"Slarrow" refers to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" from Hamlet's soliloquy. Here are the chronicles of such darts and whatever attempt there may be to take arms against such a sea of troubles.

Location: Ozarks, United States

Friday, November 14, 2008

Givers and Takers

Well, I feel like waking this blog back up again. Let’s see how it goes.

Why now? Because my side just got thumped in the last election, and there’s a lot of soul-searching and postmortem analysis going on right now. Some are proposing new plans, saying we didn’t do a good enough job of providing solutions to problems. Others are urging us to focus on policies that will reset our governing philosophy and make it more coherent. Lots of people are urging a return to conservative principles, claiming we need to once again become the party of limited government and fiscal discipline. All of these approaches have merit, but I wonder if they’re still basically intramural discussions, using the same phrases and concepts that are familiar to everyone already in the tent.

So I want to go one more level down and talk about purpose. We conservatives—what are we for?

I’m not talking about a laundry list of being for this issue or that platform. I’m talking about our purpose, what we’re trying to do, why we even get together and share ideas and actions. Here’s my thesis statement:

Society requires a high ratio of Givers to Takers. If too many become Takers, society is in big trouble. Conservatives are focused on the Givers and encouraging as many people to join that side of the equation as possible.

Let me clarify my terms. “Giver” and “Taker”, first of all, are roles, not identities. People can and often do shift between the roles. Children, for instance, are Takers; they have to be because they don’t have much to give. They also aren’t absolutist terms; that is, Givers also take and Takers also give. (For example, a college student going to school on someone else’s dime is a Taker, but volunteering at the afterschool program and working the part-time job are Giving behaviors. It’s where a person is on balance at any given time.) These terms also are not purely economic. To my mind, coaching Little League is a Giving activity; trying to avoid legitimate punishment from the teacher for your lazy, lying kid is a Taking activity. Finally, this isn’t as simple as “good guys/bad guys”. Takers aren’t automatically the enemies of society, nor are Givers naturally the heroes. It’s not a crime to be a Taker; the shame is staying that way, and the real deadly part is wanting to stay that way. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So what do Givers actually do? Essentially, they build society. They do so by working, raising children, teaching Sunday school, leading a Boy Scout troop, serving on city councils, writing letters to the editor, paying their taxes on time, joining their local clubs, running companies, and volunteering their time and money to organizations and causes they support. When you tote up the balance sheet of their lives, there’s more income than expense, and the profit goes back into the business, as it were, and society benefits.

How about Takers? Essentially, they consume the profit from the Givers. They receive free and reduced lunches, bailout money, Social Security or pension money being paid from the weekly paychecks of Givers, food stamps, and WIC. They apply for “public” grants for “investments” in pursuits that people wouldn’t voluntarily support if it were their own money, from multicultural studies to ethanol to green energy research. They’re the kids from broken homes who act out in class for some attention, the elderly on fixed incomes taken from the public spigot, the single mom struggling to keep her head above water. Again, they aren’t villains, and they aren’t automatically blameworthy. They’re just Takers, and they couldn’t make it without the surplus generated by the Givers.

And here’s the beautiful thing about America: the Givers love to give to the Takers! That’s why there are so many churches and charities, why charitable giving in the US is so high, why news of a tragedy generates countless repetitions of the phrase, “How can I help?”

But I submit that the Givers want to accomplish two goals when they give. First, they want to help the Takers through the immediate crisis. More importantly, though, they want the Takers not to need help in the future. That’s not because they’re stingy. It’s because they know how much better it is to be a Giver. That’s their purpose: to change Takers into Givers. If they’re not getting that done, they consider the enterprise a failure. Helping a Katrina victim get settled in an emergency trailer in 2005 is worth it. Helping that same victim live in that same trailer in 2008 is unacceptable.

Givers also hold a special contempt toward those Takers who have no desire whatsoever to become Givers. Those Takers mock the actions of the Givers who give in order to transform other people. Those Takers keep other people from leaving their ranks. They defy shame, they evade blame, they play others for suckers, they prey on both Takers and Givers. These Takers really are the enemies of society.

All of this should be very familiar to politically aware conservatives. I’m certainly not the first or best to express this kind of sentiment. Indeed, this is so familiar we’ve come up with sophisticated theories and phrases about this state of affairs. We talk about a tragedy of the commons or the free rider problem or TANSTAAFL, Burke’s “little platoons”, etc. This is the background about why we prefer limited government and local control and fiscal responsibility. We politically aware conservatives are very comfortable with our ideas and language.

But most conservatives aren’t politically aware. They’re too busy building society to learn the jargon. More importantly, while they’re daily choosing to be Givers, the temptation to be a Taker is ever growing. Why not spend all you want and then just get a bailout when you get in trouble? Why not withdraw from society by going John Galt? Just this week there was a Pearls Before Swine cartoon that demonstrated the problem:

As a joke, that’s pretty funny. As an actual decision, that’s very scary.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that the Givers/Takers ratio is going the wrong way. The problem is that the standard explanations that we use to point this out have lost some of their efficacy. The problem is that we’ve lost the social stigma of remaining a Taker. Finally, the problem is that we’re too often trying to figure out how to win elections instead of keep society upright.

The episode with Joe the Plumber was highly illuminative of the possibilities and the obstacles we have before us. In response to Joe’s question about punishing success, Candidate Obama mentioned how he wanted to “spread the wealth” to give the people behind Joe a “fair” shot at success. We conservatives jumped on that, instantly declaiming it as “socialism” and warning of its consequences. But while it certainly got us fired up, it didn’t turn the tide, and Candidate Obama is now President-elect Obama.

Why not? I submit that part of the problem is that the term “socialism” just didn’t have the impact it once did. There’s an entire generation of post-Cold War voters coming online to whom “socialism” has no resonance in living memory. Even for those who do remember, the memories are twenty years old and more of facing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In addition, given the recent behavior of Republicans, people had to be reminded why socialism was supposed to be so bad. The heat of a campaign was an especially bad time to try. It’s hard enough to change the terms of the debate at that time, let alone define them.

But the election's over now, and we've got to figure out how to explain ourselves to people again. Over lunch, I heard a caller into Rush Limbaugh's show (with a guest host today) ask why he should be a conservative. He got an earful of boilerplate about freedom and limited government and entitlements. But judging from his reaction, I don't know that he got his question answered. I wonder how effective it would have been to ask him if he tried to pull his own weight and help his neighbor out. Then ask him if he knew anyone who was stuck because she thought she needed assistance from someone else before she could act. Finally, tell him that conservatives not only want more people like him and less like her, they want to help her become MORE like him.

If he thinks that's a good idea, then come on in, and we'll teach him the rest of it. But we can't use the jargon as an entrance exam if we want to grow, nor should we do so because conservatism isn't a club, it's a collection. It's kind of like some people who think they have to use theology to witness when all they need is a story.

The other side knows how to tell their story, too. They talk a lot about fairness and justice and the little guy. But their story is entirely in the context of Takers. Universal health care is about turning the uninsured into Takers. Social Security turns someone who may have been a Giver all her life into a Taker. Most importantly, the method does nothing to teach Takers to become Givers.

When Givers help Takers in real life, it's quite direct. Givers show their faces to the Takers, telling them, "Be like us and give." When the government "helps" Takers, politicians show their faces to the Takers, telling them, "We did this for you." (Just think what part is pointed at the Givers in this transaction.) The real Givers are faceless, and this smiling politician is happy to just keep giving you "gifts" as long as you stay just the way you are. (The technical term for this, I believe, is "sugar daddy.")

The built-in advantage, though, is that most people don't want to be Takers, and they really don't want to think of themselves as Takers. The challenge is to quietly, consistently, and gently point out to them that the other side is determined to make them Takers or keep them Takers. I think it's thus counterproductive to ask, "Why should I pay for your XYZ?" That pits Givers versus Takers when that isn't the real conflict. The conflict is between those who would make more Givers and those who would make more Takers. So the question really is, "Why is this politician taking from me to pay for your XYZ? What's in it for him?"

So, in 2009, we've got to be the loyal opposition to a glamorous President while rebuilding our fortunes. How do we do it? What’s our core purpose? Here is my submission:

President Obama and congressional Democrats want to take from the Givers and give to the Takers. This will create more Takers and fewer Givers, and that is dangerous for our society. On the other hand, conservatives want to create more Givers and fewer Takers in order to sustain society, using government only when necessary.

I think that many of our principles, policies, and plans can be discussed in this context. In the coming weeks, I’d like to examine several topics in this light: education, defense, Social Security, abortion, marriage, taxes, and spending. I’ll also conduct some cleanup work on questions like: can liberals be Givers? (Quick answer: of course they can, personally; it’s their ideas which are not Giver-oriented. They’re Taker-oriented.) How ought we to treat Takers? Where do libertarians fit in? (Whether anyone will read these is another question, of course.)

But the bottom line is that we don’t encourage Givers over Takers in order to win political power. As we must, we win political power to help that encouragement as means, not end. More significantly, we do this outside the context of politics: in churches, community organizations, and families. We do it there because that’s where the need is. The Giver/Taker ratio is not a political problem; it is a civilizational problem. Losing the ratio doesn’t mean we don’t get to play with the major league levers of power; it means that we suffer the fate of earlier empires who also thought, “nothing like us ever was.”

(Hat tip: the notion that Democrats have a vested interest in more Takers—or, as he put it, “keeping the poor poor”—comes from Zo of machosauceproductions. He’s just awesome.)