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Milk of Human Kindness Hasn't Borne a GOP Label

October 27, 1987|ERNEST CONINE | Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer

The political pundits tell us that Republican presidential candidates are trying to outdo each other in advertising their passion for compassion. They want the voters to know that, deep down, they understand the problems of the little guy and want to help him.

That's nice. But even if you give full credibility to the GOP candidates' profession of sympathy for the also-rans of American society, overcoming the compassion gap doesn't depend entirely on Republican or Democratic politicians. It also requires a moderation of the greed, the callous insensitivity to moral responsibility, that has become all too prevalent in the country at large.

An Asia expert of my acquaintance, a man who happens to be a personal friend of Philippine President Corazon Aquino, returned from Manila recently with the morose conclusion that the outlook for democracy there is dim. In his words, "The Philippine people have no sense of civic duty."

Neither do a lot of Americans these days.

U.S.-style capitalism, which has brought more prosperity to more people than any other system that the world has ever known, is based on an assumption of constructive greed. The idea is that each citizen in working to feather his own nest will contribute to the production of wealth for America as a whole.

For 100 years, however, it has been obvious that unfettered capitalism breeds inequities, that unbridled competition leads in fact to economic monopoly and social injustice, and that a humane society must lend a helping hand to the small farmer, the small businessman and those who for reasons of age or infirmity cannot provide for themselves.

Long before Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s, Congress enacted antitrust laws and provided for regulation of public utilities and railroads.

The Great Depression, following the stock market crash of 1929, resulted in a whole set of laws designed to prevent a recurrence of the speculative abuses that helped trigger the crash. It also begat a cornucopia of programs--Social Security pensions for the elderly, minimum standards for worker pay and safety, subsidized loans for farmers and home buyers and small businessmen--aimed at taking more of the rough edges off capitalism.

The modified, more humane version of the free-enterprise system also turned out to be more productive and more prosperous. More people had more money to spend, which generated profits as well as jobs, and the swings in the business cycle were shallower and less destructive.

Capitalism's taming didn't repeal greed, of course. It merely tried to keep it within constructive bounds. This didn't go down well with the business titans of the time; many hated F.D.R. until the day he died.

As the years passed, however, a new generation of business and financial leaders emerged who recognized that, whether they liked it or not, their bottom-line prosperity depended on the well-being of the country as a whole. They had a sense of civic duty--or at least they recognized the necessity of acting as though they had one for the sake of good public relations.

Unfortunately, though, it seems to be a rule of nature that all things, good or bad, are done to excess. During the 1960s President Lyndon B. Johnson led the country on a binge of do-goodism; under the banner of the Great Society, a torrent of social programs were enacted--all well-intended, several badly needed, but with little regard to the long-term ability and willingness of Americans to pay for it all. The momentum slowed but did not stop during the Nixon-Ford and Carter presidencies.

An inevitable reaction set in. Ronald Reagan rode into the White House atop the taxpayer revolt and the souring of public support for social programs that simply had not solved the problems that they were supposed to solve.

Budget restraint would have been necessary no matter who was elected. But budget cuts inevitably involve painful adjustments--and the safety net promised by Reagan proved to have gaping holes.

In any event the new approach of the Reagan Administration went far beyond budget cuts. The President brought with him a crew of ideologues who preached a doctrine of social and economic Darwinism--a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest dogma that included little sympathy for victims of the revolutionary changes occurring in the U.S. economy.

At the government level, agencies responsible for worker safety, meat inspection, pension protection and equal opportunity lost their zest for enforcement.

Within the business world, greed and callousness were in.

Important corporate executives said openly that they felt no particular responsibility toward workers displaced by mergers or by plant closings and shifts to over-seas production, or to local communities whose tax base was seriously impaired.

The number of people with company or other health insurance actually has declined--partly because of a deliberate shift to "temporary" workers who do not qualify for health insurance or pension coverage.

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