Wednesday, October 12, 2005

COLUMN -- Self-reliance is something to be admired

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:45 AM |  

Note: The genesis of this column is this post, which drew some interesting comments. Peg writing at "What If?" added her thoughts here. The column below owes credit to insights shared by readers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Policy battles are fought in the halls of government — battles between legislative titans, administration thunderbolts cast against legislative heroes or as a last resort, appeals to the black-robed oracles of the courts. In this Olympian view of the world where the gods of government determine the fate of lesser beings, people do not do for themselves, they are simply done to by whatever government decides is the best policy.

Sometimes, however, acting as individuals, people simply ignore the policy gods. And that makes other people very nervous.

In that context, I found the word selection of a Pioneer Press editorial ( "Here comes winter," Oct. 6) both revealing and disturbing. The editorial predictably lamented that higher energy costs "bode ill for Minnesota's poor and elderly." The editorial did do a public service by pointing out that help is available from the state and federal governments and from local utility companies. What struck me as disturbing, however, was how the editorial described the individual actions of people that are eligible for aid but elect not take it.

"An Xcel Energy spokesman says," wrote the editorialist, "that many members of the World War II generation stubbornly pay their heating and electricity bills first, slashing from food and other critical budgets to do so."

People who just say "no" and defy the beneficence of Olympian government, even if it means depriving themselves of some creature comfort, make big-government folks nervous. The attitude of self-reliance is inconceivable to the big-government mentality. The statist thinks it an unnecessary sacrifice that one would pay one's debt and forgo some other desire when government largess makes such sacrifice unnecessary. The statist cannot understand that for some the sacrifice of self-respect is a greater loss than whatever material tidbit the state might offer for a human soul.

Thus, rather than being praised as admirable, paying one's debts when a government program might help is characterized as "stubborn." "Stubborn" is not a positive word. Synonyms include "unreasonably obstinate" and "intractable." Where is a nation heading when honoring one's debts is considered being "unreasonably obstinate"?

The editorial also declares it "unfortunate" that "too many folks do not avail themselves of the many programs that already exist to help them through a tough winter" — unfortunate as in "regrettable." Why is it regrettable that some would honor their debts even at the expense of their own material loss?

The issue here is not whether there ought to be aid programs to help with utility bills. A moral people does not allow its most vulnerable to freeze in the winter. But in the rush to care for Minnesota's most vulnerable, let's not confuse the ethics of crisis with the normal conditions of human existence.

Government programs ought to be the last resort for those in crisis — those that have exhausted their efforts, their resources and their civil relationships. Government programs should not be touted as ongoing options for maintaining sustenance. Yet the latter is precisely where big government mentality inevitably leads. If a little aid is good, a lot is better. If helping the truly needy is good, then expanding the range of people served is better. If limited government accomplishes good things, imagine what unlimited government could do.

Advocates of big government always point to the most vulnerable as the reason for more expansive and expensive government programs. The fact is, vulnerability is not a normal state nor is it a characteristic we ought to foster. That does not mean we are indifferent to those in need. It does mean we do not elevate vulnerability to veneration while disparaging self-reliance.

We have more to learn from a person who pays his bills at expense of personal comfort than from one who regards such action as "unfortunate" and "stubborn."

When government becomes essential to existence, individuals and community groups both religious and secular lose the capability for compassion and charity; recipients of aid exchange the dignity of gratitude for the petulance of entitlement. Rather than "the greatest generation" stubbornly maintaining the self-respect engendered by self-reliance, we breed a generation that unfortunately wallows in waist-deep floodwaters stubbornly waiting for a bus that never comes.

Category: Column,