In the contemporary United States, at a time of growing unemployment, a jobless man or woman is not a full member of the community. In order to receive even the exiguous welfare payments available, they must first have sought and, where applicable, accepted employment at whatever wage is on offer, however low the pay and distasteful the work. Only then are they entitled to the consideration and assistance of their fellow citizens.
Why do so few of us condemn such "reforms"—enacted under a Democratic president? Why are we so unmoved by the stigma attaching to their victims? Far from questioning this reversion to the practices of early industrial capitalism, we have adapted all too well and in consensual silence—in revealing contrast to an earlier generation. But then, as Tolstoy reminds us, there are "no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him."
This "disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition...is...the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments." Those are not my words. They were written by Adam Smith, who regarded the likelihood that we would come to admire wealth and despise poverty, admire success and scorn failure, as the greatest risk facing us in the commercial society whose advent he predicted. It is now upon us.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
It is Now Upon Us
From the New York Times Review of Books, Tony Judt What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?