Even as voices of partisan anger harden into internet memes, it seems the American people are split between smiling cynically and spewing vitriol over the ineptitude of the political system. As understandable as that is, I admit to finding the situation both interesting and disturbing for another reason entirely – the manner in which it highlights our societal shift of responsibility to the government and our reliance upon the faceless bureaucracy rather than each other.
In War against the Weak, his history of eugenics, Edwin Black traces the view of the poor and indigent as a burden on society back to Henry VIII’s confiscation of church lands and the charitable services they provided. The burden of caring for the needy, he suggests, fell upon the government, and rather than a moral obligation, a test of our divinely ordered compassion for our fellow man, the care of those in need became a societal burden relying upon taxes levied by a frequently inept bureaucracy. That shift, Black suggests, planted the seeds for a “scientific” solution that would breed out the poor and indigent.
Our modern culture may not be quite as naïve about a simple genetic solution to poverty, but the continuation of government mandated care for the needy and the abandonment of any personal moral obligation for our fellow man remains painfully obvious, particularly in the harsh spotlight of government cutbacks. The resentment of the dependent has been cast into stark relief with the debate over the cost of social safety net programs supported by tax dollars and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act with its government subsidies. Right or wrong, the ideological structure remains the same – those who cannot care for themselves should be helped by the government. If they represent any kind of moral responsibility, it is a “societal” responsibility filtered through a bureaucracy that safely removes any individual from feeling a moral obligation to care for those in need, even those in need through no fault of their own, no consequence of their own actions.
To me, that is the true tragedy highlighted by the government shutdown. Yes, there are heart wrenching stories of suffering caused by the closure of government programs, but the thing that wrenches my heart the most is that no one is stepping back and looking at the larger picture. Our society has become so dependent on the government, so accepting of the idea that a ponderous bureaucracy is responsible for the well being of our fellow man, that when it shuts down we see no option other than outcry against the closure.
Are we so steeped in the notion of those in need as the obligation of society that we refuse to see them as our obligation? Listening to the radio, I heard a commentator recount the sad tale of an injured veteran in danger of losing the $100 a month in food stamps he relies upon. The tale was one of woe, but my question was whether there was a way for souls like me who could afford that $100 could share it with those in need. The destruction of community in our age has limited our knowledge of those in need around us, but does the internet not provide a medium for restoring the connection between need and gift? For restoring faith in the viability of charity and cutting out the bureaucratic potential for misspent generosity? If the pinch continues, how many will give to local food banks or help working parents with day care? Sadly, far too few. Most will rely on sharing memes on their Facebook wall and wait for the government to resume operation because, after all, the problem is really the government’s responsibility, right?