Columns 2009

When did we become so selfish?

One of the questions that must be asked as the health care debate rages on is just what type of society we are or want to be.

The reason humans first banded together those many millennia ago was because communal life provided better protection against the wildness and dangers it contained.  But living together only worked if the rules of the society in which you lived made life better than facing the lions and tigers and bears that inhabited the primeval forests alone.

So humankind made rules for its societies. It created both spoken and unspoken codes of conduct that, while not always honored, were almost always aspired to as the best way for a society to function as a productive coherent whole.

As time went on and the dangers of the primeval forests were replaced by muggers, bank robbers and rapacious investment bankers, the rules of society changed to address the new dangers but the underlying tenets remained the same – to make the community a safe, livable environment where its citizens could flourish. Where this was made possible, the whole society benefited.

What I find frighteningly absent from the current debate over health care coverage is any semblance of this country feeling a sense of oneness as a society in which the ideal that all have an equal chance to flourish is honored. What I find frighteningly present is the level of selfishness that says, basically, I have mine and you aren’t touching it, no matter how much of a need you may have. 

At some point we have to reframe this discussion into one about “us”, not “me”.

There have been many great nations in history that lived by the theory of me instead of us. Their declines, when they came, were pretty spectacular. If you have any doubt about that, check out Roman history, Russian history, French history… any history in which one group felt so entitled to its perks and benefits that it would not allow others in that society to advance and participate.

When our nation was founded, there were a group of thirteen disparate colonies with very different lifestyles, histories and ethnic backgrounds that came together and resolved their differences for the good of the whole. There was a lot of give and take in those negotiations, but our Founding Fathers realized that give and take was what created a strong society. For many of them, creating a democracy meant giving up what was then viewed as the god-given right of nobility to rule without question. That they would admit to the right of the common folk to have a say in that rule meant giving up centuries of assumed privilege based on birth status. We’ve come a long way since then and, given the attitude of so many who are unwilling to give up anything so that others may have something, the way has been somewhat downhill. 

I hear a lot of people gripe and complain that they don’t want to pay extra taxes so someone they don’t even know can get health care coverage. Well, I don’t have children and I don’t know yours so why should I pay taxes to support schools that your kids go to?  I pay because that’s the way society functions. We all contribute to the good of the whole.

I view health care in the same light. Our society is stronger if we all have access to a minimum of health care services so that we all have an equal chance of a healthy and productive life – a productive life, I may add, whose productivity can only enhance society as a whole. For the “haves” to refuse to share at all with the “have nots” is not only immoral, it’s simply bad public policy. Ask Marie Antoinette.

And if that doesn’t convince you that we need to start viewing ourselves as one whole society again and not a bunch of selfish interests groups out for number one, then let me put it to you this way. If Christ were to return to earth tomorrow, how proud do you think he would be of the way in which we’ve honored his words, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.”