There is increasing buzz among people I talk with about the candidacy of Ron Paul for President. The focus of his support seems to come from three basic positions he has held for many years: 1) bring our troops home from overseas, 2) abolish the Federal Reserve and the corrupt, manipulated currency system it oversees, and 3) limit the control government has over our lives by slashing its authority and budget and relying upon personal responsibility to carry the day. He is the only candidate, to my dismay, that espouses the first two points. It is the last point that I want to examine today.
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the supporters of Mr. Paul that I encounter, while quick to point to government interference as a major problem within modern America, are unwilling or unable to discuss their own role in perpetuating government involvement in their lives. Typically they depend upon Social Security to provide money for their retirement, and Medicare to pay for the health care after they are no longer able to work. They defend these entitlements by saying they are just reclaiming their own contributions to the system. While this may be true in the beginning, it is not too long before SS and Medicare recipients have tapped out their “account”, and become dependent upon taxes paid by others to keep the checks and benefits flowing. As the ratio of workers to recipients shrinks during the Baby Boomer retirement, the burden borne by workers will continue to increase. I would argue that this is manifestly unfair and unethical. I’ve talked with very few defenders of Mr. Paul who are ready to dispense with either of these two programs in the name of “personal responsibility”, or even as a path towards smaller government. And as these two programs consume (today) nearly 40% of spending, and interest on the national debt takes up more than 10%, nearly all revenues taken in by the U.S. government are gone once these 3 budget items are paid. It makes no sense to me that one can argue for smaller government and greater personal responsibility, while demanding that only “my personal benefits” continue.
I ask: what did Americans do before Social Security and Medicare? Before the EPA and the FCC and FDIC? These programs are all relatively new, and in ceding protection and control of these Commons areas, we have left ourselves helpless in the hands of the corporations that dominate life today. Coming to depend upon government tax revenues to eat and pay for power and heat and cover medical expenses once I can no longer work, allowing Big Business to buy power and elections and thereby gut the regulations that protect us, to leave environmental protection to the personal responsibility of polluters, to leave deposit protection and loan guarantees to the personal responsibility of bankers, and to leave guaranteeing truth and free speech in media to the ever-smaller number of broadcasters, has left increasing numbers of people dominated and exploited in ways beyond their own control. That’s not personal responsibility, that’s plutocracy.
Rather, all of these issues can be addressed by our local community, a network of caring neighbors and friends, who take responsibility not just for themselves, but the others in the group who may be experiencing illness, hard times, or delusion: just like we did before. The idea of defining borders around small bits of land and calling it ‘mine” is something that has only developed, historically speaking, in the most recent blink of an eye. The land, air and water that we all depend upon for life had always been a shared resource. We hadn’t made it, how could we hoard it? Food was inconsistent; but rather than jealously guarding what little I may have found until it spoiled and was of no use to anyone, I quickly learned that sharing what I had found would invite others to share with me, in turn. A sort of ‘instant karma’, if you will, led to a generous, gifting attitude that served the whole community well. A hunter who managed, after long struggle, to kill large game would benefit little from trying to store the meat for future use. He knew that his ticket to frequent meals lay not in preserving and transporting a large storehouse of meat but in sharing his bonanza with his tribe, thereby securing their support and largess in return. Security came by working together, not alone. No one used money as a marker to keep score, no one benefited by allowing resources to spoil or lie unused; no one hoarded life-giving supplies while others in the community died from their lack of access or luck. Jesus fed the multitudes by using everything he had, not by holding something back ‘just in case’. Buddha asked, “What is the best use now, in this very moment, of the energy I have at hand?”, rather than “What is mine to hold back in reserve?”
Personal responsibility has its place in society; we each have a responsibility to share, to speak truth, to feel compassion and empathy, and to act. But there is also a common responsibility: to not foul our own nest, to ensure that the least among us are as exalted as the greatest, to bring about a thriving, flourishing, and loving community that allows our personal abilities to be expressed for the benefit of everyone. Government’s role is not to allow people to isolate and become dependent upon the state; it is instead to ensure that the Commons we all share is not polluted or destroyed, nor hoarded by the few to the detriment of many. It is to foster sharing and gifting and compassionate service, neighbor helping neighbor, not to give a series of larger and larger handouts. Man has lived this way before, without government and without money. If anything, our high technology should make this way of life easier, not more difficult. But it depends upon the one aspect of life we sorely miss in this time of tech and instant, global communication: having deep, loving relationships with each other, and not with things. This is the personal responsibility that we all need more of; feeding our hunger for connection not by consuming more disposable petroleum byproducts, but rather by building a network that includes more and more of our brethren, not only humans but throughout the Natural world.