Our Stake in Each Other’s Welfare

Do we have a stake in each other’s future or only in our own? That is a central question of American politics. The Tea Party’s tossing of the entire American budget into the sea over the issue of Obamacare is an effort to say no, we have no stake in each other’s welfare. To claim a stake in each other’s welfare is socialism. Although the political waters warrant silence from many elected officials about it, that same cry has been leveled and is being leveled against other American efforts to help each other. Social security, socialism. Medicare and Medicaid, socialism. Indeed, there is no logical reason to draw the line there and many don’t. National parks, socialism. Veterans’ benefits, socialism. Head start, socialism. Why stop there? Public schools, socialism. Public hospitals, government health departments and laboratories, socialism. It’s all socialism in the heads of the true believers. So let me repeat that question – do we have a stake in each other’s future or only our own?

Sandra Day O’Connor thought we do. In the Court’s majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger she wrote:

major American businesses have made clear [in briefs submitted to the Court] that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.… What is more, high-ranking retired officers and civilian leaders of the United States military assert that, “based on [their] decades of experience,” a ‘highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps . . . is essential to the military’s ability to fulfill its principle mission to provide national security.”[1]

In other words American business and military need all of us. But our economy and power don’t exhaust the reasons. Quoting earlier decisions, she continued:

education [i]s pivotal to “sustaining our political and cultural heritage” with a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of society. This Court has long recognized that “education . . . is the very foundation of good citizenship.” For this reason, the diffusion of knowledge and opportunity through public institutions of higher education must be accessible to all individuals regardless of race or ethnicity.[2]

Put another way, she was saying our democratic way of life depends on all of us.

Think about it yet another way. Justice Kennedy made that point in one of the gay-rights cases. Quoting an earlier decision, he wrote:

“If the constitutional conception of ‘equal protection of the laws’ means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest.”[3]

In other words, a free-for-all contest of all against all is dangerous for democracy and all the people in it. Other than some slave-owners, what the founders of this country described as the public good, was intended as all-inclusive. The alternative is Sarajevo, Kosovo, Syria, Palestine or the heart of Africa, where people living in peace are forced to take up arms and no one is safe.

Think about it yet another way. When people get trapped into lives without hope, the places they live can become very dangerous. It is much safer for all of us to live, work, and walk where everyone feels a stake in the larger society, in each other’s welfare, where we greet or think of each other as brothers and sisters, not as enemies. E pluribus unum – out of many, one – is the motto of our country for good reason. We do have a stake, a very large stake in each other’s lives and prospects.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 1 or 8, 2013.

[1] Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 330-31 (2003).

[2] Id. at 331.

[3] Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 634-635 (1996) quoting Department of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528, 534, (1973).

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