I would say that all of our problems, unemployment, inadequate health care, failing schools, immigration, … proceed from what seem to be irreconcilable differences among us. If there are no problems in the ant hill or termite mound it’s because the individuals living there are all the same. Or so much alike that their differences, if there are any, don’t get in the way of their productive lives.
Yes you will say, and you’d be right, we are not the ant hill or the termite mound. We don’t think or act alike. And this is a good thing. But our differences, our different abilities, interests, capacities, skills, racial and ethnic characteristics, and many more, are also real obstacles to our social progress, they are like sticks in the wheels of our productive lives.
And if these sticks of differences don’t bring us to a stop they definitely mean that only some of us will move ahead, in fact far ahead of the others, and they definitely compel others to the side of the road, with the result being that many individuals are left further and further behind, seeming unable to help themselves get up and go ahead.
We have been forever aware of our differences and resulting problems, and we are still without solutions. In the ancient world our differences resulted in their being a few people at the top and most people at the bottom, the king in his castle on the hill and the people in their homes below all jammed together, living not so much for themselves as to do the king’s or their tribal lord’s bidding.
In the modern world, our world, some are still at the top and most are still at the bottom, the billionaire enjoying his multiple luxurious homes in the earth’s most favored locations, while the rest of us, either the lucky ones, gainfully employed and providing for our families, or the unlucky ones, often the majority, un- or just barely employed and at best struggling to make do.
In the modern world, probably the ancient world as well, there have been just two solutions to the social problems resulting from our differences, and so far neither has been adequate to meeting the need. Charity is perhaps the oldest of the two, charity meaning those with more extending help from their own possessions to those with less. And even today there is probably not a land where there are no traditions of charitable giving.
But charity is not now and probably never was enough. People’s needs, in spite of the Salvation Army and the like, have never been fully met by charity alone.
The other solution, a product of modern times as it became obvious that charitable giving by itself would never be sufficient, was that the government, be it totalitarian as in the former Soviet Union or democratic as in the developed countries of Europe and the United States, create programs that would by themselves, with or without charitable giving, insure the people’s welfare, such programs as free child care, free K-12 education, universal health insurance, old age pensions, job security et al.
Our free markets while hugely successful in providing unimagined benefits in the form of labor saving devices (as well as bringing unimaginable wealth to the individuals responsible for their discovery) with resulting significant material benefits to most all of us, as well as being the principal driver of the unimaginable progress of medical science in extending the life expectancy of us all by decades, — well our free markets, capitalism if you like, have not done much, or enough for those we refer to above as being left behind.
So isn’t this the correct story of modern times? Capitalism has flourished, flattening its only rival socialism in the process (communism being now hardly more than a footnote). But during this time governments have not flourished. They have been struggling with the necessary creation of welfare states over the opposition of the capitalists, usually trying not to bankrupt their own economies, not to slow down or bring to a stop the free market engine of wealth creation, that which is, as the governments don’t always admit, the source of their own ability to help those in need.
So our problems proceed from the fact that we are not all alike. Capitalism, on the one hand, acts as if we were, as if everyone were up to the task of being a productive member of a free market economy. But everyone is not up to doing that.
Just as children are not ready to be productive members of society until reaching the age of 18 or more, there are large groups of people, and some of these of our own making our having refused to admit and accept how they are different, who are always going to need some help. Their situations, the conditions of their lives ought to make it clear that the government needs to take an even larger role in providing that help.
On the other hand capitalism’s role ought to be to insure that government will have the means and the know-how to make it happen. So far this is not being done. And to make things even worse the leaders of our government are now fighting among themselves.