I’ve spoken and written on this question many times in the past. In this era’s reanimation of progressive ideology, today’s progressives would have you believe, among other things, that “the true measure of a society is how it treats the weak and needy.” This is a superficially noble and nice-sounding platitude. Politically, it’s the foundational justification for the cradle-to-grave welfare state and its perpetual expansion. It’s heard so often, I suspect many people who have never paused to critically appraise its validity simply accept this bromide as a truism.
I don’t. It’s simplistic and absurdly narrow. You might say that one measure of a society is how it treats those in need. Fair enough. But that’s hardly the only “true measure” of a society’s values, merits or contributions to the world – or even its most significant.
The promise of Marxist socialism is an echo of progressive social justice: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” While this might sound seductive to the collectivists among us, its incompatibility with human nature dooms it to failure as a system of political economy. We’ve seen the destructive results of this ideology, in its communist form, inevitably leading to totalitarianism and bankruptcy in places like the former Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba and most recently in Venezuela with its version of what started as “democratic socialism.” Even the idyllic Israeli kibbutz ─ a voluntary, altruistic commune ─ has all but faded into oblivion, a casualty of idle free loaders.
Rather, there’s an abundance of measures of one society’s relative greatness compared to all other societies in the real world – as opposed to non-existent utopian visions of some imagined world. These include, but are not limited to, its system of government, justice, law, and commerce. Its commitment to freedom and individual rights. Its achievements in science, engineering, industry, technology and exploration. Its military strength. Its religions and philosophies. Literature, art, music, culture. Medicine and health. Education, scholarship, intellectualism. Economic growth, wealth creation and standard of living. All of these things, and more, are relevant measures of a society.
Humanitarianism and philanthropy, of course, have their place in any good or great society, but they’re not the exclusive province of government. The state is not society; it’s a subset of society. We are more than our government. Who says government handouts are nobler than private charity? And while compassion is commendable, it, too, is not the one “true measure” of a society or an individual. Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. did great work in their fields. But so did Socrates, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, General Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Dr. Jonas Salk, Milton Friedman, Bill Gates and countless others. All of these people made great contributions to their countries and to the world in wholly different fields.
As Tevya mused in Fiddler on the Roof, “There may be no shame in being poor – but it is no great honor, either.” Poverty is nothing to be revered. The poor want it least of all. That’s why President Lyndon Johnson declared war against poverty in 1964. Since then, our government has spent trillions to alleviate poverty in America where our poor are the envy of most of this planet’s population. That’s the vital distinction between relative poverty in a prosperous and free nation like ours and abject poverty for multitudes in the rest of the world.
For all their well-intentioned efforts, it hasn’t been social workers who have elevated the poor; they’re job is to minister to them. Ironically, many social programs create dependency, perpetuating poverty. In fact, it’s been capitalists, entrepreneurs and technicians driving productivity and creating jobs that have produced a rising economic tide lifting even the poorest of boats. It should be obvious that a wealthy society is best able to tend to the welfare of those in need. The redistribution of that wealth in the name of compassion or “social justice” is limited to the material fruits of a society’s economic success.
Perhaps a truer measure of a society is to observe which way the barriers or guns are pointed: inward to keep captive subjects from escaping (like the old Berlin Wall) or outward to prevent a deluge of desperate immigrants from illegally overwhelming it (like what there is of US border security).
That’s the objective market test. And by that standard, America must be a far better greater society than the ones these great masses of people are fleeing.
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.