The programs which came out of LBJ’s “Great Society” are right at the center of the differences between Democrats and Republicans today. It is possible that without our recent recessionary economy we could have side-stepped these differences, but once money became tight the issues came to the forefront. Republicans have been proponents of small government for decades and after reviewing the astounding number of programs designed and funded by the Great Society, it is easy to see why they would feel that our government had become uncomfortably “large”. The federal government had its fingers in lots of pies, and the whole business made Republicans quite twitchy.
But it was working. The political uprisings of the sixties calmed down as people were put to work, or sent off to school, or were provided governments funds for housing, health care, and welfare funds to subsidize a more comfortable lifestyle. By the 1990’s there was a rise in the number of people who could be considered middle class. More African Americans entered the middle class than ever before, and not because of government funding, but because of real results of education, training and better jobs. Republicans say that the number of people who live in poverty has not changed, but the middle class did make some gains before the factories began their exodus and the housing market crashed and the economy went into recession. My internet explorations suggest that the middle class has lost all the ground it gained and that the same is true, although even more so, for African Americans.
We are all worried that we will not be able to afford the programs that have survived from the Great Society (many of the programs are not still in effect, some have been given to the states, but some are still being funded (Medicaid, Medicare, the expanded Social Security program). The Republicans never felt that these programs were effective or proper to begin with. They advocate changing them, cutting them or getting rid of them altogether. They feel that people have come to rely on these programs, that they are robbing people of “gumption” and making them lazy and demanding. They feel that these programs have caused the demise of the traditional family among the poor and are turning people into parasites. They also show us data that suggests that many of us do not pay any taxes and therefore a small number of affluent people who do pay taxes end up paying for these parasitic lay-abouts. What this assumes is that there are no people who are poor through no fault of their own, that there are enough jobs available to support everyone and that these types of programs cause poverty or at least prolong poverty. They suggest that we get rid of the social safety net and let the chips fall where they may. They reason that we will not be able to sustain these programs anyway given that the American economy promises to be slow for some time to come. They seem to have no qualms about recommending some kind of social experiment which involves kicking out all of the props and observing what happens.
If our economy stays as weak as it is, we probably will find ourselves changing or discontinuing these programs, but I believe that society will be the poorer for it. The world existed for centuries without organized programs to assist poor citizens. The world observed an order of rigid social classes that allowed for very little upward movement. Very few poor families moved up to the merchant class. Merchants were considered to be too crass to ever move into the upper classes, in spite of any wealth they might have. The conditions of life in poor neighborhoods were unhealthy and unsanitary. Epidemics of illness raged through the lower classes and eventually affected the wealthy no matter what precautions they took to close themselves off. Certain medical attentions are necessary to keep all the citizens in a culture safe which explains the genesis of health programs for the poor which must be paid for by someone (isn’t this worth some money from the rich?). In America we do not believe in rigid social classes. We believe in dynamic social levels that allow citizens to move up and down as their fortunes wax and wane. We also have come to see that some people are unable to move up and end up being doomed to stay poor forever if we don’t intercede. We have learned that it benefits the whole society to provide educational and training opportunities for poor people who are stuck.
Instead of asking can we afford to keep doing this, the question should be can we afford to stop? Will we be America if we stop or will we give up our American ideals? How would this new America be any different from the old nation-states or monarchies which people fled? When the distance between the fortunes at the top of a culture and the miseries at the bottom of a culture get too great conditions are ripe for revolution. We already have the best governmental format that has been dreamed up so far. We must not let things get so out of whack that we stand to lose our treasured lifestyle. Are we sure we can’t afford the programs which help society operate on a more level field? Wouldn’t all of us pay a bit more in taxes for that?
How do we get from too many regulations to no regulation? We can’t. Our memories won’t let us. How do we get from too much support for the poorest among us to no support? We won’t. We know better. How will we make our cuts and raise our revenues in a reasoned way? We must. However, given current conditions we won’t. Our ancestors lived in a climate in which the market was allowed to regulate itself. That’s where we got labor unions to protect workers from rapacious bosses and that’s where we got The Great Depression.
Even if the Republicans had not decided to take this opportunity to change the bargains we have reached as regards women’s rights, I would still hope that they lose the 2012 election. Society is not a social experiment, it represents the sum total of the lessons we have learned about human interaction throughout history. I don’t want us to voluntarily return to the dark ages. I do not want to turn out the lights.