It takes a community to afford paved roads, special education, retail centers, water purification, public beaches, a municipal power plant, museums, public transportation and so forth. More than physical assets, community is a store of goodwill into which we make deposits and withdrawals as we live our lives.
Whether it’s a community as big as the USA or as small as our neighbors, each requires cooperation — not because it’s a nice thing to do, but because it’s essential. Community cooperation is different than commercial cooperation, where each transaction, measured in dollars, can be balanced. Community cooperation includes the use of public goods, and therein lies the rub.
Our public goods are bought with tax dollars assessed by one formula, but are consumed by community members using a different one. This can lead to some taxpayers thinking that they’re getting a bad deal.
For example, a childless couple paying school taxes may feel it’s unfair. Similarly, improving the jail may never benefit the average taxpayer. Many disputes between our political parties can be understood as a disagreement about the fair use of public goods.
In these disputes, the argument is often framed as a conflict between two groups of citizens: Givers and Takers. Givers are described as hard-working taxpayers and Takers are either freeloaders or captives of a welfare state.
However, this depiction is too simple and grossly inaccurate.
No individual or company can succeed without community support. Shape Corp. can deliver its products to market because roads go from Grand Haven to every other town in the U.S. Verplank’s dock, Grand Haven Yacht Club and many others are accessible only because a community pays to dredge the Grand River. Meijer employees are skillful, in part, because schools, parents and other employers taught them.
Of course, these businesses also pay taxes toward these benefits, but their contribution doesn’t come close to paying the entire tab. Those who say, "I built that!" are forgetting that they built that with the help of other citizens whose taxes and cooperation made their efforts possible. If you doubt that, just try to attract new businesses without pre-existing infrastructure, skillful job applicants and healthy community life.
While all this may seem painfully self-evident, there is a small, vocal group of people who think that it’s all about the individual and individual rights. Talk of supporting community needs brings cries of socialism or worse.
These groups don’t talk about community; they talk about government, as if a democratic government were not of, for and by the people. These groups praise the contributions of our Founding Fathers, but ignore “We the people,” “E pluribus unum” and the “Common Good.” They praise democracy as the best form of government, yet they despise it.
Over and over again we hear, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” And Grover Norquist famously said, “I just want to shrink (government) down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
Those who revere Ayn Rand’s philosophy of unfettered capitalism accuse 47 percent of our citizens of looking for handouts, or urge the defunding of food stamp programs during economic hardship have lost their sense of community. They have separated themselves from those less fortunate and have forgotten or never appreciated that they have taken from their community in proportion to their success.
Yes, there is waste in so-called entitlement programs. I am not indifferent to the sweat, sacrifice and long hours many successful people have put into their work, or to the freeloaders who take advantage of their community. But then neither am I indifferent to costly corporate welfare such as drug companies profiting from university research, or energy and precious metal companies extracting from public lands for insignificant royalties, or pleasure yachts being treated as business expenses, or companies like GE paying no income tax.
It's interesting that the individualists’ anger is primarily directed at those without jobs, without health care and without food — rather than billionaires with lower tax rates than their secretaries, or employers paying full-time employees below the poverty level (relying on welfare and Medicaid to make up the difference).
Looking down the social strata and never looking upward is necessary to keep the "47 percent" illusion going.
Those who want to deny the benefits of community for those less fortunate are blind to how much they benefit from their community’s largess. To those who think they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, I can only smile and say, "Dream on my friends, dream on."
— By Richard Kamischke, Tribune community columnist