Certain recent events in my life have made me think about how human beings depend on each other. However privileged or fortunate you are, you’re all but certain to eventually face a challenge you can’t overcome alone and need other people’s help to pull you through. And I don’t just mean in a disaster or a crisis, but for everyday, ordinary things, the kind of situations that most of us can expect to encounter in the course of life.
Having children is the perfect example, because it’s such a normal, prosaic activity, something that millions of people do every year, and yet it’s such a demanding and difficult task. Just from the few weeks I’ve spent at home with a newborn, I’m convinced that taking care of a baby really ought to be a three-shift job. That’s the ideal number of people to spread out the burden. Two people can do it with some difficulty. And I know it’s possible for one person to do it, even to do it well. But I can only imagine, with awe and a little fear, how hard that would be and how much it would demand of you.
And that’s for just one ordinary, healthy child. Having twins, or giving birth while already having children to care for, or having a child with health problems that require intensive care… again, I know that people do it, but it’s almost impossible for me to imagine how. Even more so, this shows how we all depend on the support of community and society, not just for rare disasters but for life’s common challenges. (You might say “it takes a village”, if you care to put it that way.)
In some respects, this is a truth that collides with America’s national character and how we see ourselves. We mythologize self-reliance. More than almost any other industrialized country, we believe that people should be left to succeed or fail on their own, without outside help, and our threadbare social safety net reflects that. I wonder which way the arrow of causality runs. Do we have less of a safety net because we value self-reliance? Or did we craft the policies first, for other reasons, and then come up with an ethic that justifies them?
Either way, Ayn Rand played a major part in crafting this national mythology. Her protagonists are Aryan supermen who are completely self-made and self-reliant. They can do everything for themselves and don’t need anything from anyone. They can even go into the wilderness and reboot society from scratch, if they so choose. Of course, they’re also fictional characters unconstrained by reality. (And even they didn’t have a good answer for why anyone would choose to have children.)
Rand herself is the best example of how our fetish for self-reliance ignores the messy reality of mutuality. Despite what she preached, she accepted help from friends and relatives to get settled in the U.S. and established in her career. When she was a new immigrant, her relatives in Chicago gave her cash until she got on her feet. As you might expect, she never repaid that help. Perhaps she feared it would highlight her hypocrisy, or perhaps she just unconsciously wrote it out of her memory because it didn’t fit her idealized model of the way things are supposed to work.
The other conservative answer is to laud private charity as the solution. And I’m not against private charity, it does a fine job of taking up the slack where it’s available. But private charities will never be able to reach everyone, since they’re dependent on donors’ interests and willingness to give, and it’s unlikely those will ever perfectly match up with where the need is. There will always be people who slip through the cracks.
Charity shouldn’t be distributed based on random chance. Getting enough food to eat shouldn’t depend on belonging to a church that has a soup kitchen or living in a town that runs a communal pantry. Affordable childcare shouldn’t be available only to people who have nearby relatives willing to help. Getting a good education shouldn’t depend on being born to parents who can afford to pay expensive tuition. Being able to take a sick day shouldn’t hinge on working for a company that voluntarily treats its employees well.In all these cases, we need government to play the role of equalizer, compensating for these uneven distributions of aid and opportunity. Where family or local community isn’t available to help, where private charity lacks the will or the means, the proper purpose of the state is to step in and establish a uniform floor that no one has to fall below.
Again, parenting is the most immediate example. The amount of work it takes to care for a baby has given me a deeper respect for countries that guarantee several months of paid leave to new parents. Both I and my wife have family leave that’s generous by American standards, and we’re grateful for that. But the two of us aren’t the norm, and even in our case, it’s hard to forget that what we get is pitifully short by global standards.
In fact, compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. stands virtually alone in not mandating any paid leave for new parents. The best we have to offer is twelve weeks of unpaid leave, something that many people can’t afford to take, and even that minimal cushion only came about in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton.
Paid parental leave is the ideal example of a commons problem that demands a regulatory, society-level solution. It’s true that it creates costs and inconveniences for businesses to cover for employees who are on leave (although generous leave policies often pay for themselves in improved loyalty and reduced turnover). But for society to survive, someone has to have the babies.
Countries with below-replacement-rate fertility like Japan are hitting an economic choke point from the decreasing ratio of workers to retirees and the unsustainable buildup of pension and health care costs. The U.S. has dodged this bullet so far, largely because we’ve benefited from immigration to a degree that most countries haven’t. But it would be foolish to assume we can always rely on infusions of fresh blood.
It doesn’t seem likely that the U.S. will adopt Scandinavian-style socialism any time soon. But there are optimistic signs, hints of progress away from the selfish, atomistic you’re-on-your-own ethic and toward a more positive and humanist, we’re-all-in-this-together ideal of society. By all metrics, Obamacare has been a huge success, strengthening the safety net and reducing the number of uninsured. The new rule to mandate paid sick time for federal contractors is another good step. And if Hillary Clinton becomes president, her proposals for affordable childcare and paid family leave could be transformational. But all these progressive steps are fragile, and could just as easily be destroyed depending on what happens in the imminent election.
This brings me to the last lesson, which is that, for a humanist, helping take care of people you know personally isn’t enough. We also have a moral obligation to work for a more compassionate society. Being personally charitable and generous is important, but how you cast your vote also matters. Even more so than responding to a need that’s right in front of you, it’s the clearest statement you can make of what kind of world you want to live in.