tightrope
Why Bother?
Reading Time: 6 minutes

We yearn for civic character but satisfy ourselves with symbolic gestures and celebrity circuses. We perceive no greatness in our leaders, a new meanness in ourselves. Small wonder that each new election brings a new jolt, its aftermath a new disappointment.

— Neil Howe & William Strauss, The Fourth Turning

Why bother?

So many say it or think it. Why bother?

I think it myself. A lot. I pull out of the civic process for big chunks of time, disappointed in the people I’ve voted for, disappointed in people I’ve campaigned for, disappointed in people I fight alongside, disappointed in my own ineffectiveness. Sometimes it’s best to pretend I was never involved.

But the world always brings me back.

Why bother?

Because the labor participation rate is the lowest it’s been since the first year of the Jimmy Carter administration. People who want to work don’t work. People who want full-time jobs work one or more part-time jobs. People who believe that if they work hard and stay in school and don’t have babies can’t find meaningful work. Or they hear the rules have changed, and now “making it” means a government check and a room in Mom’s basement.

Why bother?

Because lives matter. Yes, black lives matter. All lives matter. And lives get snuffed out every day of every week because 40 years of federal programs have failed the people they’re designed to help. They’ve cheapened life and deprived millions of the dignity of decent work, decent wages, and a safe community. The war on drugs and the war on poverty have body counts like any other war. Housing and education programs have made housing less available and education less meaningful. And the government’s failures hurt real flesh and blood human beings.

Why bother?

Because God and my family blessed me with the brain and the education and the curiosity to learn that the solution to jobs and crime, to apathy and hopelessness, are not impossible mysteries of the cosmos but proven, quantified social policies that work every time and everywhere they’re tried.

Why bother?

Because the burden of knowledge is a call to duty. We want people to experience the dignity of meaningful work and the pride of living their own lives. We know how to make that happen. And we’re frustrated that a meddlesome few won’t let us do it.

Why bother?

Because we were told from childhood on to leave every place a little better than we found it. Whether it’s the schools we attend, the bathrooms we use, or the earth we wander for 80 years, we feel a compulsion to leave everything better than we found it.

I am almost 52 years old. For the first 30 years of my life, things were getting better, particularly from 1981 to 1993. Then we plateaued. And the past decade has been straight drop down.

Before my time is up, I want to know every person who can work finds meaningful work to do, that everyone who works can afford to care for himself and his family, that the safety nets we’ve built support those who truly need them without the stress of  able-bodied people using the safety net as a hammock.

Why bother?

Because we know that discouraging people from becoming the best they can be is to deny them their God given right to flourish, to live, to feel the pride of doing something for themselves and for the benefit of others.

Why bother?

Because we are Americans. We take the words of our founding documents as creed. We believe in the self-evident truth that we are endowed by our creator with unalienable rights and that our government was established to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our children.

Why bother?

Because the job of securing liberty is never done. The lust for power and control never sleep. And the duty falls to each generation to renew our founding creed, improve its outcomes, and pass along its wisdom and promises to the next.

Why bother?

Because we love people so much we are willing to give up our nights and weekends, our money and, if necessary, our lives to see our fellow Americans live free with dignity and opportunity for all.

Why bother?

Because we are conservatives. Ours is not an economic system or a math formula. We don’t believe in big business as the solution to our problems. Nor do we believe it’s “every man for himself.”

Rather, we bother because conservatism is a moral philosophy from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments to the preamble of the Constitution, our moral philosophy is based on human rights–life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, the dignity of work, the rewards of labor, the love of family, and the security of a freely chosen community.

Those are the principles and conditions we seek to conserve. Not merely some tradition whose origins we cannot name. Not some a priori truth that’s too sacred to expose to empirical scrutiny. It’s the words we all know by heart–the words Jefferson penned and Martin Luther King sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that all men are created equal.

In our America, murder is rare because every person sees every other person as a child of God with rights equal to their own life.

In our America, welfare is rare because every person seeks to engage in meaningful work trusting the benefits of that work will go to the worker.

In our America, unemployment is short and rare because every person wants to work and every community feels shame when it has unemployed people in its midst.

In our America, racial strife is rare because we recognize the inherent value and dignity God infused in every person.

In our America, want is unheard of because our generosity of spirit knows no limits.

In our America, people are vigilant against intruders, thieves, and free-riders because every person contributed to the greatness of the society.

In our America, bad things still happen, but we pull together, nurse the wounded, comfort the grieving, and look forward to the next challenge.

In our America, work is a blessing, not a punishment.

In our America, the needy are “untapped resources, not liabilities to be managed,” as Arthur C. Brooks wonderfully puts it.

In our America, history is not a home we seek to re-enter, but a well-learned lesson that gives up and wisdom as as press toward the other side.

Some say our America is impossible. They may be right. But deep down inside, I believe they’re wrong. The only thing really impossible is imagining the impossible. Imagination is simply a memory that hasn’t happened yet.

In 1775, this country was impossible because it existed only in the imaginations of a few men. Yet here we are.

Yes, the past decade has been difficult, but we’ve survived difficulties before.  The Jamestown settlers lost 80 percent of their population, including their most prominent citizens.The Pilgrims lost half their members to disease, starvation, and crime. Slaves rounded up in Africa died by the scores crossing the Atlantic, only to emerge into slavery. We fought a brutal civil war to end slavery and preserve a fractured union. Economic panics and natural disasters pocked the 19th century. Depression and world wars scarred the 20th.

And somehow that mythical nation dreamt up in the imaginations of a few spirited colonists survives 240 years later.

Today a friend of mine told me that America is at a crossroads.We must choose between an autocrat of the left or an autocrat of right.

I told him, “Maybe I’m too much like James T. Kirk, but I don’t believe in no-win situations.

That’s why I believe we can preserve this imaginary nation. We cannot preserve America by becoming un-American. We can survive only by doubling down on the contradictions that made us the greatest nation in history.

  • We are rough but decent
  • We are irreverent but polite
  • We are individual but highly social
  • We are brave but seek the safety of community
  • We are strong and armed but gentle and giving
  • We are fierce in battle but gracious in victory
  • We are wealthy beyond reason but industrious and fair
  • We are one nation segmented 300 million ways
  • We are a nation of God with compassion for those unblessed with faith
  • We are Americans
  • We are proud but humble

We are great not because of our government. If our government is great, it is so because of the people who designed, fund it, regulate it, and populate it.

We are great because decent people were left free to live their own lives and pursue their own happiness. We remain great so long as free people choose to live harmoniously together, to share a portion of their wealth to meet common needs and to care for the indigent.

It’s a precarious balance, this freedom, like walking a tightrope. On one side is tyranny, on the other is anarchy.

Why bother?

Because I want to see what’s on the other end of the rope. And I can’t do it alone.

Please share your thoughts below.

  • Gary A.

    Never mind….I now see it and it says….. “awaiting moderation”

  • Gary A.

    HI Bill,
    I wrote a pretty long reply about The Bridge (the ‘soup kitchen’) in downtown St Louis this morning.
    But, I don’t see the posting here? Maybe it got lost in cyberspace?
    I can re-write it if it fails to show up. Please let me know.

  • Gary A.

    Bill, thanks for the compliment. My wife & I have served at “The BRIDGE” in downtown St Louis ~4 times. Our church in Wildwood often sends a bus-load of people down there to help. Two weeks ago I drove a bus full of our youth to get a ‘tour’ of how homeless people in St Louis cope. We were guided by a volunteer from the BRIDGE and saw several places where the homeless can get help.
    It is associated with Centenary UMC. Check this website for info. http://www.idealist.org/view/nonprofit/btXJGXjmpXjd/

    They are located at 1060 Olive St. in St Louis. The name comes from…homeless people need a “bridge” to allow them to become a productive citizen and have their own residence. They are not very far from Larry Rice’s NLEC. Their own website is: http://www.bridgestl.org/
    More info: It is no exaggeration to say that, without volunteers, The Bridge simply could not fulfill its mission to provide sanctuary for homeless and at-risk persons in St. Louis. If you would like to help, please call 314-421-3136, ext 105, or email volcoordinator@bridgestl.org. You may be just the person The Bridge needs right now!

    They serve an amazing number of meals (~3000 each week) to homeless people!
    Virtually all of the food is donated.
    The first time my wife & I went…to help serve food… we were a bit apprehensive as we had never talked to any homeless person. The stereotype we had in mind was not correct. Every one of them thanked us for being there. Were many of them disheveled…yes. Did some of them act strange…yes. Were we afraid….NO.
    The BRIDGE does have security guards who, if need be, handle any situation, but we never saw the need for that.
    Most of the people eating at The BRIDGE appear to be gentle and very thankful.
    It can be an eye-opener to help down there. I encourage you to call them and take a small group. The adjacent parking lot on Olive is fenced & secure.
    Sincerely,
    Gary A.

  • Gary A.

    Bill, Thanks again for eloquent words of wisdom. You’re right about former Pres. Carter (he was a disaster of a President)…and you’re right about Reagan….he was a great President. I am 70+ and remember the late 70’s well. I have walked the downtown streets of St Louis and know where homeless people take refuge. I have served in a ‘soup kitchen’ which is an eye-opener. It’s a sad to see the poverty down there. I will definitely try to keep the faith and hope you are right.
    I’ll see about getting the book you recommended, too.
    Thank you.

    • Well, sir, I am humbled. I thought I was corresponding with someone younger than myself. Your writing style is very young. Younger than mine, for sure.

      Are you still involved with the soup kitchen? If so, can you introduce me? I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never done that work, but I need to. And I’d like a mentor.

  • Gary A.

    Bill,
    I can absolutely agree with the statement…Every person deserves the dignity of meaningful work and the freedom to pursue happiness.” Maybe there is a good portion of the “47%” that would really prefer work vs being on the dole. The problem I see is that even if we agree (and we do),,,,we’re not politicians who can really do something about it. I feel powerless when it comes to helping the downtrodden realize that it is education & family love that can make things go in the right direction. Without a real change there….is there much hope? In St Louis they have to bribe students to come to school on the 1st day. Their parents (if they have two) don’t seem to care. It’s like a downward spiral out of control.

    • Thanks, Gary.

      I can read the concern in your words. This might sound strange, but it’s good to see such concern.

      I don’t wish upset or despair on anyone, but the fact that you and many others actually think about the problems of poverty and hopeless and dependency means we can change things.

      I don’t know how old you are, but in 1979 things were pretty bleak in America. Our president told us that America’s best days were behind us. We were told that the country was unmanageable, that we needed to divide executive power among two or three co-presidents. We were told that containing the Soviet Union was a sucker’s bet, and we might as well get used to spreading Marxism. America went in and out of recession and periods of ridiculous inflation more frequently than the weather changes in St. Louis. And in November, we saw a bunch of “students” seize the American embassy in Tehran and hold American hostages. At the time, many people thought Jimmy Carter was right: our best days were in the history books.

      A lot of people credit Ronald Reagan with turning America around. While I give Reagan a lot of credit, he wasn’t alone. The US Olympic hockey team, in February 1980, sparked a renewed faith in America. If those college kids could beat the Red Army team and go on to capture the gold medal, maybe America wasn’t dead after all. In the spring, I remember watching the Country Music Awards where Charlie Daniels Band debuted “In America.” Something was stirring.

      What was stirring was the American spirit. By November 1980, that spirit ushered into the White House a president who reflected our growing confidence that America would rise again. As Charlie Daniels sang it, “We’re walkin’ real proud and we’re talkin’ real loud again.”

      While Reagan served as the personification of that renewed American spirit, I think Reagan only reflected what the people beamed. And, yes, we can do it again.

      When that portion of the 47 percent who want to experience the dignity of work come to believe that we truly want them to enjoy the fruits of their labor, that we won’t snatch away the safety net after they climb above it, we will see a surge in creativity and prosperity that will make the 80s look like a recession.

      I encourage you to read a short book called Poverty in America by Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute. There’s so much opportunity in those pages. And the Kindle version is on 99 cents.

      Keep the faith, Gary. We can fool the world again.

  • Gary Arbesman

    Thanks Bill! Your words are truly eloquent and worthy of a great goal for all conservatives. The unfortunate issue in the USA is that a very significant portion of our population doesn’t appreciate the real value of family; man/woman marriage; & education and “47%” would rather just sit back and ‘let’ the government take care of them. How can the 53% change that attitude…..I don’t know……but I am encouraged by men like you!
    Sincerely, Gary

    • Gary,

      Thank you for your kind words and your thoughts.

      What if 47 percent really don’t want to sit back and let the government take care of them? What if they simply believe that they have no other choice?

      I realize that every society will always have a few free-riders. But I believe that many people who don’t work believe that working would make their lives (or their loved-ones lives) worse. I believe many poor people on the dole see government assistance as a necessary evil. And when they look at conservatives, the see only scorn and and useless “solutions” like “start your own business.”

      What if conservatives showed people how they can work their way to a better a life without transiting through a period of despair?

      We began this process once, in 1996 when Bill Clinton signed the GOP’s welfare reform package. That package actually helped a large number of people break free from the indignity of dependence. We’ve lost ground since then, but we can do it again.

      I believe we on the right have the solutions. We need better and more consistent messaging. I believe that every person deserves the dignity of meaningful work and the freedom to pursue happiness. I think that that belief and our solutions can do what Johnson’s war on poverty failed at miserably: we can lift up lives so people can flourish instead of merely surviving.

      Will you help by answering the 47% percent problem with just one sentence? “Every person deserves the dignity of meaningful work and the freedom to pursue happiness.”

      It’s not the only solution, but it’s a start. And no one in his right might can argue with it. No one.

  • Frieda Keough

    Thanks Bill – this is what I needed to hear today. Keep it up brother.

    • You know that you and Ellen are my audience, right? If you like it, I got it right. Thank you, so much, for letting me know.

  • Donna

    I really needed to hear this. We are so bent down after these years of struggling against tyranny that I truly wondered “Why bother?” And then you reminded me (among other things) that “the burden of knowledge is a call to duty.”

  • Thank you, Ellen. I will try to stay on this tack. I know you’ll help. I know that most people want these things, and if we keep reminding the world of why we fight and for whom, our vision will become reality.

  • Ellen Elmore

    Thanks Bill. You put into words the kind of hope we all need. By following your example we can make this nation a better place for future generations. God bless you for encouraging us to keep going in the face of sometimes overwhelming adversity.

  • Mary Ann McCarthy

    Bill, this is absolutely wonderful. I’m printing it out and saving it everywhere I can. Such thoughtful insight into Why so many of us bother. Thank you.

  • Thanks, Scottie. That means a lot. But I have to give a lot of credit to four people:

    Eric Greitens reminds us to think about higher purpose.
    Arthur C. Brooks reminds us no one cares about abstract economics–they care about human lives.
    Simon Sinek reminds us to start with why. “No one buys what you make; they buy why you make it.”
    Peggy Noonan reminds us of the way Reagan thought and spoke.

    If conservatism is not more than a slick algorithm, no one’s going to buy it. But conservatism in America is not an algorithm; it’s a moral theory that lifts people up from poverty, up from dependency, and up from the degradation of materialism.

  • Probably the best thing you’ve ever written.

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