What’s in It for Me?

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“Why should we have to pay school taxes when we’re a retired couple with no children or grandchildren in school?”

“Why should I have to pay for health insurance that covers prenatal care and delivery of a baby when I’m a single man?”

“Why should I have to buy health insurance when I’m young and healthy?”

“Why should we have to get our children vaccinated?  Are we not their parents, and should the decision not be ours alone?”

“We’re retired.  Why should we care if Social Security benefits are cut for the younger generations as long as we seniors get to keep all the benefits we have?”

The answer to all of these questions and more like them is that we are a people and that all people are interrelated more deeply and closely than we have ever been willing to acknowledge.  No family, community, or society is merely a collection of autonomous individuals, each free to go his or her own way without regard for the others.  That kind of autonomy is not freedom but alienation; it is a denial of our humanity.

Such questions as I posed in quotation marks above are deeply troubling because they express a profound self-centeredness lacking, not only a basic human sense of community and shared responsibility, but also the most rudimentary appreciation of how mutual benefit and security work among us.  Such selfish thinking reveals a failure to comprehend even so simple and impersonal a matter as insurance.  How can we talk productively about our need for greater generational responsibility and for stewardship in management of the earth that is our shared home when so many of us sound as though they have no concern for anyone beyond their tiny circles of “me and mine”?  Some of us don’t seem to understand even that public health matters are, indeed, public and so we cannot stop the spread of communicable diseases if only some have their children vaccinated against them (unless they have some plan for magically keeping the disease in the family).

Insurance cannot operate if only those with claims to submit pay into it.  Many pay the insurance premiums so that those who come to need to submit claims can receive its benefits.  We all pay into car insurance because any of us could need it at any time; we hope we don’t need it, but we could.  Hopefully more is paid into the insurance program than must be paid out; otherwise it will fail.  We pay to lower our risk of heavy liability and to pay the expenses if our vehicle gets, say, rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.  It matters not only that I have car insurance but that the other person has it, also.

Public education is somewhat different.  We all pay, not only because we may have children or grandchildren who will benefit from public education, but because the society as a whole needs it, especially if we are to continue as a democracy.  Even from a selfish point of view, paying for public education is a good deal.  My children did not design the roadways and bridges over which I travel; neither did they develop medical science and dentistry for me.  We all benefit from each other’s education, innovations, and services, and we all benefit to the extent we have an educated population.  Public education is one of our best investments in the future.  I have near-zero musical ability, but I benefit from the music of others who have been enabled to develop their abilities.  We benefit collectively also from the economy developed by an educated populace, although these days an increasing amount of the public benefit is going to relatively few people who redistribute the nation’s wealth and the world’s to themselves.

These days, we’re moving more and more into a “me and mine” attitude toward education and even toward the public funding of it.  Can I get my child into a good charter school (at public expense)?  Great, then why should I worry about all those other children?  Janice Resseger has an analysis of the problem here, showing that charter schools, though publicly funded, do not fulfill the responsibilities of public schools or provide adequate public benefit for the future.

Human life is relational, and it is communal, both shared and interactive.  We are in this thing together, this thing called life.  From a biblical and theological point of view, the denial of relationship is the essence of sin.  “Am I my brother’s guardian (keeper)?” asks Cain the archetypal murderer of his brother in the Genesis story.

There is such a thing as smart selfishness, more often called enlightened self-interest; it is smart selfishness because it recognizes the benefits of mutuality, even though it is not the highest motive for caring about the well-being and thriving of other people and of the public in general.  It’s not selflessness or even compassion but smart self-interest.  Today, however, we are retreating into stupid selfishness, the kind that seeks short-term personal gain without heed to the consequences for all of us not far down the road.

How are we to turn the tide of stupid selfishness and begin to recover our much-needed sense of mutuality and of generational responsibility?  In a wealthy nation with a 22% rate of child poverty, we have a huge problem.  Our infrastructure crumbles as we pollute our water and contaminate our own food, all for the bucks – the quick bucks and the big bucks or else the few bucks saved at the big-box store as we close our minds to what it does to people, small businesses, and society.  The doctrine of “just me and mine” is not only wrong but very foolish, shortsighted, and childish.

What will it take to make us realize that all the children are our daughters and sons and all the elderly are our mothers and fathers?  We really are in this life together.

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