Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is this the kind of society we want?

By now, you have probably heard about the recent fire in Obion County, Tennessee, in which the fire department stood by without lifting a hose while a family's house and all its possessions, as well as three family dogs and a cat, burned. It seems that the family had forgotten to pay its annual fee of $75 for fire protection and so the fire department refused to act. They refused even though the owner of the house offered to pay the fee on the spot and his neighbor also wanted to pay the fee and have the firemen try to save the house and the animals. They refused to take payment and refused to act. The house burned to the ground. The animals burned to death.

One has to wonder what would have happened if those four animals had been four children. Would the fire department have continued to stand on principle and refused to act? In a John Galt world where it is strictly every person for him/herself, that is exactly what they would have done and that seems to be what many conservative commentators on the event believe should have happened. In such a world, there is no social contract between government and citizen or even between individual citizens. We owe nothing to each other.

What about the taxes that we pay? Should not they ensure us at least some basic level of protection? Doesn't a government at minimum owe its citizens protection from fire, and help in time of natural catastrophe, as well as protection from those, foreign and domestic, who would do us harm? In John Galt world, of course, there would be no taxes. With such a philosophy, several thousand years of painful inch by inch advances in human civilization would be wiped out and we would revert to survival of the fittest. For most, life would be nasty, brutish, and short.

This is the political and social theory of the selfish rich. I say "selfish rich" because, obviously, not all rich people are selfish. Many are enormously generous with their money and their own time and work tirelessly to improve society for us all. But there is a subculture of the rich "haves" who have all they need to live in comfort and see no reason why they should contribute to the betterment of society or do anything to help provide for those who, through no fault of their own, are not rich. You see, in the world view of these people, it is always the fault of the poor or middle-class that they are poor or middle-class. If they were only smart enough or worked hard enough, they, too, could be rich and spend their time kicking less fortunate people in the face. They are the people who believe that "government should be drowned in the bathtub" and that it should not provide any services.

And what about morality? Whether or not it is legal for a fire department in Tennessee to stand by and watch as a house burns if the owner hasn't paid his fee (Apparently it is.) is it moral? Do we not owe something to each other as human beings? And wouldn't one of those things be that if you see a neighbor's house on fire, you do everything you can to put the fire out and to rescue any living beings who may be inside the conflagration?

What if you see someone drowning? Do you check and see whether he is paid up in all his fees before you jump in and try to save him or even throw him a life preserver? That seems to be the kind of society that many would choose for us, should they be in a position of power.

Unless that is the kind of society we want to live in, perhaps we had better get to work to make sure that those who think this way don't get into those positions of power. Personally, I am appalled that anyone living in the interdependent world of the 21st century could even think that such a society would be a good idea. And I wonder - what would Jesus (or fill in the blank with your favorite religious philosopher) think or do?

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