The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?

As folks watch the economy crumble, shake their heads in unison, worry about retirement in this uncertain time and about our national security in this increasingly globalized world, and sit around in doctors' waiting rooms swapping health care horror stories, it's hard not to admit that Americans are in this together.

A new book by Deborah Stone, a Dartmouth professor and founding editor of the American Prospect, comes at just the right moment -- when we're all becoming painfully aware of how interconnected our fate is as citizens of this country. In The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor? she takes the reader on a journey through America's political and ethical history over the past 80 or so years, showing us the ways in which our altruistic instincts have been slowly eroded by a strategic smear campaign on the part of conservative GOP leaders.

Stone makes a cogent, inspiring argument that we must realign our deepest knowing -- that helping our neighbors is the right thing to do -- with our public policy. AlterNet picked her brain about social policy, the state of the economy and, of course, the upcoming election.

Courtney E. Martin: In your book, you make an argument for a renewed "politics of generosity" and a return to democracy's initial essence: "mutual dependency." Can you explain what you mean?

Deborah Stone: Democracy at its simplest means government by the people. To me, that means people collaborate on making rules to guide their individual behavior for the common good. It means people work together to solve common problems, especially the problems that are too big for any one person to lick. In a democracy, we're "mutually dependent" because we depend on each other to come up with good ideas and to cooperate on putting them into practice. We're also dependent on the scientific and cultural knowledge and the social institutions built by the people before us and around us.

Once we acknowledge our mutual dependence, our politics has to start from that place, too. We have to design policies for citizens who care about each other and for each other, and who feel gratitude, loyalty and sometimes devotion. A politics of generosity means we think of ourselves as helping others and contributing to the common good. We're willing to make sacrifices and compromises in order to benefit a larger purpose.

CEM: You argue that conservative leaders -- especially Reagan -- have convinced American voters that interdependence is weak and shameful and that rugged individualism is realistic. You also show the ways in which joyful interdependence plays out around us constantly in our personal lives. Why, given our everyday experiences of altruism, did we take to the notion that it was weak writ large?

DS: Partly, I think, the conservative notion of freedom (not having to do anything you don't choose to do) taps into the painful truth of human development. Each of us grows from a helpless, dependent and powerless creature to a reasonably competent and independent adult with a high degree of autonomy. From our teen years on, we savor that freedom from adult control, even as we watch our elders sometimes become frail and revert to childlike dependence. Perhaps that's why it's easy for leaders to evoke terror and shame in us by speaking of dependence.

Partly, too, our culture celebrates individual achievement. Even team sports hype their MVP awards. From the time we're born, when our parents get our Apgar scores of infant health, we are constantly subjected to measures of our individual merits -- athletic abilities, intellectual abilities, job performance and financial accumulations. Schools emphasize individual accomplishment, and teachers punish collaboration as "cheating." When parents, schools, employers and others reward people for individual achievement, this way of thinking pushes interdependence into the background of everyone's consciousness. We begin to believe that individuals can do it all on their own if they try hard enough, and we lose sight of all the ways people get help all the time.

CEM: What are your thoughts on the developing field of social entrepreneurship -- which is largely based on the idea that creating markets, not giving charity, is the best way to change the world? Is it just the "Help is Harmful philosophy" dressed up in progressive ideas, or is it truly transformative?

DS: I'm a little skeptical, as one should be about any buzzword. Roughly, social entrepreneurship means doing something socially useful through business. Now, entrepreneurship has always meant providing services and products that people want -- and are willing to pay for. That last phrase is the hitch. All entrepreneurs, even the most highly profitable and exploitative such as drug and oil companies, can claim they're providing something socially useful. It seems to me that adding the honorific "social" to an entrepreneur's title ought to mean that the business is willing to provide things people need but can't afford -- it's willing to limit its profits and possibly run in the red, as many nonprofits do (or would without substantial donations).

For many proponents, I fear, social entrepreneurship rests on a belief that being in business is the only truly productive and virtuous activity. I heard Mohammad Yunus speak last year -- the founder of the Grameen Bank, famous for its microloans to help women get started in small businesses. As an illustration of his philosophy, Yunus talked about a beggar who asked him for money. Yunus said he asked the man if he would be willing to go door to door in a middle-class neighborhood selling candy and small toys for the children if Yunus provided him with some items to get started. He set the man up and voila! He had turned a beggar into a businessman. I ask myself: How is it socially useful for a man to sell candy and trinkets that people don't need, and why is pedaling consumer junk any more virtuous than begging? Where's the value-added?

CEM: Fascinating. I notice that when you wrote about the need for family-friendly policies in the workplace, you largely de-gendered the conversation. Do you think that the contemporary Mother's Movement -- led by groups like MomsRising -- is furthering a "politics of generosity," or do you worry that they are continuing the stereotype that it is largely only women and mothers who care about these issues?

DS: I've gotten some flak for not saying that women do most of the family caregiving and not calling for men to do more. By de-gendering, I hope to convey several messages. First, caring for and about others is profoundly human. Yes, women do way more of the hands-on caregiving and have been penalized for it in so many ways. Mona Harrington's Care and Equality is a must-read on this topic. But men do a lot, too -- 40 percent of the 44 million caregivers to adults (people over 18, not children) are men, and working men often suffer for their devotion to caregiving as well.

Second, we need to transform work-family policy across the board so that everyone can express their emotional attachments as actual caregiving. When paid family leave becomes more available and normal for men as well as women, more men will be free to take advantage of it. Meanwhile, women will hopefully face less discrimination in the workplace.

CEM: Makes sense. Generation Y was raised with two very contradictory messages: "Be wary of helping; it's complicated," and "Go out and save the world!" Can you talk about what you see as the long-term effects of this kind of confusing politicization for young people, especially from your perspective as a teacher?

DS: That's a fascinating contradiction. It strikes me as much like the contradictory political messages fed to Generation X: "It's your privilege and duty to participate in politics," but hey, "Government is the problem, not the solution." Along with many other college professors, I've certainly noticed that students who want to do some social good are tending more toward community service and teaching rather than politics and organizing.

I'm just speculating here, but as you put the two messages for Generation Y, I wonder whether they push you to "save the world" in macho, coercive, adventurist ways -- slaying evil-doers rather than helping the vulnerable. Or to put it another way, ridding the world once and for all of something bad with little thought to constructing something new and good. This would seem to be a good description of how the Bush administration sees its mission in Iraq and the War on Terror. In any case, the perfect is the enemy of the good. If you think you have to "save the world" to do something worthwhile, you probably won't bother to do small things -- say, tutor a child or start a community health clinic -- because you've been led to believe that small differences don't matter.

CEM: On that note, studies confirm that young people volunteer more than any other American demographic. Some worry that this is a direct result of the increasingly competitive college admissions process and not an authentic impulse. What are the risks of young people getting involved in community service to boost their resumes?

DS: Not to worry. I don't care how or why young people come to community service and volunteer work, because those are transformative experiences. Helping others changes how people see the world. They come to feel the common humanity of people who are vastly different in superficial yet socially loaded ways (race, class, nationality, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation). They come to understand poverty and powerlessness as the result of social arrangements rather than personal failures. And generally, people who have done community service in their youth are more inclined to believe that the solutions to these problems must occur at the policy level.

So no matter what motivates people to volunteer at first -- pad my resume, required for my high school graduation, my friends are doing it -- more often than not, the work shows them the rewards of altruism and teaches them some basic citizenship virtues that are so essential for a healthy democracy. In fact, I'm all in favor of community service requirements for youth.

CEM: You write, "We know that people's ideas and attitudes about politics take shape at times in the life course when they are particularly impressionable." How do you think the current economic crisis might be reshaping Americans' ideas and attitudes about politics?

DS: There's a lot of interesting research that demonstrates how social and political upheavals can shape the attitudes of an entire cohort or generation. Famously in the U.S., the Great Depression and World War II are said to have shaped the political attitudes of "The Greatest Generation," such that they believed in a strong government that guarantees the social, economic and military security of the citizens. The conservative government-bashing tide ushered in by Ronald Reagan -- government is the problem, dismantle it, privatize its functions -- undermined those attitudes and led directly to the current financial meltdown. Then, the crisis scared the pants off even those die-hard anti-regulatory, anti-government conservatives like Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Sen. John McCain and George W. Bush.

Ironically, conservatives had convinced a lot of their constituents to "keep government off our backs," as Sarah Palin put it in the VP debate, so when the time came that we suddenly needed government at our backs, a lot of people were still running from the wrong enemy. The angry calls for tough government oversight, punishing and dismantling Wall Street giants, and helping the victims of foreclosure represent a sea change in public attitudes toward government.

CEM: You write so eloquently about the differences between government programs that disempower citizens by making them feel buried in bureaucracy and those that humanize them by giving them a sense of control. When you look at the proposed policies of the two presidential tickets, which one do you see embodying the latter approach to social programs?

To be honest, neither candidate's platform gives enough detail to tell us how they will administer government programs. But everything about Obama's background and principles suggests he feels more empathy with the disadvantaged and disempowered. And many of his programs are geared to giving people more control over their lives and strengthening their ability to take care of their families: the "make work pay" tax credit, health insurance, paid sick days, expanded reach of Family and Medical Leave Act, fatherhood support programs, more government support for education at all levels. Above all, Obama and the Democratic Party are staunch supporters of civil rights and voting rights -- nothing could be more important for empowerment.


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