Privilege. Social class. Entitlement. These are concepts that are awkward to discuss outside of a liberal arts classroom or with people of a different background than yours. We see the effects of socio-economic differences every day, and yet we ascribe to an ideology that proclaims “liberty and justice for all.”
In the media, pundits and journalists — difficult to distinguish these days — bemoan socialist handouts to “welfare queens” and government bailouts of bonus-snatching “Wall Street Fat Cats.”
The right argues that the government robs the industrious through taxes to prop up the undeserving. The left screams Republican conspiracy to commit oligarchy. Both sides claim that the other is contrary to the spirit of American democracy.
As an American, I am not quite sure what I ought to value. My political socialization has taught me that equality and hard work are both sacrosanct virtues, and yet they are seemingly in conflict.
Should I, as the Tea Partiers claim, base my political opinions on those of the Declaration of Independence?
In that document, the signatories ascribed to the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. Voltaire, whose thinking greatly influenced the Founding Founders, argued in his play “Eriphyle” that “men are equal; it is not birth, but virtue that makes the difference.”
According to the 2010 census, the richest fifth of Americans received 49.4 percent of the country’s aggregate income. Unmarried men earned, on average, $13,442 more than their female counterparts. Non-Hispanic whites had the highest median income, followed by Asian Americans, African Americans and Hispanic Americans, in that order.
It’s clear there is economic inequality in America. There are definite benefits to having more money, such as better housing, a better diet, more education, more resources for political participation and better health care.
I don’t believe that I am a radical for asserting that the rich have distinct advantages in the pursuit of happiness.
Does this mean that their disadvantage is the result of their lack of virtue? Am I granted moral license to pop the collar of my Polo shirt and use my Lawrence diploma to shoot spitballs at the lazy peasantry from my Rolls-Royce?
I don’t think so. I myself am the product of a distinguished line of Swedish lumberjacks and Polish/Québécois “dirt-farmers.” My relatives often remind me of my humble roots when my youthful elitism becomes too odious for them to stomach.
My privilege comes from the work of my underprivileged ancestors, which is the case for most of us here at Lawrence. It is important to note that the classic American rags-to-riches story reveres the pauper’s hard work, not his or her poverty.
Welfare recipients capable of employment are reviled in the United States. Individual action, not background, is held to be the ultimate criterion for measuring an individual’s worth.
Affirmative action programs give preference to candidates from groups that have traditionally faced discrimination in the work force. Does this make the majority candidate as an individual any less worthy or capable of the position? I don’t believe so.
Again, an impasse. How can American society avoid the dual de facto sins of individual entitlement and group discrimination without making one de jure?
Everyone sacrifices something for the benefits of government — whether individual freedom or resources. There is no benefit without a cost. The wealthy pay taxes in order to secure their advantaged lifestyle. Members of the working class give up a greater degree of individual autonomy in order to have the chance to rise up the social ladder.
If both sides continue to cooperate in such a fashion, the product is a robust middle class in a society that is free, stable and prosperous. This class gives up some of both freedom and money. In return, the middle class enjoys both security and opportunity for advancement.
“Deciding who gets what, when, and why” is the definition of politics taught in nearly every introductory government course. The balance is upset when individual citizens resign themselves to apathy or are denied the capacity to fairly participate within government because of their birth.
The recently proposed Republican budget cuts hit hard on programs that foster an environment of political participation for all, particularly public broadcasting, research and education. This approach would weaken the institutional links between the government and the most disadvantaged of its people.
As advocates of representative and responsive government, it is irresponsible and contrary to any class’s long-term self-interest to actively or tacitly endorse such cuts, even if it means we must now pay higher taxes, limit our personal benefits or accept greater debt.
Such are the demands of constitutional liberalism, stability and democracy. In fact, the beauty of our political system is that despite the existence of social class, a common truth holds us all together as Americans:
We won’t get somethin’ for nothin’.