Remember Lenny Skutnick? In January 1982, we watched on television as the D.C. office worker dove into the freezing Potomac to rescue victims of a plane crash. That day also gave us bank examiner Arland D. Williams Jr., the passenger who kept handing the lifeline to other survivors until he slipped beneath the waters and drowned.
More recently, multiple stories of grace and heroism cloaked the terrorist attacks of 2001, including the story of Chuck Sereika, a lapsed paramedic who grabbed a cellphone and hurried to the World Trade Center that morning to risk his life to crawl into the rubble and help pull two men out.
We call these people heroes. So why does that altruistic spirit -- help people who need it -- seem so absent from our public policy?
Deborah Stone, founding senior editor of the political magazine, The American Prospect, and research professor of government at Dartmouth College, wondered, too. The result is "The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?" The seed for the book was planted when she realized in college that the public policy field had been commandeered by economists like Milton Friedman, the late Nobel laureate who along with others embraced self-interest over altruism. We can almost recite the code by heart: The greedy shall inherit the earth, and helping others only encourages the helpless to be more so. We ignore the Biblical story of the good Samaritan, the parable character who looked beyond social and ethnic boundaries to help a man in need.
When did the Good Samaritan slip from our public discussions?
"I've been teaching political science and public policy for almost 30 years, and increasingly I've become so disturbed by the assumption that people are self-interested," said Stone. "I think the 'help your neighbor' ethic is the closest thing we have to a universal moral value."
The demise of the government's role in doing good can be traced back to the silver-tongued Ronald Reagan, who delighted in anecdotes -- some true, some not -- that worked to limit people's empathy, said Stone.
In reality, she said "the vast majority of people who get any kind of public or private help don't want it. They're ashamed when they take it, and they take it almost always because they need to support their kids or their sick parents."
When the current president cast volunteerism as an alternative to government entitlement programs, he entirely missed the point that some people need more than individuals can give. You can help someone learn to speak English or to read, but how do you help someone find decent and affordable housing? That's a bigger job calling for bigger resources.
"I think we have a moral obligation to help people who are suffering, and that's unconnected to whatever faith you hold or don't hold," said Stone. "I kept being so angry at the phrase 'personal responsibility' because it was hurled at people and meant 'take care of yourself,' and 'don't be a burden on any one else.' For most people, 'personal responsibility' means taking responsibility for the world around you. You notice someone lying on the side of the road, you take responsibility."
She says: Democracy needs people looking out for other people.
She says: We need to welcome the Good Samaritan back into the public realm.
Contact Susan Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org
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