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October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
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The Origins Of Discontent


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Notwithstanding that those sentiments (and undoubtedly other reasons as well) led to Cleveland’s defeat in 1888 – he was re-elected four years later – those lessons of the dangers of “paternalism” need to be re-learned and re-internalized. Part of America’s greatness in the 20th century was built on the labor of millions of immigrants – including more than two million Jews – who arrived on these shores and looked not to government for a handout but to their relatives, neighbors, and co-religionists for temporary assistance until they could support themselves by the sweat of their brow.

Hard work, self-sacrifice, material deprivation and personal responsibility were the norms of life. It was expected that people would succeed or fail on their own, and therefore everyone had an interest in succeeding. There was no governmental safety net, and the safety net that did exist for the elderly and infirm was usually provided by family and religious institutions.

The Constitution does not allow government to confiscate money from the productive and distribute it to the unproductive or the clueless – whether the clueless are reckless individuals or reckless corporations. But today, that is the primaryfunction of government, and so 49 percent of Americans receive some form of government assistance and wayward, mismanaged corporations are bailed out to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

* * *

Blame Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, and then almost every president since then, who have all realized that there are electoral victories to be obtained by handing out money to as many groups and individuals as is feasible. And, frankly, blame the citizenry as well, people who are being weaned on getting something for nothing, and letting others work and prosper and then thinking it is fair and just that their work product be redistributed to them. It was Thomas Jefferson who wrote that democracy fails the moment the majority realizes it can vote itself money out of the treasury. We have arrived at that moment, and the national character, accustomed to handouts and bailouts, has been concomitantly weakened to its current flaccid state of disgruntlement and self-pity.

The two visions of America – the free enterprise state that allows the individual free choice in pursuit of his happiness vs. the nanny state that is paternalistic, intrusive and demanding – can easily be discerned by the one defining difference: the former sees each person as an individual (created in the divine image) and the latter sees man as simply part of a collective whose rights are drawn from the fact that he is part of a group but do not inhere in him.

America and the free world used to celebrate the role of the individual – encouraging it, fostering it – because no individual prospers without also benefiting others.

No individual can become wealthy unless he makes a product or provides a service that others want at a price they can afford. So everyone benefits. Now, it is one size fits all – like the housing in socialist societies that all looks the same, and like the clothing in old Communist China where everyone dressed the same. No individuality is tolerated. Rights are awarded to some individuals, and denied to others, because they belong to a particular group – the very premise of affirmative action, for example.

Similarly, these attitudes engender the populist complaints about income inequality – the rich are too rich, and the poor are too poor. Why does the income gap, which so exercises the Occupy World Street crowd and other anarchists, bother anyone? If everyone has – or can have – then why be troubled by the success of some?

About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.


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One Response to “The Origins Of Discontent”

  1. Jonathan Gold says:

    Rabbi Pruzansky never disappoints. Great article on wealth from a torah perspective.

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