Even though seventy-percent of seniors pay less than $500 per year on prescription drugs, our guardians in Washington, D.C., are bent on convincing the American public that our elders face a grave and fearful crisis. Our leaders declare that the problem is one Medicare recipients are helpless to deal with on their own. Unless the federal government steps in to the rescue, our parents and grandparents will -- the politicos maintain -- have to choose between buying food and purchasing the drugs they need to remain healthy...or alive.
Only when each and every retiree is provided with "free" drugs will the gray-haired set rest easy.
(Never mind that this generation is the one that fought World War II. Ignore the fact that seniors -- and especially senior women -- hold most of the wealth in this country. No. They will die unless the compassionate State intercedes on their behalf against the greedy drug and pharmacy industry.)
Helpless, helpless, helpless...
The litany rings insistently and incessantly in our ears.
How did we manage to arrive at such dire straits? Even though we each came into this world helpless and dependent upon others, any person who did not grow out of such a state would be looked upon as abnormal, disgusting, and pitiable. The American ideals and mythos of self-reliance, can-do attitude, initiative and innovation, and perseverance in the face of adversity have had their pristine images pitted and eroded over the past century.
The concept of learned helplessness helps provide us a framework for examining and understanding this phenomenal change in the American character, the psyche that gave us "Yankee ingenuity."
"The crux of learned helplessness is that when one's efforts at control repeatedly fail, not only does one cease trying to cause that particular outcome (helplessness), but one may also actually fail to exert control in some new situation in which control is possible." (Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, Social Cognition, p. 62.)
As Fiske and Taylor explain, people who experience this "learned helplessness" struggle with three problems:
Learned helplessness also dovetails neatly with what is called a "self-fulfilling prophecy." In this case, an individual has certain expectations -- either positive or negative, true or false -- about a person or a situation. He then acts -- or fails to act -- in ways that lead to the outcome he predicted or prophesied.
For example, a student does not believe she can do well in a math class; that she does not possess the talents or skills necessary to succeed in such an environment. Believing it is pointless to try, she does not study very hard, fails to attend class regularly, does not ask questions or do homework. Comes test time and -- lo and behold! -- she fails the course. "See," she cries in self-righteous indignation, "I told you I was no good at math, that I couldn't pass this class."
You can, of course, believe that you will succeed in life and take the necessary steps -- education, hard work, focus, and experience -- that will assist you in actually being successful. Creating --discovering -- the means to reach your ends is essential to flourishing as a person.
(The "power of positive thinking" advice is an example of this. Of course, your "prophecy" or expectations should have some basis in the reality of who you are and the world in which you exist. A five-foot tall man can prophesize all he wants that he can be a center on a pro basketball team. He will, however, be quickly disabused of his illusions. Existence always takes precedence over consciousness.)
This pervasive sense of helplessness is nothing new. Citizens in various societies throughout history have struggled against this debilitating ennui. The more helpless the people feel, the easier it is for their elite to control them. Roman or Chinese, Egyptian or Russian makes no essential difference.
The United States of America is not immune to this progressive disease, either. Who today remembers (as Walter Williams noted in a recent column) that Founder James Madison objected when Congress voted money in 1792 to aid French refugees? That in 1854 President Franklin Pierce would not sign a bill helping the mentally ill on the grounds that "public charity" violates the Constitution? That in 1887 President Grover Cleveland vetoed drought relief for Texas?
Such plaintive pleas from the "helpless" today would make prime time news. Politicians would stampede to be first before the cameras declaring their willingness and ability to deliver the goods. The "victims" would drip tears in grateful appreciation of the extended hand of their beneficent government.
The New Deal and World War II became prime movers in shifting the collective expectations of the American people. The creation of Social Security first induced people into believing they no longer had to act prudently or invest wisely to provide for their retirement. Johnson's "Great Society" accelerated this sorry trend. Eventually, even for those who resisted the Siren call of social "security" benefits, the burden of increasing FICA (and other) taxes made it nearly impossible to set aside enough to care for themselves and their loved ones.
The addition of Medicaid, unemployment benefits, subsidized student and home loans, small business assistance, corporate welfare, daycare and health insurance subsidies... The list of ways the State creates willing dependents and freezes out anyone who would like to provide for himself is depressingly long.
The nationalization of our education system made the State's task even easier. The notion of government as both Mommy and Daddy was and is inculcated at every level of schooling. The propaganda of State supremacy and benevolence rewrites history (see, for example, explanations offered for the Great Depression), suppresses alternatives and opposing viewpoints, and brainwashes children when they are most vulnerable. Each succeeding generation of teachers cultivated in this suffocating environment unquestioningly spout and promote the party line.
(When one of my college students asked, baffled and annoyed, how welfare could possibly exist without government, I realized just how thorough the indoctrination has become.)
In a recent poll, a majority of high school students accept the propriety of gun controls, apparently believing we are helpless to defend ourselves. Protecting us must be left to the State.
The State has convinced millions of Blacks and women that they are so helpless in the face of racists and misogynists. Only affirmative action can liberate them from their oppressors.
The State has persuaded the docile citizens of our country that they are helpless to resist their own addictions. The War on Drugs (and cigarettes and fat and alcohol and caffeine and...?) must be pursued so no one succumbs to cravings they cannot resist.
The State has shown us that we are helpless to deal with our neighbors one-on-one to solve problems. Lawsuits -- not discussion or persuasion -- are the proper method for dealing with disagreements.
Not only are hordes of people convinced that they are helpless to deal with life's challenges and setbacks, they believe assistance from others is their due. This "entitlement mentality" -- of being watched over and cared for from womb to tomb -- reveals what is fundamentally an infantile or childish mental state. Too many adults do not think they can extricate themselves from their predicaments; are unaware of and resistant to learning what would work; and sit slackly before their television sets at night dully wondering, "Is this all there is?"
They become reactive rather than proactive in their lives, afraid to trust in their own judgments. Passivity -- laziness -- is so much easier than exerting effort. Go with the flow, don't resist, don't rock the boat become their mantras. Averse to risk in social issues, they paradoxically may still seek out adventure in their leisure hours.
Dependence and need are celebrated, independence and self-reliance are denounced. (Check out any afternoon talk show.) Environment and genetics become all-encompassing, free-will ignored or ridiculed. If you are truly determined in what you do, who you are, and what you feel by external forces, a sense of helplessness is certainly justified. If you could not have chosen otherwise, then what is the point -- or the use -- in learning about alternatives, in experimenting with new ideas and procedures, in trying something different?
The "helpless" among us no longer speak for themselves but instead tell everyone else how they should live (conveniently ignoring the contradiction inherent in such actions). They view self-responsibility, self-assertion, and personal accountability as anti-social...while simultaneously adopting a problem rather than solution orientation, blaming anyone -- the rich, the whites, the men, the foreigners, the minorities -- anyone but themselves for what happens to them. For themselves, excuses are omnipresent, intentions are all, apologies sufficient to erase their mistakes. (Tobacco and gun lawsuits, censorship, and our president illustrate the issues well.)
"...if personal failure is due to causes perceived as controllable by others, then anger is elicited....If negative outcomes for other people are due to causes perceived as uncontrollable, then pity is elicited." (Miles Hewstone, Causal Attribution, p. 68.)
Those who champion freedom, who refuse to be milk cows for the majority, who demand that their responsibilities, their decisions, their money, and their lives must be respected face outrage, condemnation, and hatred from the "helpless" they support. Competence is occasion for apology, not celebration. Awareness and consciousness are shunned in favor of avoidance and evasion.
Idleness is enshrined into law, productiveness penalized. (Viz France where working overtime can land you in jail and extended vacations are the norm.) Emotions and feelings are elevated above reason and thinking. (Any political campaign demonstrates this principle in spades.)
Too many of our neighbors wallow in attitudes that would land them in jail for child abuse if they treated their offspring in such a manner. Imagine ensuring that your son or daughter never learned how to feed or clothe themselves, never developed the ability to walk or talk, to tell time or tie their shoes, never discovered the joy of reading or singing or riding a bike.
Such stultifying parenting would be not only immoral and illegal, but despicable and demeaning.
How then can otherwise caring, loving, and otherwise responsible adults permit themselves to assume the roles of baby birds squawking for worms when they look to the State?
When someone persists in performing negative actions, it is often helpful to ask what is he gaining in the short run from that ultimately destructive behavior.
The rampant paternalism and mommy-ism prevalent in today's world brings to mind the parable of the feral pigs in the swamp who are gradually seduced and fenced in by a human offering them food. The animals are unaware they are surrendering their freedom -- and ultimately their lives -- for a bit of temporary security.
In evaluating this story, however, it is good to keep in mind a point Nathaniel Branden once made: we are each of us responsible for our lives, whether we or others recognize or acknowledge that fact or not. No one plays the "helplessness game" on a desert island.
As Ayn Rand said, "Independence is the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it -- that no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life -- that the vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another..." (Atlas Shrugged, p. 945.)
Wild pigs can be excused for being taken in by their captor's ruse. Pigs are incapable of making moral choices.
But we can.