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Mark Shields: Life’s Lottery and the Importance of Luck

The best indicator of our progress as a whole should be how well we provide for those with too little

Whenever an overly generous soul praises me for my alleged “success,” I thank them and gently remind her (and myself) of the unearned luck of my life.

Consider the following: I was born during the Great Depression, after the nation’s birthrate had reached a new low, and I was one of about 11 people born that same year. This meant that when I graduated from high school, college admissions offices — desperate to fill empty dorms and classrooms — were eagerly recruiting almost anyone who wasn’t under indictment or detox, and maybe some who were.

This also meant that when I got out of college and the Marine Corps, and sought to enter the revered “private sector,” it was the decade of the 1960s, during which the gross national product of the United States was actually doubling — and because there were so few people in my generational cohort, for us lucky ones there were almost more jobs than there were young people to fill them.

Yes, through nothing I ever did or deserved, I was born an American in the United States to smart, loving, funny parents who loved each other and their children, and who expected their kids to do well in school, to go to college and to graduate. Despite rheumatic fever and other childhood diseases, I grew up healthy. Quite simply stated, through nothing I did, I won the lottery!

This all came back to me after I read Pete Wehner’s reaction to one question in the most recent “Trends in American Values: 1987-2012” by the respected Pew Research Center.

First, you should know that Wehner served honorably in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, before becoming director of White House initiatives for President George W. Bush. Take my word for it: Wehner is a good guy who qualifies as an authentic “compassionate conservative” in his commitment to helping those who have not been winners in life’s lottery.

The Pew poll asked respondents if they agreed with the statement, “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” In 1987, when Reagan was president, a big majority of Republicans — 62 percent — agreed that government did in fact have that affirmative responsibility to care for those much less fortunate. But in 2012, barely 40 percent of self-identified Republicans believe that government has the same responsibility toward our fellow Americans. By contrast, 75 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of political independents back the government’s responsibility to intervene.

Wehner wrote: “Taken literally, this question means a solid majority of Republicans” does not believe “government should take care of people who are suffering from dementia, Down syndrome, crippling disease or debilitating war wounds. ... Government has no affirmative duty to care for those who are defenseless, vulnerable, handicapped and have hit hard times through no fault of their own.”

Of course, Republicans, if asked, would overwhelmingly support aid to those wounded in war. But I think the answer reflects two facts of our contemporary culture. First, the question politicians ask and we, voters, answer — “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — is too self-centered and self-absorbed. The question we, citizens, ought to instead ask is: Are we better off? Are the strongest among us more just? Are the weakest among us more secure?

“The measure of our progress,” as a genuinely great American leader reminded us, “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much but whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

The second fact? How truly lucky — that’s right, lucky — we who are able to take care of ourselves actually are.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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