Down in jungleland

“A good listener tries to understand what the other person is saying. In the end he may disagree sharply, but because he disagrees, he wants to know exactly what it is he is disagreeing with.”
—Kenneth A. Wells, Guide to Good Leadership, 1956

“Well, opinions are like backsides: Everybody has one.”
—Dirty Harry, The Dead Pool (clean version)

I appreciate people who make me think. They’re not always the most astute folks I meet; they’re just those who willingly share a perspective they’re pretty sure differs from mine, and don’t mind risking a debate in the process.

Often when this happens, I don’t go into attack mode. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a lawyer because I relished the adrenaline of arguing. Now, not so much—I prefer to hear someone out, ask a focusing question, then see if there’s common ground to be found.

Such was the case when I had coffee with a local high-level official recently. (The conversation was off-the-record, so I won’t divulge the person’s identity. The only hint: Whomever you just guessed, it’s probably not him … or her … or him.)

Conversation turned, not surprisingly, to politics. The CN&R has editorialized positively toward President Obama, and this particular individual—registered as a Democrat but about as conservative as they come—has serious doubts about the stimulus package and the so-called “redistribution of wealth.” Doubted even more seriously is the purpose of social-welfare programs.

The gist of this person’s opinion: We need to reward effort and entrepreneurship, not give handouts to people who won’t work or make imprudent decisions and have an overriding sense of entitlement.

It’s one thing to support the disabled, which is the right thing to do (“that’s the Democrat in me”). It’s another to send a government check to an alcoholic/addict, or make it beneficial for an unemployed mother to have that ninth or 14th child. Sure, provide health care for everyone … everyone who contributes his or her share, from a sliding scale of deductions off their paychecks.

“Capitalism is the law of the jungle—survival of the fittest.”

Fair enough. Now, the focusing question: “Is that how you want to live?”

Survival of the fittest means those strong enough and combative enough could break into my house and take whatever they wanted without repercussion. Heck, they could take the house. Might makes right—that’s the bottom line in the jungle.

Our society, which this official helps maintain, values more than physical strength and aggression. Key components of capitalist entrepreneurship are innovation and initiative; those come in bodies of all sizes, and lead to advances greater than can be accomplished by brutishness alone.

Besides, we don’t practice pure capitalism, just as China doesn’t practice pure communism. We provide a safety net for our fellow citizens. We don’t force people to fight for their lives. That’s the compassionate thing to do (compassion: not a law of the jungle). But take morality and sentimentality out of the equation—social programs protect your safety and your property.

So, did that discussion change my worldview? No, but it prompted examination … and, then, another challenge. I ask myself: How does compassion jibe with nationalism, empire-building and hegemony? A compelling question for another time.