The end of the era of personal responsibility

Recent events, both foreign and domestic, have provided me with some time for reflection and, hopefully, some introspection as well. While digesting the never ending flood of news, we examine those citizens with missing or insufficient health insurance and wonder when the government will finish addressing this gap. We fret over events on foreign shores and debate which magic wand Washington will wave to make it all go away. We observe a record low number of adults participating in the labor force and berate each other over how high our leaders will push the minimum wage and from which hat they will magically produce more jobs for those willing to do them.

Large segments of our population hold their cupped hands before their elected saviors and ask when, if ever, life will return to what we wistfully understand as normal. But it’s not normal. Or at least it wasn’t for most of our history.

As tiresome as it may sound to the Me Generation, these questions take me back to a quaint time which now seems so distant as to deserve a backdrop of horse drawn sleds, pyramids or a clever caveman attempting to fit a wooden axle into a stone wheel. You see, I grew up in a rural region of upstate New York in the 1960s and early 1970s. My elder siblings came up in the fifties. While those years became known as the Happy Days to the TV generation, progress was slower in the places where food was still produced.

My mother did not work at a job outside the home until I (the youngest) was well into high school. My father was a high school student – later a World War 2 Army sergeant, auto mechanic and tool and die man – born in the mid-1920s, who supported a family on his own. He lied about his age to enlist in the Army; a deception perpetrated with the assistance of my grandfather, who signed off on the papers allowing him to enter boot camp at the age of 16 before sailing off to join Patton’s Third Army in France.

It was only after his death in the 1980s – going through various papers and legal obligations – that I fully realized the burden he bore as a head of household. We didn’t have much when I was a child. In fact, though I have never been what you would call a financial success, I have earned more nearly each year since my early thirties than my father ever did. We didn’t have any extravagant toys at Christmas or on our birthdays. The house I grew up in was appraised when my Mom needed to move into assisted living and it was worth barely 17,000 dollars. (And those are 1990s dollars.) We were, not to put too fine a point on it, poor.

But we never felt poor. There was always food to eat with plenty of vegetables. The kids all worked on my grandfather’s truck farm during the summers and after school. My uncles had farms where they raised cows, (dairy and beef) pigs, and additional truck farm goods. There may not have been a lot of cash, but my parents made do.

This may have been a result of my Dad having been raised by my grandfather. He was born in 1898. My grandmother was born in 1902 and they married when she was 16 years old. (For the record, in those times she was not considered a “child bride.” It’s just something you did in those days.) They celebrated their 75th anniversary before Maime passed away, and they raised their family during the great depression when cash was generally a fantasy. He didn’t finish high school, witnessed the War to End All Wars first hand and worked the land while taking whatever jobs he could find. His house always retained all the piping for gas lighting, long after electricity finally made its way to the road where we lived. He taught my father about repairing cars when they became common in our area. They fed themselves and their family and did so by working within a community of similarly need driven people who rarely traveled more than fifty miles from where they were born. They did what they had to do, including crossing more than a few lines. Since all the principals involved are now deceased, I won’t feel terribly guilty in revealing that Gramps trafficked in bathtub gin during prohibition. Such was the way of the world.

For all the lean times and lack of luxury both these generations experienced, there was never any talk in my house of how the government was “failing” them, nor hand wringing over when some distant elected official was going to make things better. It was just a given out in the country during those days. Nobody was going to come to your rescue. You were going to make it on your own, and come hell or high water you found a way to do so. If foreign threats grew so great as to require intervention, you packed your bags, went and fought them, and then returned home if you were fortunate enough to survive the ordeal. And when you returned, you went back to work. That was just life. The government was largely an abstract concept which chiefly focused on taxing whatever cash income you happened to find a way to earn.

My, how times have changed. We now rest our hopes for the future on a generation whose expectations are of a life living in Elysian Fields. The government, in response to these desires, has grown into a behemoth which collects vast sums from the general productivity to satisfy the demand, but is increasingly unable to deliver on even a meager portion of its promises. In the process, these same officials run up bills which ensuing generations will never be able to make good on, all the while shepherding in a deterioration of the standard of living our forebears sought for us. And when the bill collectors finally arrive at the government’s door and can’t be put off by another rubber check, you may rest assured that Uncle Sam will come back to the voters to collect whatever wealth is left. But that doesn’t get the nation out of a hole that deep. The consequences will likely be disastrous.

I’m left to wonder precisely where this carnival ride ends. We are breeding a generation which is increasingly less self-reliant, while ushering in conditions which seem doomed to a disastrous collapse. And what skills will the modern generation draw upon if they are thrust back into a life where the government can do little or nothing to save them? None of the luxurious riches and privileges we enjoy today are guaranteed to infinity and beyond. Empires rise and they fall. Sometimes – with luck, hard work and perseverance – they rise again. But the people who rebuild from such ruins will need the stamina and grit of those who survived the dust bowl, not a knack for rebooting after a bad session of video gaming.

Do we have that sort of survival instinct in the 21st century, or has it been bred out of us?

I’m not laboring under any illusion that this is some be all, end all argument. Any number of liberal theorists who maintain that the government is a positive force for good (and which can cure all evils if we simply clap hard enough for Tinkerbelle) will dismiss this. And that is assuming they even read this far. If they did, such pondering is readily dismissed. “Ah, another old curmudgeon, pining for the days when the life expectancy was less than fifty and people died in their beds of totally curable diseases.”

I understand that response. It’s built into the culture. And I neither dismiss nor fail to appreciate the advances of the modern era. They have improved the lives of Americans in immeasurable ways. But what such arguments fail to acknowledge is that I am actually pining for the missing element of those bygone days; that sense of self-reliance and a belief that no matter how bad things get, the individual and the family can persevere and find a way through. That’s what’s missing. Were you able to combine that survival driven spirit with the multitudinous advantages offered by current technology, you might indeed see paradise just over the horizon. But you’ll never arrive at that horizon on the back of technology and government insistence alone. More’s the pity, because it’s certainly within our grasp if we had the will to reach for it.