A retired minister whom I like and respect recently sent me comments from Black Panther founder Bobby Seale: "We have a spiritual and moral problem in America. Our problem is not economic or political, it is that we do not care about each other." This sorry condition of not caring for others has political economy antecedents and causes. Let's consider them.
Group identities, e.g. white, black, heterosexual, gay, etc., have become more important than an individual's personal characteristics in our political culture. For example the Democratic Party stresses group membership. And increasingly, governments transfer and allocate wealth and privileged opportunities among group members. Alas, there is no objective way to judge the fairness of these allocations. This causes many problems.
Group leaders such as Jesse Jackson have strong incentives to identify and deprecate other groups while claiming the political game is rigged. (And it always is, usually in favor of the wealthiest and often to the long-term detriment of poor welfare recipients. Think Indian reservations and hillbilly enclaves.)
Once the political system becomes the distributor of benefits more than a creator of well-being achieved by fairly applying the rule of law and providing public goods (public health, security, research) civility and trust decline. When the transition from a productive to a transfer society is accepted, the fight is on. The Black Panthers were an extreme example, Black Lives Matters a milder current one.
These painful dynamics are most obvious in highly diverse societies. The homogenous cultures of the Nordic countries foster trust and concern for others. That's why until recently their social welfare systems worked so well.
In general, religion, national origins, and race become inconsequential when citizens share a common civic culture. Further, transactions become easier as monitoring costs decline--which they do with common and shared expectations for behavior.
Here is a suggestion for well intended, compassionate people living in our complex, variegated, and parasitic society. It won't quickly fix our problems but it may provide psychological unguent and will suggest policy reforms. Read Matt Kibbe's 2014 book, Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff.
For decades I've thought and written about the problems of political predation that so bothered Bobby Seale. Living in a community where trust is the norm and governments are just is a blessing I cherish. Had Seale had lived in such a community it is less likely he would have killed and threatened people and landed in prison.
Here are a few paragraphs from my recent essay on trust in a community.
This past Thanksgiving week demonstrated benefits of living in our trusting community. I'll describe one event and ask what characteristics foster such trust.
On the eve of Thanksgiving I picked up some timbers from a small sawmill about 40 miles west of Gallatin Gateway. We have a construction project on our ranch and we needed some seasoned Doug fir timbers.
I didn't know the mill owner but an old friend, Joe Wagner, hauled logs to him. Joe told me that in addition to conventional lumber such as 2 x 6s, the owner would also cut custom beams. I called in my order for 9 x 12s 18 feet long and spoke to the mill owner, Corey Gray. I've not yet met him.
I needed beams cut from standing dead seasoned Doug fir. Green wood wouldn't do for it shrinks and twists. Mine was an unusual order. It would be ready by Thanksgiving.
I arrived at the mill--but no one was there. I called Corey's cell phone but no answer. Bundles of boards and stacks of cut timbers were stacked around the saw carriage house. I hunted around and found my order, naturally the only 9" x 12"s 18 feet long in the yard. Beams this size are heavy requiring a front loader to load them. Was my trip wasted?
I was about ready to drive off when a middle-aged pick up and driver pulled in the yard. The driver said: "He must be gone", referring to Corey. Given my truck and trailer it was obvious I was there to pick up a load of something. "What you here for?" he asked. I pointed to my timbers. He didn't ask my name.
The man who pulled in said nothing but walked to a Fiat-Allis 945 loader tractor. He started it, drove to my timbers, picked them up and carried the timbers to my trailer and carefully sat them down. He concluded with this: "They'll know you got them when seeing them gone".
This account shows a collage of trust among people who don't know one another but share a culture and community. Here are some of the pieces in that collage. I trusted a mill owner I don't know to cut needed timbers from seasoned logs. He trusted me to accept these odd sized timbers and not leave them. The man who drove into the mill yard trusted me to identify my timbers and then pay for them.
The operational presumption of all involved in this recent account was that members of our community DON'T HURT PEOPLE AND DON'T TAKE THEIR STUFF. This Christian, Jewish, and libertarian manifesto fosters responsible liberty, sustainable ecology, and widening prosperity. Being a patient optimist, I sense a growing constituency for this manifesto.