Late in the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan advised voters how to think about their choice for president: "Ask yourself these questions: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to buy things in the store than it was four years ago?"
If that was the price-of-hamburger theory of campaigning, we might call 2008 the price-of-gas election. But I hope the candidates will ask voters to think a little differently this time around to think not only of ourselves, but of our neighbors.
Helping others, it turns out, is as strong a human motive as self-interest, and as crucial to our well-being as the drive to get ahead. Helping the needy and the suffering is also the closest thing we have to a universal moral principle and a shared religious value. Humans are not made of unadulterated self-interest. We live for ourselves, but we are altruists, too. We are born needing help, we die needing help, and we spend our lives giving and getting help.
Consider what the price of gas means to two women profiled recently in The New York Times. Katie Clark, a 26-year-old single mother of two, earns $250 a week as a home care aide, less the cost of gas that she must cover herself. She helps one elderly couple twice a day, seven days a week.
Without her they'd be in nursing homes Ã¯Â¿Â½ but it now costs her $100 a week in gas money to help them. If she were purely self-interested, she'd either look for more remunerative work or refuse to serve those clients who live 25 miles away from her. But Clark has done neither. She borrows money so she can keep helping them because, as she said, "They're just like family to me."
Or think about Sandra Prediger, a 70-year-old woman who drives her more senior friends to doctors and stores, and has been paying for the gas herself until recently, when she reluctantly had to ask her friends to share the costs. When her Social Security check runs out near the end of the month, the people at the local gas station allow her to postdate her check. They know why she needs gas. It seems they want to help her help others.
In dire times like these, there are two responses: Fend for yourself or help your neighbors. People are always better off when they look out for one another. Political leaders can nudge us one direction or the other by the way they talk to us.
Candidates might ask us to ask ourselves, "Are you and your neighbors better off today than you were four years ago? Can you care for the people you love as you'd like to? Is your community a better or worse place to live?"
I hope they will begin with something like, "Tell me what kind of help you need from government to be able to care for your family and help your neighbors."
Deborah Stone is a senior fellow at the policy center Demos and research professor of government at Dartmouth College. Her new book, "The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?," was published this month by Nation Books.
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