It was, I think, John Kenneth Galbraith who said in one of his books that every few generations, at least in the modern world, people get comfortable and start to think they can have wealth without work. It isn't possible, as on-margin investors in the stock market learned in 1929. People who bought homes -- which are a kind of wealth -- without money beginning in the compassionate Jimmy Carter years are now learning the same thing. As are all the rest of us, compelled to bail them out.
(And incidentally, the mystery is solved. I used to drive past acres upon acres of enormous new homes, or look at real estate listings featuring "starter" homes beginning in the $150,000 price range, and wonder what on earth these people did for a living to be able to afford this. In my ignornance I used to think, well, they must be in the computer field, or something. And, who knew? -- the answer was so simple. They couldn't afford them.)
This cycle will work itself out, provided the government does not get involved and make things worse with interference that no one person or committee can know is the right interference to make; I think it is interesting that this should happen just when it seems the scholarly consensus is that Franklin Roosevelt did not "get us out" of the Depression with his programs and plans, he prolonged it. This was news to me when I went back to college a few years ago, and now I see it echoed by responsible people elsewhere. Why did it take seventy years for the best and brightest to figure this out, or to dare to say it? And will it take another seventy years for this consensus to filter down to ordinary people?
I ask because yesterday I met a woman of another mindset entirely, who is well-meaning and mature and does not realize that her opinions on the issues of the day are not those of a citizen who understands what freedom is. She said that she thinks the government should be in charge of everyone's health care, because "most" people cannot manage or budget for that themselves. She was speaking of John McCain's idea to give $5000 to every uninsured American to buy health insurance. (Do the rest of us get 5 grand, too? Are we to be punished for being already insured? And if the answer to all these financial problems is to give away taxpayer money, why not simply abolish taxes and let everyone keep the money in the first place?) She said that when most people have that wad of cash in front of their eyes, they will not necessarily use it for health care, they will use it for something immediate, who knows what. In other words, they will make free choices with it and they'll reap the consequences, for good or ill.
I'm sure she's right about the human tendency to succumb to temptation, or simply the human ability to look after our own interests and make trade-offs as we see fit. But her leap of hopeless illogic -- that therefore the government can be more sensible about your life than you can -- is what I find chilling. She is an intelligent lady. She's thought about this. On the other hand, if she were to get instructions from some government functionary telling her what groceries to buy tomorrow, she would be outraged. "How can you know what I want or what's best for me?" she would ask. But when it comes to human beings in the aggregate, human choices, human problems, she is all for the idea of state control for everyone else's good. And she doesn't even realize it.
As it happens, she is a nutritionist. She wants people to eat well and make "healthy lifestyle choices." Having just opened a nutrition counseling business in February, she is disappointed that not many customers are coming to her and paying her for advice. Instead, they are making their own food choices and are spending their money on other things apart from her counseling, bills, gas, the mortgage (let's hope). She tries to persuade them that they need her, too. What is the point of getting your life in order, she asks, when after you have solved all your other problems, you are not healthy? Good point. But free people are free to ignore her and her business. Just like free people are free to budget their own health care. Or not.
Her earnest desire to help everybody live cleanly, properly, and happily may be very American, but her emotional assumption that most people need state help to do it is, I think, not so. I'm reminded of a quote from a popular biography of King Louis XIV by Olivier Bernier (A Royal Life): in seventeenth-century France, "freedom" meant the right of the weak and poor to state protection. I'm reminded in turn of stories of riotous crowds in pre-modern Russia, or France, rushing to royalty to thrown stones at palace windows and demand huge divine gifts like "Peace, Bread, and Land" whenever times turned rough. This assumption that human beings are naturally helpless, childlike, and the state is not, does not constitute the bedrock on which free people -- well, build houses.
But how do you convince still-free people, like this lady nutritionist, that her attitudes are corrosive of the very untrammeled, competitive, free market, "dog-eat-dog" economic system that has enabled her to risk starting her business and creating wealth in the first place? It's a mighty dopey business, too, in my opinion, but luckily for her my attitudes to it are beside the point. How could I have convinced this lady that, yes, in a free economy, in a free country, her fellow citizens have the right to lead messy, fast-food lives? And that banks have the right to foreclose on their homes and sell elsewhere when they don't pay their mortgage, even though it looks un-compassionate?
I don't know how to convince her of these things, but I'm learning, as the economic "crisis" goes on and I meet bright people like her, in ones and twos, who feel as she does, who still wear "Obama 08" t-shirts and still chortle about Republicans jumping off roofs on November 5th, how much appearances matter. Illusions matter. For comfortable people, the illusion of compassion, the appearance of comprehensive outrage against the great, against injustice or unfairness, is deeply satisfying and will always spur votes and that's that. Democrats are Compassionate, and want to Help the Poor. That's that. As long as there are people who don't do as well as others in life, then Democrats will have a lock on the millions of votes that witness this and see the answer as a heartfelt abstraction -- as love, I suppose. If the "rising tide that lifts all boats" ebbs considerably because large numbers have voted against the system that frees the tide to rise, tant pis, as the French say (so much the worse).
Maybe my compassionate friends will live long enough to have one of those paradigm shifts they want everyone else to have, and notice simple things. Ebbing tides lower all boats. You can't have wealth without work. Simple. Oh, and people have thought like serfs before, in other times and places. Simple.