Privatizing Hope

By Leonard Fein

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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Let’s start with the president’s Christmas message: In his radio address on Christmas Day, George W. Bush observed, correctly, that “Many of our fellow Americans still suffer from the effects of illness or poverty,” and then went on to say that “Christmastime reminds each of us that we have a duty to our fellow citizens.”

I like that; I believe that. But coming, as they did, from a president who steadfastly denies that the duty to which he refers is most nobly and most effectively fulfilled collectively, through the instrument of government, I find his words discouraging. A president’s first responsibility is to see to it that the government is fulfilling its duties; only then has he earned the right to preach to us about our private duties. Nor were Bush’s words chosen accidentally, for then he added, “By volunteering our time and talents where they are needed most, we help heal the sick, comfort those who suffer and bring hope to those who despair, one heart and one soul at a time.”

Given its source, this recommendation for retail redemption is not bad public policy; it not public policy at all. One heart and one soul at a time? Three rousing cheers for voluntarism, but for voluntarism as a supplement to government, not for voluntarism as a substitute for government.

Once, years ago, Hubert Humphrey came to speak at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I was then teaching. His advice to the students: precinct work; ring doorbells, one at a time. I observed that while we are busy working the block, in the woods behind the houses there’s a factory that’s producing doorbells at a rate many times faster than we possibly can ring them. The problems, that is to say, were and are systemic, and while there’s much benefit in the one-on-one work, it cannot be regarded as a serious response to the kinds of problems the president himself mentions. Heal the sick? Bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is, to be sure, quite wonderful — but how about national health insurance? And how about the Food and Drug Administration, which, as we have learned lately, is heavily dependent for its operations on fees paid into it by the pharmaceutical companies it is supposed to be regulating? Time to call that what it is: the privatization of the FDA.

The effects of poverty? How will our voluntarism restore the very modest support they have received until now of the 1.3 million college students whose Pell Grants are, if the president’s recommendation is accepted, to be cut by a total of $300 million? And what will our private efforts do to replace the imminent cutbacks in America’s contribution to food aid programs across the globe?

Voluntarism is a wonderful expression of kindness; it is very far from a serious move toward justice. Justice is by definition a collective effort; its pursuit cannot be privatized.

Well, perhaps the president meant only that our duty to our fellow citizens runs in tandem with the government’s responsibility. After all, he said only that our own efforts would “help,” not that they would “solve.” But the evidence of his intentions points in another direction. What he said was of a piece with his proposal to “reform” the Social Security system. He wants to suck the meaning out of both words, for the agenda he proposes would make the program more personal and less social, make its benefits more risky and less secure. Let the economists argue about whether the threat to the current system is imminent; let the ethicists ponder why our contributions to the system continue until we’ve earned $87,900 and then stop, and let the mathematicians decide how serious the alleged Social Security crisis would be if there were no cap at all; let the citizens decide, as the value of the dollar continues to decline, whether it is wise policy for the government to borrow the $2 trillion that is generally thought to be required to underwrite the proposed introduction of private accounts into the system.

My concern here is with the underlying question: Does there remain a sphere for the assertion of collective responsibility, or, if the word “collective” is off-putting, of “communal” or even just plain “civic” responsibility? Do we really intend to revert to the days of, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Where is the empirical evidence that the private sector is more adept at the provision of services than is the public sector? And where is the moral argument that says a government of the people and by the people should not seek to be a government for the people, as well?

One consequence of the rampant privatization: Hope itself has become an ever more private affair. The old dreams that inspired the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society — these were all dreams we shared. They were articulations of the persistent American dream, the dream that a free people, through the instrument of government, could become more just, more equitable, more compassionate, more effective. If government is now to be seen as simply another god that has failed, then the scope of our hopes and our dreams narrows — is reduced to neighborhood, to family, even to self.

This is not just post-election sour grapes. It is not even about George W. Bush, who accelerates the process of privatization but is not its author. (Think Ronald Reagan and his firing of the air traffic controllers, or think prisons.) It is about Judaism, among whose compelling singularities is that it always has chosen to emphasize the first-person plural, the “we” and the “us.” All of us.

And to all of us, separately and together, a happy new year.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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