The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?


Politics has become a synonym for all that is dirty, corrupt, dishonest, compromising, and wrong. For many people, politics seems not only remote from their daily lives but abhorrent to their personal values. Outside of the rare inspirational politician or social movement, politics is a wasteland of apathy and disinterest.

It wasn’t always this way. For Americans who came of age shortly after World War II, politics was a field of dreams. Democracy promised to cure the world’s ...

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The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?

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Politics has become a synonym for all that is dirty, corrupt, dishonest, compromising, and wrong. For many people, politics seems not only remote from their daily lives but abhorrent to their personal values. Outside of the rare inspirational politician or social movement, politics is a wasteland of apathy and disinterest.

It wasn’t always this way. For Americans who came of age shortly after World War II, politics was a field of dreams. Democracy promised to cure the world’s ills. But starting in the late seventies, conservative economists promoted self-interest as the source of all good, and their view became public policy. Government’s main role was no longer to help people, but to get out of the way of personal ambition. Politics turned mean and citizens turned away.

In this moving and powerful blend of political essay and reportage, award-winning political scientist Deborah Stone argues that democracy depends on altruism, not self-interest. The merchants of self-interest have divorced us from what we know in our pores: we care about other people and go out of our way to help them. Altruism is such a robust motive that we commonly lie, cheat, steal, and break laws to do right by others. “After 3:30, you’re a private citizen,” one home health aide told Stone, explaining why she was willing to risk her job to care for a man the government wanted to cut off from Medicare.

The Samaritan’s Dilemma calls on us to restore the public sphere as a place where citizens can fulfill their moral aspirations. If government helps the neighbors, citizens will once again want to help govern. With unforgettable stories of how real people think and feel when they practice kindness, Stone shows that everyday altruism is the premier school for citizenship. Helping others shows people their common humanity and their power to make a difference.

At a time when millions of citizens ache to put the Bush and Reagan era behind us and feel proud of their government, Deborah Stone offers an enormously hopeful vision of politics.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Stone, a research professor and author (Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision-Making), takes a critical look at America's shifting attitudes toward public policy over the past thirty years, during which "economists, social scientists, conservatives, and free-market ideologues have had us believing that self-interest makes the world go 'round." Her aim, to "reunite politics with doing good," challenges "the new conventional wisdom: 'Help is harmful.'" She covers well-known objections to the welfare state in her second chapter, including the ideas that help makes people dependant, entitlements undermine good citizenship, and that "markets are better helpers than government." Citing surveys, anecdotes and the work of volunteer organizations and charities, Stone pushes back against the modern myth of American self-reliance and its guiding thesis, Ayn Rand's idea that "the only rational ethical principle for human relationships... is free-market trade." Illustrating that most average Americans are not innately greedy, but rather willing partners in community action, Stone finds America's true spirit in "everyday altruism." She makes the argument that the real "moral hazard" we face, as individuals and as a nation, is not coddling the poor, but walking away from those in need.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The title comes from a game economist James W. Buchanan invented that divides players into "Samaritans" and "parasites," which plays a role in the argument that people who help others weaken themselves and society by diverting resources to "parasites" unmotivated to contribute to society. Author Stone (government, Dartmouth Coll.; Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision-Making) thinks this is a myth and seeks to undermine this widespread belief among Americans who, unlike most Swedes and Canadians, who never had a revolution, think of government as a tyranny to be controlled rather than a communal activity to be fostered. A principal thrust of her argument is that, through government programs, we can help and empower the needy by enabling them to help others. Stone's writing is brisk and entertaining, but the book cries for more background. With the avalanche of profound cultural issues we face caused by mismanaged financial institutions, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, deindustrialization, and, now, rising food prices worldwide, there are likely to be a lot of people needing help. A good place, still, to start filling in the missing background is Richard L. Brinkman's Cultural Economics. Recommended where there is interest.
—Leslie Armour

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781568583549
  • Publisher: Nation Books
  • Publication date: 6/30/2008
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,062,586
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Deborah Stone is a Research Professor of Government at Dartmouth College and a founding editor of The American Prospect. She is the author of three previous books, including Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision-Making, which has been translated into five languages and won the Aaron Wildavsky Award from the American Political Science Association for its enduring contribution to policy studies. She has taught at M.I.T. and Brandeis University, and as a visitor at Yale, Tulane, University of Bremen, Germany, and National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan. Her essays have appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, Boston Review, Civilization, and Natural History. She has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and Harvard Law School, was a Phi Beta Kappa Society Visiting Scholar, and is now a Senior Fellow of Demos.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 The American Malaise 7

2 Seven Bad Arguments Against Help 35

3 Everyday Altruism 91

4 The Samaritan Rebellion 137

5 Engines of Democracy 175

6 Bonds and Bridges 201

7 The Moment of Power 219

8 How Government Should Help Your Neighbor 245

Epilogue: Beyond the Samaritan's Dilemma 281

Acknowledgments 293

Notes 295

Index 317

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