The current political focus is on how to turn the economy around; to produce more jobs; to restore a once ascending standard of living among both American Labor & a broad-based Middle Class. Most proposed remedies involve one form or another of economic gimmickry--some Keynesian, some from what has been described as "supply side economics." But what really is the effective path for individuals or, through the productive efforts of responsible individuals, families, to achieve material affluence & the spiritual strength to retain that affluence for posterity? Can we identify what once separated mainstream America from much of humanity; how we differed, fundamentally, from those whom contemporary politicians--here & abroad--have effectively ruined; turning many into social parasites, squandering the wealth of their productive neighbors?
To understand the real answer to contemporary poverty, we must review what actually works; to consider again how America was once the world's greatest success story. For while every age has unique problems, which must be addressed in a changing context; that review will certainly serve constructive purpose, furthering a better comprehension of the dynamics of success & failure.
The original settler ethos of America, reflected in our foundational documents–and well understood by most Americans before unfortunate political & social turns after 1850, 1910 & 1930--was based upon the actual experience of folk, who had built viable & highly productive communities--literally from the ground up. They knew that prosperity (affluence) was a multi-generational pursuit; that often one generation cleared the land & barely subsisted, while their children developed surpluses & the disciplined spirit to retain growing reserves.
In contrast, an ethos of dependence on an abstract & remote collective (Central Government), builds nothing; adds nothing to the wealth of the whole. Yet it can corrupt mightily, even as it deconstructs the achievements from the multi-generational ethos of the productive. The key to understanding the present economic & spiritual malaise in America, is lodged in the same data bank of experience, where we find the key to at least the possibility for partial renewal. Consider some patterns for achieving & losing wealth.
While there are individuals, able to combine inspiration, fortuitous timing & well focused endeavor, to rapidly achieve great affluence; that combination is not always the best means to family elevation. In a freer, less dependent era, a common homespun saying went, "From shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in three generations"; an implied stereotype, that too easy wealth in the first generation led to over-indulgence in the next, undermining spiritual strength, with loss of not well-managed wealth in the third.
A more typical path to wealth & affluence was the multi-generational pursuit, referred to: A generation that cleared the land--sometimes having to fight off Indians or lawless Whites--followed not by one, but several generations, each trying to leave a little better platform, on which to build, to each coming generation. An affluent life, so achieved, was far more likely to be sustained by provident & frugal values--also passed down through the generations.
The problem, of course, with the more rapid path to individual wealth, was that individual responsibility--an essential element in all retainable human progress--while present in the first, was often lost to pampered generations that followed. Though not inevitable, the phenomena was common enough to argue wider relevance for a broader spectrum of the population. There is positive benefit to any family, both as individuals & as an ongoing institution, where the children--from early ages--have regular chores that contribute positively to family well being; to meeting family needs. Has any reader not observed that in families with which he or she is familiar, a delegation of regular chores, even to quite young children, has a beneficial effect on their ability to act to constructive purpose, throughout their lives?
In considering these principles, we should reconsider Welfare State efforts to shower resources on the materially poor--the avowed object to reduce an existing achievement gap--as well as all confiscatory estate & inheritance taxes. Are such efforts constructive--from a multi-generational perspective on what actually works for human betterment;--or do they, by increasing a subjective & artificial sense of entitlement, as opposed to personal responsibility in the "beneficiary," contain within themselves the seeds for future failure--even as does over-indulgence in children of the newly rich?
Put another way, can the poor in America--or anywhere--really benefit organically from the sponsorship of theorists, too fixated on correcting (always with other people's money), the normal imbalances that go with personal freedom, to bother to examine the actual dynamics of success or failure? Should not all "Welfare" programs be examined from this perspective? Admittedly, such queries necessitate an examination of the functional nature of the multi-generational pursuit. Can social policy, aimed at immediate wish lists at the expense of what benefits a people's posterity, be justified?
For clarity as to how a social "safety-net" can actually work to human betterment, consider Thomas Jefferson's discussion of how "Welfare" worked in 1782 Virginia:
The poor, unable to support themselves, are maintained by an assessment on the titheable persons in their parish. This assessment is levied and administered by twelve persons in each parish, called vestrymen, originally chosen by the housekeepers of the parish, but afterwards filling vacancies in their own body by their own choice. These are usually the most discreet farmers, so distributed through the parish, that every part of it may be under the immediate eye of some one of them. They are well acquainted with the details and economy of private life, and they find sufficient inducements to execute their charge well, in their philanthropy, in the approbation of their neighbors, and the distinction which that gives them.
The poor who have neither property, friends, nor strength to labor, are boarded in the houses of good farmers, to whom a stipulated sum is annually paid. To those who are able to help themselves a little, or have friends from whom they derive some succours, inadequate however to their full maintenance, supplementary aids are given, which enable them to live comfortably in their own houses, or in the houses of their friends. Vagabonds, without visible property or vocation, are placed in workhouses, where they are well clothed, fed, lodged and made to labour.
Nearly the same method of providing for the poor prevails through all our States; and from Savannah to Portsmouth you will seldom meet a beggar. In the larger towns indeed they sometimes present themselves. They are usually foreigners, who have never obtained a settlement in any parish. I never yet saw a native American begging in the streets or highways. [Query XIV-- Laws, Notes On The State Of Virginia, 1782]
This generation of politicians did not invent the wheel; nor have they furthered, in any respect, our understanding of the dynamics of human social progress. Our history provides far clearer guidance.
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