Photo above: The Hertford Bridge in Oxford, England. Used by Permission. © Tom Ley 01302 782837

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Opportunities for the Children

James A. Davids, J.D.
Robertson School of Government
One of my greatest heroes is my deceased paternal grandmother, Theresa Davids. Born and reared in the northeastern Dutch province of Groningen at the beginning of the 20th Century, young Theresa had eight years of formal education before being placed in the house of a rich Dutch farmer where she performed household chores for the farmer’s wife. Such was the life of countless generations of Dutch peasant girls before her, and her likely future included marrying one of the farm hands and starting a family of her own as her husband continued to labor on the farmer’s land.

Such a life, however, was not to be Theresa’s future. She had read about opportunities in the United States, and had heard stories from friends about life in America. At the age of sixteen, Theresa left her parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and the only community she ever knew to live with a second cousin in Chicago. Not knowing a word of English, she attended a church that had one service in Dutch, and from interacting with new friends, she learned English and assimilated into American culture. In church she met her future husband, who ironically had grown up ten miles away from her in Groningen.

Near the end of her life, I asked Grandma Davids why she left her loved ones and traveled to a new hemisphere. In Dutch brogue, she said quite simply that she left her country and family for people not yet born, her future children and their children. Seeing very limited opportunities for her future descendants in the Netherlands, she undertook a hazardous journey to a new land brimming with economic opportunities for those who worked hard and lived frugally.

This story is, of course, not unlike thousands (if not millions) of other stories that could be told by descendants of immigrants to America -- America, the land of opportunity, the “golden door” as inscribed on the statue bearing a torch in New York harbor. The question is whether this “golden door” remains open for future generations.

America has for about 80 years suffered a form of schizophrenia, some preferring security over liberty, and some wanting liberty over security. The welfare state is designed to provide security – pay money to the government and the government provides old age pensions, health care, aid to the poor, and regulations to control products and services provided by others. The liberty state is designed to provide choice – work harder and enjoy more wealth (or not and enjoy less), be more committed to excellence than others and enjoy rewards (or just slide by with minimal effort and avoid recognition). What type of society does America want for its children – equal outcomes with limited opportunities, or great opportunities with limited security in the case of failure?

This important question is, of course, at the heart of the present health care debate as well as tax policy. As society ages, there is an increasing demand for security, particularly for the spiraling cost of health care. Yet, is not this narcissism typical of the “Me Generation” directly contrary to the interests of our posterity? Moreover, since the national government’s primary means of revenue is the income tax, will not raising income tax rates result in stifling ambition? Since the income tax does not tax wealth, but only the income that can lead to wealth, will not an increase in income tax rates simply protect the wealthy at the expense of those who aspire to be wealthy?

Last year I visited Belarus and spoke with many people who loved their country and people. What grieved them most was the general dispirit of the people. Communism with its miles and miles of 14 story apartment buildings, its lack of pay differential between a surgeon and a street sweeper, and its failure to provide rewards for achievement had killed the spirits of Belarusian males, driving them from ambition and adventure to boredom and alcoholism. If there is no prize to reward virtue and hard work, why bother? Karl Marx’s maxim of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” is a theoretical model bound to fail because of the nature of man.

“For the sake of the children” has, of course, become a mantra in defending any government program that in any way deals with children. This argument, however, is limited to only the children immediately and directly benefited (although the greatest benefit, of course, goes to those being paid to give services to the children). It does not take into account the long term effect of tax burdens that choke the entrepreneurial spirits of future generations.

Theresa Davids was a pioneer whose self-denial greatly benefited my father and his siblings, and now their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. America used to be a land of opportunity – one where a person could succeed but also fail. America is changing so that a person has a lesser chance of failure, but also a lesser chance of success. My grandmother left a place where there was limited chance of success. I hope that America returns to become once again attractive to people like my grandmother.

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