It was my first election and I was a registered Democrat. As a young, single woman attending college in Boulder, Colorado, no one was surprised that my choice for president was the Governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. To be honest, I was a bit to the left of the governor. I looked longingly at Europe where students attended college for free. I was smitten with the idea of free health care, free tuition, high taxation and cradle to grave care. Europeans seemed so enlightened and compassionate. Americans, by contrast, seemed stingy and backward.
My favorite soap box talk was about the plight of the poor and how the government needed to solve the problem. I spared no one the benefit of my opinion. Eventually, however, I turned that critical eye inward. While walking to work one day I asked myself, “What have you done for the poor?” The answer, a single word, felt like an anvil had fallen from the sky. Nothing. Though I said I cared, I had done nothing. I had expected, even demanded, someone else be my brother’s keeper.
Although it’s been two decades, that distinct moment is frozen like a photograph my mind –the blanched winter sunlight, the grey sidewalk, the red brick building to my right, and the muted sound of traffic. It was the moment I stopped talking and started doing. I would no longer outsource my compassion.
The journey did not end there. Travels to some thirty countries on five continents effectively killed my crush on socialism. I now understand that the only free lunch is one with strings attached, or more often, a hook, line, and sinker. Countries that subsidize college tuition track students so that those deemed less able never set foot on campus. Countries with socialized medicine ration care and patients wait in line and sometimes die there. Countries with high taxation and cradle to grave care have low economic growth and little social mobility. The rich stay rich and poor stay poor for there is little freedom to succeed or to fail.
Here in America, I learned to recognize the hypocrisy of politicians who demonstrate their concern for suffering by giving away other people’s money. Walled off in their suburban neighborhoods, the politicians never see the unintended consequences of the programs they create. While living in the inner-city I saw what happens when the government removes the consequences of personal choices and diminishes the dignity and liberty of individuals. The effect is like an opiate.
Nearly a quarter of century has passed since I voted for Dukakis. Much has changed. The national debt has grown from $2.6 trillion to $16 trillion ($5 trillion in the last four years alone). The number of Americans dependent on government programs is at an all-time high. Though the trajectory of entitlement spending is untenable, many politicians refuse to consider reform. They incite the population to envy their neighbors so they can raise taxes to the sound of applause. After all, if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can count on Paul’s vote.
This election I find myself missing the illusions of that young college student at election time. Heady with thoughts of hope and progress, I had not a single worry about my country. My love affair with European political economic systems seemed quite justified. No rioting in Greece to cause my heart to doubt. That was life before I asked myself a single uncomfortable question. Cognitive dissonance is like a splinter in the mind; it can’t be ignored.