfortunate. No one else did anything.  Drop down in Latvia, Italy, Azerbaijan, Baluchistan, Siam, Japan - there was no sense of obligation by anyone.  People gave individually to beggars. Easrly Christians took up collections for distant co-religionists.

What we think of as normal safety net - what even American libertarians of the strictest stripe think of as a normal safety net - is very modern, very unusual. Yet that level of "callousness" was typical worldwide for thousands of years because almost everyone was impoverished and the rescue of others meant the starvation of your own children. Before 1700, everyone brushed against starvation some years.  Before 1900 everyone went hungry sometimes, even in the very few rich countries of the world.

It may be a real moral advance to live in a society that believes if you are sick and a treatment exists you deserve access to it; to have a nation that says we will not only have some educational stuff lying around on the coffee table if you want it, but will take it upon ourselves to accommodate you and get education to you.  I think it is a moral advance.  But I also see it as an extremely expensive moral advance that I hesitate to lay on others. I don't think it is automatic and unquestionable.  Such thinking only comes from people who believe "Oh, there's plenty of money out there, we just have to make those greedy people cough it up." Very, very recently, no one thought that the world was even remotely fair. 


jph62 said...

"remember when Jimmy Carter said 'sometimes life isn't fair?'
No, but I remember when JFK said it.


Grim said...

I remember when Jesus said it. "The poor will always be with you."

Unknown said...

Call me a pessimist, but I think millions more are on the path to redundancy, not necessarily through any fault of their own. I grant some of them will be subsidized in fake make work jobs if they are in a protected class.

lelia said...

I do remember when Jimmy Carter said Life isn't fair. I also remember the brouhaha in the newspapers when he said it.

herfsi said...

jimmy carter isn't fair.

Earl Wajenberg said...

Rather apropos to this is the current topic up on Slate Star Codex:

Armed Texan said...

There's a difference between voluntarily helping those who have been harmed by chance, other's maliciousness, or their own stupidity and forcing everyone else to help assuage miseries at the point of a gun.

Texan99 said...

I have no systematic or statistical basis for my views on the level of public assistance in the past, only impressions from literature and the like. It seems to me that some communities are and were infused with a sense that we need to do something about the suffering in our immediate vicinity, and some are and were not. I think you could make a case for people in the past being a little more blase about the disparity in suffering between rich and poor; it might take a lot to shock a comfortably wealthy person about the bad luck and living conditions of the guy in the hovel down the road a ways. But I wonder even about that. It seems to me to have more to do with how much we have to rub elbows against it, and (as you say) how much free-floating wealth is out there to ensure that we can help without risking starvation in our immediate circle. That certainly appears to be the explanation for why we are now capable of freaking out over some family with three TVs that wants free dental care, without giving a hoot about an African villager dying of AIDS: one is simply more present and visible than the other.

I'm not even sure that's pathological. Maybe the right way to live is for us to cultivate the capacity to rub elbows with more people with various circumstances among our immediate human circle, and respond to them individually with our own effort and resources. I'm so, so skeptical of distant, impersonal charities. They're bad enough even when financed with our own finances, and downright sick when we shift the burden for them onto strangers, then relax into complacency ("I gave at the ballot box"). Bad for ourselves, I mean; I don't deny that financial help is financial help, when received by some distant stranger in a bad jam. But even there I think the distant stranger, all other things being equal, would benefit more if the help were closer and more personal. An expectation of gratitude is out of fashion, and certainly the attitude of demanding gratitude can be ugly, but that doesn't mean that recipients of charity do well without feeling and even cultivating that gift.