Change in a jar

By Ronald M. Horvath | Mar 17, 2010
Ron Horvath

The time clock where I work is a place of social significance. Bulletin boards crowded with pictures, letters, announcements and legal notices line the hallway. Last week a jar for contributions stood nearby, a collection for one of our crew who was absent, recuperating from medical treatment.

This is possibly the most direct and most familiar of collective actions with which we are all familiar. Just as most convenience store counters usually have a number of collection jars for local causes, so has it become routine procedure for us whenever anyone is out of work for any extended period. It is amazing how just the change from a multitude of pockets can build up into something substantial.

No one has a problem with this. No one screams “personal responsibility” when misfortune strikes close to home or someone we know. Americans are notoriously charitable. We recognize in the faces of those around us the vulnerability that overshadows all our lives and we are only too aware that “the grace of God” cannot always be there when we are, and often isn’t.

How else can we explain the recent outpouring of generosity for the people of Haiti except that even Americans who believe in personal responsibility know that some tragedies bear no responsibility? Did the Haitians, after all, shake the very ground beneath their feet and shatter their own country? And how many of the millions of newly unemployed here at home are responsible for the economic disaster that has decimated so many lives and was perpetrated by a Wall Street devoid of any sense of responsibility?

As Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote, “The geniuses in Washington and on Wall Street who invented junk mortgages and then bundled and sold them as securities didn’t live in the same neighborhoods as the mortgagees, small investors and retirees left holding the bag once the housing bubble burst.” Apparently there are no collection jars in the coffee shops of Wall Street.

But somehow raising awareness of common responsibility to a national level sends some into paroxysms of paranoid hysteria. For some reason the possibility that everyone pulling together for the common good might be made mandatory in some specific area is a call to arms for those whose reaction is always more “personal” than responsible. Their freedom is threatened they say though specifics are rarely forthcoming.

Lately on VillageSoup, and on other blogs around the Web, there has appeared a study released by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal called the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom. It claims that the United States has fallen behind other countries in 10 categories of economic freedom, “particularly significant in the areas of financial and monetary freedom and property rights.” It attributes this fall from grace to government’s “interventionist responses to the financial and economic crises of the last two years.” This is a bit puzzling since most economists now agree that it was the lack of government “interventionist responses” to the nefarious activities on Wall Street that brought us that economic crisis.

Even more puzzling are their examples of countries that are freer than the United States. Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand are all at the top of the list and even Canada outranks us. Each has some form of universal health care. The top four all have a two-tier form of government-supplied coverage. Canada has not only single-payer health care but also a more strictly regulated banking system that survived 2008’s economic collapse quite easily. The puzzling part of this is that even the Wall Street Journal should be able to figure out that it is precisely the intervention of government in these countries in providing health care to their citizens that has made their economies so much freer than our own.

In 2004 the Manufacturers Alliance and the National Association of Manufacturers found that structural costs added 22.4 percent to the price of doing business in the United States as opposed to other countries. The greatest structural cost was employee health care coverage. In that same year, Jack Bovender, chief executive officer of this country’s largest hospital chain, called for “all sectors of society, both public and private, health care and non-health care, to participate in solving this societal issue, by providing affordable health insurance for all Americans and more equitably sharing this growing cost to society."

What the Heritage Foundation has inadvertently pointed out is that a socialized solution to a collective problem can liberate the individual in ways more suited to providing greater freedom than simply leaving everyone to their own resources. The greater good truly becomes a whole greater than the sum of its parts when the purpose is to pool resources to benefit all the parts and not just the top tier. The collection jar is not there for an individual. It is there for everyone.

The truth is that the one freedom we can never attain is to be free of each other. If Canada and these other semi-socialist nations have attained an economic freedom greater than our own it may be that they have come to terms with the inherently collective nature of all human societies. To admit to our shared responsibility for the common good is simple recognition that some aspects of our struggle to survive are best served collectively and others individually. The question does not hinge on either one or the other but on how to include both where needed and where to draw the line.

Ronald M. Horvath lives in Camden.

 

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