So there is a phenomenon in American political and social life that seems to me to need to at least be acknowledged: our relentless urge to pull the ladder up after ourselves.
The ladder, of course, is the ladder of opportunity.
See, the thing is that while we often refuse to acknowledge this, all of us stand on others’ shoulders as we make progress in life. The accomplishments of medicine, the arts, and science, for example, all frame the context in which we live our lives and make our way. I, for one, am utterly blessed to have been born in an era where science can make good and complex eyeglasses: my eyes are lousy, and whatever successes I have had have been in part derived from the fact that I have had good glasses since I was six years old. Had I been born a century ago, my life would be lousy. But I wasn’t, and it isn’t.
In some sense, then, my basically successful life has been utterly dependent on other people’s work—the work that created the glasses that I have used to see my path to some kind of success.
Viewed this way, the plain truth is that all of us benefit from others’ accomplishments. Like antibiotics? Safe drinking water? Electric light (and batteries)? Whatever uses you make of these things, someone else had to make them before you could benefit from them. And those people, in turn, built off others’ accomplishments. it’s just how the world works.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy to forget the socially-connected nature of our lives. It is all too easy to think only of our own — very real — accomplishments, and to imagine our successes are entirely of our own making.
It is likewise easy to imagine that others’ failures are entirely the result of their own flaws and fumbles.
We can see these attitudes in lots of parts of political and social life. To wit:
- Recent immigrants are often the brunt of jokes and disrespect from more established immigrant groups.
- People with jobs often perceive that any form of welfare is little more than coddling the poor—even when, in many cases, the employed have enjoyed government support in the past (like public education, tax breaks for home ownership and, in Mitt Romney’s father’s case, actual welfare when George Romney’s family moved back from Mexico when George was a child).
- There are retirement towns in Arizona that have been exempted from paying that portion of local property taxes that goes to support local schools—an exemption granted on the theory that the retirees’ children didn’t go to school in Arizona, so they shouldn’t have to pay for the educations of current Arizona children.
All of this—and much more—is akin to pulling up the ladder behind you as you climb into a tree house: you got yours, so screw everyone else. Such selfishness is perhaps inevitable given that people seem to imagine our successes as totally ours and thus attribute others’ failings to their personal flaws, but in the end this kind of selfishness is self-defeating: the only way any of us can hope to succeed is to make sure that lots of people have lots of opportunities to succeed, even as we recognize that not everyone will.
An America with strong ladders that can hold a lot of people, even those who sometimes fall off, will be a better America than one where the ladders are reserved to the people with tree houses.