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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HELP AND THE AMERICAN MALAISE
A few years ago, at the tail end of a harsh New Hampshire winter, our local mewspaper carried a story headlined, Panhandler Concerns Residents.” It seems that every day, a man stood at an intersection in the small town of Henniker holding a sign reading Hungry.” Many residents complained to the selectmen and asked them to do something about it. When the topic came up at the next selectmen’s meeting, the chairman asked, What are you going to do, arrest him and then give him a meal?”
Sixty years ago, that would have been precisely the response to a hungry vagrant in small-town New Hampshire. He would have been taken to the jail if there was one, to an inn or a private home if there wasn’t, and there he’d be fed. Thirty years ago, a local official might even have helped him sign up for food stamps or welfare. But now, feeding a hungry man would seem to be trouble waiting to happen, for one of the other selectmen advised the townspeople, The best way to avoid the problem is not to give out free food.”
Times have changed. To be sure, common morality still calls for feeding a hungry man, yet today, when I tell this story and ask audiences what they think the selectman meant, everyone seems to know. It’s as if I’d asked a kindergarten class the color of the sky.
If you give out free food, the man will just keep coming back for more.”
If you give him food, he’ll become dependent.”
Other poor people will come to the town, knowing that there’s free food.”
If you help him, you’re just enabling him.”
Better to teach a man to fish.”
These answers pretty well summarize the new conventional wisdom: Help is harmful. Don’t do it.” What’s worse, these answers inform the minds and policies of our politicians and are written into the moral code of government. Taken together, they express our reigning public philosophy. Help is harmful. Giving is bad. Compassion is a form of self-indulgenceit makes us feel better but worsens the problem. Helping people enables them to slack off their personal effort. Sharing opens the door to freeloaders. We must teach personal responsibility. Self-reliance is the best way live.
But shouldn’t we make sure we understand the question before we come up with stock answers? We ought to wonder what exactly is the problem we are trying to avoid, in Henniker or anywhere else. Is it that a hungry man is begging on our town streets, disturbing the residents and making passers-by uncomfortable? Or is it that he’s hungry? If he’s hungry, perhaps we should feed him first and tend to his moral education later. Common morality still calls upon us to help a person in distress.
Americans are caught in a war between these two views of help. In one view, self-interest is the only motive that spurs people to work and contribute to society. Too much help makes people passive and dependent. Therefore, government should help citizens as little as possible so as to stoke their ambition and prod them to self-reliance. Citizens, for their part, should restrain their compassion, just as the Henniker selectman advised, and rethink their support for government helping programs. A nation that coddles its weak becomes a weak nation. Help is harmful.
In the other view, the Good Samaritan stands as moral hero. His moral code is simple: Help When Help Is Needed. It’s always wrong not to help. In everyday life, people help their friends and families and they often help strangers. They help because they believe no one is truly independent and that help is usually helpful. Most of all, though, people help others because they care about others. Care” is another way of saying that our interests are hopelessly intertwined and that anyone’s self-interest includes the well-being of others. In this view, people believe they have an obligation to care for others and they think government ought help them do it. They think a community is only as strong as its weakest link.
Our deepest political struggles aren’t over the mechanics of government or the details of policy, but over the moral code we steer by. The two views of help are two moralities pulling in different directions. For twenty five years or so, the country has been pulled toward the first view. In a great political upheaval, the political center moved rightward and turned the Good Samaritan’s moral code inside out. Instead of Help When Help Is Needed,” our public philosophy proclaims Help is Harmful.”
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Help and the American Malaise
Chapter 2: How the Good Samaritan Became Bad
Chapter 3: Why Good Samaritans Make Great Citizens
Chapter 4. The Good Samaritan Shows The Right Way To Help
Chapter 5: The Good Samaritan’s Boat Holds Everyone
Chapter 6: The Good Samaritan Gives Economics Lessons
Chapter 7: The Good Samaritan Answers To A Higher Law
Chapter 8: Help for a Nation in Trouble