“Federal aid … encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.” — Democratic President Grover Cleveland.
Capitalism allows for human dignity better than other economic systems such as socialism. We can look up dignity in the dictionary, but the phrase human dignity is a fairly new concept. Human dignity has no standard definition but the term is starting to appear in many rights documents such as those produced by the United Nations. In the Declaration of Independence, future Americans were asserted a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These all pertain to our economic system, but “pursuit of happiness,” especially so.
What does it mean to have the right to pursue happiness economically? Human happiness depends on our ability to learn and grow. In order to learn and grow we must directly experience the consequences of our actions. If we are rude to a friend and that friend becomes more distant, we need that cold shoulder to help us calibrate our behavior so we aren’t rude in the future. Likewise, if we see that studying helps us get better grades, then we know to study if we want good grades. Human dignity demands that we experience the consequences of our actions, either good or bad.
We all recognize, though, that there are times when we are not completely in control of our consequences. If a person is born disabled, and is unable to hold a job, we recognize that such a person needs help. One form of help is insurance. I am the primary breadwinner in my home and if died young, my family would be at a disadvantage, so I purchase life insurance to provide help, if necessary. This can be thought of as “pooled” help.
Charitable organizations also provide help. All of the churches in our community will provide food and other assistance to those in need. Government can also provide help in programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps) for those who do not have enough income to provide their basic meals. All of these forms of help are necessary, to a degree. Even the Bible teaches that those who do not work should not eat (i.e. be provided food by others: 2 Thessalonians 3:10) so the Bible does not encourage the unconditional reallocation of food.
Interestingly, this illustrates the difference between capitalism and socialism. Some help allows us to maintain human dignity (capitalism), but too much help causes us to lose human dignity (socialism). When the Soviet Union collapsed, people who had lived under a communist system for so long found that they were mostly unable to function as autonomous human beings. Similarly, we have all seen the sign in parks, “Do Not Feed the Animals.” Some scientists — I am not among them — contend that the differences between the human species and other species is relatively minor. We just happen to be two-legged animals. Those same scientists are very quick to ensure that all other animals retain their ability to survive in the wild. They know that if people provide wild animals with food for too long, the animals will lose the ability to be who they truly are.
A related example is “tough love,” the ideal treatment for the neediest people who are alcoholics or wayward young adults. In other words, the highest love we can offer these family members is to allow them to experience the consequences of their actions, rather than repeatedly bailing them out, which allows them to recreate unsuccessful patterns of behavior. It is so painful not to provide that enabling help, but it is the right thing to do to restore that person’s dignity.
We are fortunate to live in the most generous country on Earth. Our willingness to help each other through difficult times is commendable. As I will discuss in the next column, there is a fine line between “helpful help” and help that develops dependency, robbing someone of human dignity.
Eric B. Dent, a Lumberton resident, is a business professor at Fayetteville State University.