Friday, February 11, 2011

Why We Are Not Lazy. . . . .

Listening to talk radio again and I was struck by what one of the commentators said when he essentially made reference to the all too common claim that people are essentially lazy nowadays. While I don't believe what he was saying constituted meaningful political discourse, I was struck by how common this complaint has become, not just among the 'right' but among people in general.

The discussion was related to this whole arena issue in Quebec which, though it plays big in the news, seems like a storm in a teacup to me. The commentator was complaining that people just don't want to do anything for themselves nowadays and instead they sit around waiting for the government to do things for them. He then made a classic, albeit ridiculous, comparison with the past, suggesting that "this country was built on hard work and in the days of the sodbusters people didn't wait around for the government to do things for them...etc. People find this kind of argument appealing because it plays on their nostalgia and it reinforces this silly, though widely prevalent, idea that the past was somehow better than today.

This comparison is specious for a number of reasons. For one thing it is simply not true that people don't work hard today. I think most people work just as hard today as  they ever did, though most do so in better and less dangerous circumstances than in the past. Furthermore, many studies suggest that people work harder and longer today than they did, say, fifty years ago. For another thing, people are just as active in their community as they ever were, and probably more so. Most people I have known have, throughout their adult lives, actively supported charities in various ways and this ideas that they are just sitting around lazily or selfishly worrying only about themselves is just false.

However, this comparison is specious for a much more important reason. If one goes back, say, a hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago people had no significant relationship  of reciprocity with the government. They did very little for the government and the government did very little for them. People didn't pay income taxes and the taxes that they did pay, which were largely consumption taxes or various kinds of trade taxes, were significantly lower than they are today. In more modern times, on the other hand, there is a very important relationship of reciprocity between citizens and their government. Not only do we vote and and have an active role in how government works, we pay taxes and these taxes contribute to the growth of our communities and help people in many and various ways. People in our society actively work and they pass some of the that labour on to the government in the form of taxes. The revenue of the government is, put simply, a portion of our collective labour. Thus when taxes pay for services this does not represent a bunch of lazy people expecting the government to do things for them, rather it represents the transfer of a certain amount of collective labour for the building of community etc. It is thus simply untrue that at one time people did things for themselves and now people sit around waiting for the government to do things for them. When we send our kids to public schools or our parents to the hospital, or we put our garbage out to be picked up or we call a suicide hot-line that accepts government funding, we ARE doing things for ourselves. We are the teachers who teach in the schools, we are the nurses that work in the hospitals, we are the librarians and the street-sweepers, we are all the people who take a portion of the collective labour and return it to the community in countless ways. It is wrong-headed to talk as though government services represent laziness. On the contrary, such services represent a community hard at work. Ironically, right-wingers and people of business should understand this as well as anyone because it is a very basic principle of business that collective or mass purchases of goods and services is always less expensive than per unit purchasing. By running large social services we save a great deal of our collective labour.

When the government does something for us, it is actually us doing something for ourselves as a community, and this is incredibly important for people to understand. We cannot let people propagate this idea that government services perpetuate a culture of laziness and entitlement. Instead we have to make people realize that such services are the most efficient way to use a portion of our collective labour to build society and community. When people forget this lesson you should just point them to the indispensable roll that public education has played in building Western society and the health and prosperity that we have enjoyed. If the right-wing had had their way, children would still be working in mines for 12 hours a day and we would have no relationship of reciprocity with our governments. Build our communities, invest our collective labour into our society and remember that without cooperation you have no society at all.

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