As far back as my teenage years, my friends and university colleagues have inevitably been politically left-wing. And I have almost as inevitably been slightly to their right. I usually agreed that something was wrong that we needed to try to put right. But what I have found myself saying more and more often is that the solutions are not nearly as obvious as those on either the right or the left seem to think.
Actually, I can’t stand them, but I think the Tea Party isn’t totally wrong when they say that giving people hand outs keeps them from feeling responsible for going out and finding a paying job. I live in Britain now, but even when I lived in the US, I personally knew people who bragged about lying and getting free hand-outs from the system. There are people who say the same thing about the far more generous system over here.
On the other hand, not everybody who is hungry or living on the street or struggling to make ends meet are in that situation because they are too lazy to work, or because they think the system owes them a living. People do lose their jobs and they can’t get another one — even cleaning toilets or making the beds in hotels. People do get sick and the medical costs are beyond what anyone but the wealthiest can afford. In other words, there is a place for a safety net in a society that is not inhabited solely by uncaring egocentric self-absorbed know-it-alls.
I was reminded again that this issue of hand-outs and government supported programs has two sides by an article in The Daily Mail, which is by and large admittedly a rag. One reads it for titillating gossip – like the fact that the First Lady in France has just trashed her husband’s office after finding out that he’s been having an affair with an actress. But the article yesterday was written by a woman, a doctor and avowed socialist who serves the poor and needy here in Britain, and who sees both sides of the coin. Do read it if you are convinced that either the left- or right-wingers have all the answers.
As I see it, no system is without potential abuse. To make matters even more complicated, what looks like abuse to one person may look like real need to someone else. I rather admire Britain for deciding after World War II that there was something terribly wrong with asking people to sacrifice for their country, even to fight and die, but refusing to provide medical help when they or their children needed it if they couldn’t pay for it. I rather admire a country that will not force families, including children, to live on the street if they can’t pay the rent. And at the same time I rather like the American can-do attitude of independence and responsibility with which so many immigrants have come to the States and which has made our country so prosperous.
What the British system risks is that some people will think the system owes them a living. What the American system risks is a failure to appreciate that sometimes people need a helping hand simply to get food on the table.
But the one system I fear is Utopia. As Thomas Merton said in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
The terrible thing about our time is precisely the ease with which theories can be put into practice. The more perfect, the more idealistic the theories, the more dreadful are their realization. We are at last beginning to rediscover what perhaps men knew better in very ancient times, in primitive times before utopias were thought of: that liberty is bound up with imperfection, and that limitations, imperfections, errors are not only unavoidable but also salutary. The best is not the ideal. Where what is theoretically best is imposed on everyone as the norm, then there is no longer any room even to be good. The best, imposed as a norm, becomes evil.