This title is borrowed from Yanis Varoufakis’ polemic against European austerity. I haven’t read very much of his book, and this post isn’t about European macroeconomic policy at all. Rather, I want to consider public responsibility towards the poor more generally. Just under 2 million children are homeless in America. A good number more don’t eat well. And yet even more lack access to quality healthcare or appropriate education. Why aren’t we doing more?
One answer may be that the long quest to solve each of these problems through government intervention has desensitized individuals of their responsibility towards fellow citizen. The many words written each year about various healthcare, welfare, and education policies, whether liberal or conservative in nature, presume that it is not reasonable to expect that private individuals can or will collectively aid the weak and helpless. Of course, there’s an inexorable logic to this belief: it’s hard to feel much responsibility towards the poor when the government swaps our moral obligation in exchange for much of our income.
And so it happens that when people see pictures of Syrian refugees or walk by homeless kids they will resolve to end this madness by voting for Bernie Sanders. It must after all be true that you would have felt like an altruist after voting for Barack Obama if you felt that the rich people voting for Mitt Romney tax cuts were greedy. It must also be true that many of the people that take to saying things like “People like me can afford to pay more in taxes” have an attenuated sense of obligation towards the poor and helpless. They did pay their taxes, after all.
In early post-revolutionary America many roads that should not have been built were built. They should not have been built because their investors rarely expected to recoup the cost of their investment. They were built anyway because their many owners, not especially rich or established, felt that public improvement was a social and moral obligation. This wasn’t an anomaly; a great many roads were successfully built and maintained on this model of private investment.
Wherever individual responsibility is abdicated to the government, the outcome will be judged not through the lens of individual morality but one of majoritarian politics. So it will tautologically become true that the weak will suffer what they must because the primary channel of altruism becomes one of “vote for less suffering” rather than “reduce suffering yourself”, and the question of how much people must suffer is dictated by political currents more than individual virtue.
The antiwar left may have succeeded where the current one fails because individual resolve, by itself, was not enough to stop a violent superpower without political influence over the civil government that controlled it. The same cannot be said about contemporary concerns of the left.