I’m reading John Scalzi’s The Human Division, the 5th book in his fun modern space opera Old Man’s War series. I enjoy it because it’s thrilling and sweeping like old sci-fi, but racism and sexism are marginalized instead of normalized like in the old 50s and 60s series I cut my teeth on.
In one part, a character (call him A because I hate spoilers of any kind) who is the scion of a powerful and rich family on a planet returns home. His driver (call him B) is a close friend; a member of a family that serves his. The driver relates how A’s rich dad always talks about working hard for what you get, but has given him a sinecure job that allows him the time and resources to focus on his career as a poet. “Your dad has been generous in that way of his. . . Always thumping on about people having to make their own way in the world and the value of an honest day’s labor. He’d rather die than fund a grant. But he gives me a ridiculously easy job and pays me well enough that I can work on my words.”
B goes on to tell how he won a poetry award and A’s dad was so proud that he displays B’s award in his office. He also shares how B’s sister scrubbed toilets in the house for a year but then used the generous compensation to fund graduate studies. A’s dad even went to the doctoral ceremony and also keeps a picture in his office.
I stopped reading right where I was and immediately thought, “this is what American Republicans and conservatives think of themselves.” I immediately recalled a customer I had, a quite wealthy man who reliably voted conservative, who paid for his housekeeper’s health care when she had a serious condition arise and did not have health insurance to cover it. That was truly kind and generous. But why do we live in a society where largesse is the only option that results in a good outcome?
American conservatives think of themselves as A’s dad: standing firmly for values of hard work and self-making, but quietly and generously helping those in need close to them. Generosity of spirit to our neighbor is welcomed, but it must always be coupled with the difficult question, “Who is my neighbor?” What happens to those not close enough to a person of means to obtain patronage? And how many people of means are actually consistently generous?
When we talk about benefit programs that are tax-funded, whether they are food, housing, health, or care for those who cannot work due to age or disability, we are asking this question: To what extent should generous rich people and organizations meet the people’s needs versus the society meeting the people’s needs?
I think the conservative value of local control does matter and is good to ensure local needs are met properly. We don’t need to give everybody umbrellas if they live in a town in the desert. However, care has to be taken to ensure that local bias does not enter into who is cared for. We saw local control used as a weapon of injustice during the Civil Rights Movement, and so a healthy skepticism is warranted.
Rich people are just people, no better, no worse than others. However, their money gives them an ability to impact society in a broader way than the average person. Like anyone, they will help people they are close to, and be less likely to help people they are not close to. Even in charitable giving, they (and we) give to causes they care about, not necessarily where there is the greatest local need. Churches have a better track record of helping local areas, but if everyone with the ability to do so in a community is not contributing to a church, it’s unfair to expect them to bear the burden of the whole community.
Taxes aren’t a panacea; anything run by people involves planning, oversight, and stewardship. However, getting more people to contribute less, and making sure help is not conditional on proximity, relationship, organizational membership, or creed allows us to build a more just society. It would be wonderful if the generosity of churches and the rich eliminated social programs and could be consistently counted on to do so. But we don’t live in that world.
Scalzi’s book is cleverly titled and is about many kinds of human division. To address this one, we will have to stop expecting a feudal framework and an individual moral code to meet modern needs in full.