Montana Viewpoint

September 5, 2005;

When tragedy strikes, American citizens rise nobly to the cause; whether it is the horrific flooding of an entire city or a neighbor suddenly struck by cancer, Americans volunteer their time, money, and labor to help those afflicted. The American government, where it must, is also capable of an enormous effort to address catastrophic events, but less so the hardships of individuals.

There is only one condition for this outpouring of help on the part of Americans and their government; the tragedy has to actually occur before the magnanimous response is made. The prevention of tragedy does not move our emotions or our sense of duty very much.

For most of us, it’s the event itself that serves as an awakening to the situation—a situation that might have been avoided.

Everyday in America there are the small and preventable tragedies that no one hears of; people facing death because they have no money to pay for medical care or medicine, or homeless families whose children are hungry. The American government rushes aid to people made homeless by the great tsunami in Indonesia, but leaves the American homeless to fend for themselves

More than any other industrialized nation, America waits for a problem to happen before it’s addressed. We excel at crisis management. We should, we give ourselves so many opportunities to practice it. We need our government to be more concerned with preventing disaster than in responding to it. There are at least two good reasons to do this: it is the humane thing to do, and it is one hell of a lot cheaper.

While there are many reasons why we should practice preventive measures, I’m more curious about why we don’t.

First, it seems without being able to put a human face on an issue, we are unmoved by it. Ever notice that every ad asking you to donate to a humanitarian cause has a picture and a name of someone who needs help?

Second, it has been a long time that Americans, as a nation, have faced real hardship, so it is more difficult for us to imagine ourselves as homeless or hungry, or mentally ill. In short, we have to be able to identify with the issue before we really care about it in the abstract.

Third, it costs money. By not spending tax dollars on a potential problem government looks fiscally responsible. That works as long as the levee holds; when it breaks it gets spendy fast.

When legislators make decisions that affect the lives of thousands, we deal with numbers, not people. That makes it too easy; we should have to look people in the eye when we decide issues that will change their lives.

Last, there is the fear, unique to Americans, that if we offer help to a group of people who truly deserve it, there will be a deadbeat in the crowd who gets something for nothing. So we create rules and regulations and make a bureaucratic maze for the very people we are aiming at helping. It costs us more time and money to prevent the deadbeats from getting a free ride than it would to allow a few unethical people to slide by, but we are obsessed about it to the point of distraction.

Years ago in Baltimore there was a newspaper reporter named Mencken who defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” In a slightly different sense, that’s what keeps America from affording every citizen an equal shot at getting ahead, and that’s a tragedy created by man.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620