July 26, 2014
On the Subject of Inequality: What Separates Us?
Inequality is a very complex issue. There are many contributors to it. There is great disagreement about it—how to measure it; what causes it; whether it is good or bad; at what point it becomes a problem; how to control it or reverse it, with the least negative side effects.
But sometimes it seems the major dividing line between those who want to do something about it and those who don’t, is very simple. Maybe it comes down to our highly personal views on the nature of people. This may be something we develop at a very early age.
If one is of a mind to view the vast majority of people as generally desirous of working hard and obeying the law, one is likely to want to help people have that opportunity. However, if one believes that most people are inclined to seek the easiest way out, to take advantage of the social support system, then one is not inclined to waste money on these folks. Ergo the increasingly dominant conservative view which has come to control our social support system—that we only help those who help themselves (who work). This is the natural product of that thinking.
Maybe this choice is close to our seemingly natural tendency to either trust others or be suspicious of others.
Add just one other dimension, and we may have the essence of it: If one believes he/she made it to some degree of success on the basis of nothing more than his/her own competence and hard work, then one is likely to feel everyone else has the same opportunity. However, if one feels that he/she has enjoyed advantages that others do not have, and that these advantages have been highly contributory to one’s success, one is likely to be supportive of helping others without such advantages.
Perhaps this is where our basic attitudes are formed. From here, perhaps we tend to complicate to better justify our prejudices. We add on economic arguments—inequality restrains growth, or policies to restrain inequality reduce growth; the pie is only so big and if we help others, it diminishes what is left for us—maybe I haven’t made it yet, but I don’t want to dilute the opportunity—success is like grading on the curve, only so many of us can succeed; the wealthy invest and that’s what promotes growth, or the poor spend more of their savings and that’s what promotes growth; or political arguments–that government encroaches on our personal freedoms, or that government is necessary to assure our collective freedom, etc., etc., etc.
I’m in the trusting camp. I was born to a poor family, but I am white, was born in America, and Protestant. I had responsible parents. I have an uncle who achieved some success and was able to introduce me to a few influential people who helped me obtain a scholarship to a good college. I graduated at a good time, when employment opportunities were plentiful. I had some bad fortune, but more good than bad. I had some very helpful mentors along the way. I am blessed with good health.
While there are some who only want a free ride, my “prejudice” has always been that most people can be trusted, that most people want to do the right thing, to be self sufficient, and that there are increasing numbers of good people who need a helping hand, given the obstacles which have accumulated during the 30 years since the conservative Right began its climb to dominating politics and economics.
Maybe it’s that simple.