One of the most interesting magazine covers in the past few years came from the New Yorker, which on its Aug. 15, 2011, cover featured a picture of a large ship sinking in the background, while in the foreground a small group of fat men in tuxedos rowed away in a lifeboat, smoking cigars and not even deigning to look back at the sinking masses. The cover implied that even if the rest of America was to sink to the bottom of the ocean, the wealthy would be able to escape essentially unscathed.
Contrast this vision of leadership with the perils faced by the mythic Greek King Odysseus and his crew on their ocean journey returning from the Trojan War. At one point while sailing through the Strait of Messina the crew faced the twin monsters of Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla, a six-headed monster, could reach out and eat crew members – particularly those stronger members Odysseus would have to rely on in times of war. Charybdis, on the other hand, was depicted as a dangerous whirlpool that would swallow the ship whole. Odysseus faced a choice: Sacrifice a few strong men to the monster Scylla, or to put the entire ship in peril by sailing closer to Charybdis. According to the myth, he chose the former.
These contrasting visions of leadership form the prism of individuality and a shared sense of destiny that we are currently dealing with as a country. No one wants to live in a world in which our individual talents are not recognized and rewarded. As a medical doctor whose talent lay in developing complex, life-saving neurological procedures to cure acutely ill patients, I certainly would not have been motivated to undergo decades of medical training if I felt there would be no reward for doing so. If the rewards for becoming a medical doctor with a highly regarded specialty were the same as, say, becoming a parking lot attendant, very few if any would choose to pursue the former path. That’s no disrespect to parking lot attendants at all, but the reality is that it takes a far higher degree of training, sacrifice and discipline to accomplish some things than it does to accomplish others.
On the other hand, I could not have become a highly rewarded medical doctor in a society that did not share a set of values and shared infrastructure. If it weren’t for the sacrifices of thousands of men and women in our armed forces, we could potentially be a colony of Nazi Germany, Russia or feudal Japan. I did not personally fight in any of America’s wars, but as a citizen I benefited from the sacrifices of others. I benefited from the sacrifice of my own mother, who with barely a third-grade education raised my brother and me as a single parent, and through sheer force of will ensured that we got a good education.
We believe strongly in individual achievement in this country. And while their is immense admiration and reward for individual success, we must be mindful that as a nation we have a shared destiny. In a very real sense, individual success is also reflective of our collective strength. When we forget this fact, it’s easy to step over the homeless person on the street, or ignore the plight of the poor and downtrodden. We can dismiss the outcomes in their lives as purely the result of their poor choices – and leave it at that. But that would not be really wise in the long run.
The recent incidents in Ferguson and Baltimore depict a side of America that rarely reaches the national consciousness. There are masses of people stuck amid decaying infrastructure and poverty, with no sense of hope that there is a way out. Most of the time they remain unheard of, people passed on the street without so much as a nod. But the truth is that as the conditions of their lives deteriorate because of a lack of prosperity, so does the quality of life for all Americans. Crime may be concentrated in some poor neighborhoods, but at the end of the day its costs are borne by all of society – in the form of victimization, in the form of the burgeoning costs of prisons, in quality of life for those not directly affected by the scourge of poverty.
As a people we must act with a greater awareness of our shared destiny. An enlightened self-interest means that we share our blessings with others. As private citizens we should join together to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty. This could be done in the form of funding educational enrichment programs for impoverished youth, which would help to equip them with the basic skills to obtain good jobs. Another worthy endeavor would be those who operate businesses reaching out to areas of chronic unemployment and providing job readiness training and entry-level positions for residents.
Whatever measures we choose to take as a society must be grounded in the philosophies of increasing independence and acknowledging a shared sense of destiny. The problem with many government-sponsored social programs that attempt to solve chronic social problems is that they become victims of bureaucracy. Not only are they often subject to waste, fraud and abuse – but they tend to create perverse incentives that entrench the very problems they are supposed to be solving.
Perhaps the most glaring example has been the so-called War on Poverty programs started (with good intentions) under the Johnson administration in the mid 1960s. These programs, whether they focused on housing, food or education, ultimately became a gravy train for the politically connected and wealthy. After decades of burgeoning spending on programs, the problems of miseducation and poverty are today almost as entrenched as they were during the height of the civil rights era. Obamacare unfortunately is going in the same direction. While on its surface it may seem like a good thing – in that it expands nominal health coverage for some uninsured people – on the back end it further entrenches the power of large insurance companies and health management corporations. With the government as a larger payer in the health marketplace, these organizations become more politically entrenched and gain greater power than ever to fleece the American taxpayer for unnecessary and avoidable costs.
Let’s not continue the practice of privileging a few under the guise of saving the many. On the other hand, let those who have the means join together and begin to help others in need – out of an enlightened sense of shared destiny. The truth is that we are all in the same boat. If it goes down, everyone goes down with it.