An Observation About Bootstraps

In the conservative lexicon, ownership is good, and there's no dirtier word than entitlement. Throughout this endless Republican primary, the idea that entitlement programs like Social Security and universal healthcare (to which we unfortunately do not have anything close, despite the caterwauling about "Obamacare") are THE WORST and individualism and self-governance are THE BEST has been a rather prominent theme, because BOOTSTRAPS.

Which are the thingies conservatives wave around to distract our attention primarily from the existence of privilege and prejudice, but also from the reality that entitlement programs are not, actually, the "wealth redistribution" programs they assert them to be. To hear conservatives tell it, entitlement programs are some kind of wealth-punishing equalizer, as opposed to components of a fraying safety net that is often the only thing keeping low- or no-wage earners from falling off the edge.

I'll leave aside for now the tropes about the legions of straw-people who could be earning a livable wage at an awesome job but inexplicably choose not to work, living high on the hog off our generous welfare system. Suffice it to say, that is abject nonsense, and being poor is one of the most difficult things to be in this country. Poverty is not for lazy people.

My present concern is with the working poor, and the way they are regarded by the architects of the Ownership Society.

Those men—and they are indeed almost all men, most of whose lives have been dictated by inherent privilege and family connections, which we're not meant to note while admiring their shiny bootstraps—believe quite firmly, and without seemingly a trace of irony or compunction, that one gets what one deserves in life. From the imposing height of their handsomely recompensed sinecures, they will assert with the particular condescending authority bestowed only by unearned success that, with a little hard work, anyone can be a productive member of their magnificent Ownership Society.

Now, I don't feel inclined to get into a whole Marxist discussion about the means of production here, but what these insufferable, vainglorious, classist captains of self-aggrandizing bullshit seem never to grasp, or possibly just acknowledge, is that if you want to live in a capitalist society that gives you the opportunity to get nasty rich, then we can't all be wealthy. And if you want to be the kind of person who doesn't pump your own gas, or make your own sandwiches, or clean your own house, or manicure your own fingernails, or drain your own dog's anal glands, or build your own car elevator, then there are going to have to be people who fill all those jobs.

And most of those professional, hard-working people will put in at least 40 hours a week, or more, and even still, many of them won't be given healthcare benefits, and many of them won't earn enough money to feed a family, and many of them won't be able to save as much as they'll need for their retirement.

People who honorably dedicate their time, energy, and talents to jobs that might not pay well are indeed entitled to something—to not work their whole lives only to find themselves poverty-stricken, or hungry, or homeless after one small (or not small) medical crisis. And if we're not going to ensure that every job comes with a livable wage, access to affordable healthcare, and retirement benefits, then we've got to provide a robust and well-funded social safety net.

I don't think that's asking for much, in exchange for a lifetime of providing service to their chosen vocation.

Though I grant it's certainly easier to scream BOOTSTRAPS! and carelessly assert that people who don't have everything they need just aren't trying hard enough.

Funny how the Grand Advocates of Hard Work are always the ones making the easy arguments.

[Originally published in similar form January 26, 2011.]

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