A quarter century ago I became a self-initiated convert to classic republicanism and thereafter pursued a graduate program in political theory and published a thesis on Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the “ward” or “elementary” republic.

He sought to create community-sized republics to achieve the classic twin goals of local citizen participation in self-government on a scope and scale where individual participation is possible and to resist corruption of those local republics by money and favored access.

My project was to explore whether the Jefferson ideal could be made to work in a mass democracy of more than 300 million Americans.  I chose three arenas of public policy as a test: public education; security; and public assistance or “welfare.”

Almost from the outset of the American Republic public education had been placed under the purview of local citizen school boards.  (Not having read Jefferson or cared to, those now in power want to privatize local public education.) From World War II on, national security had been the responsibility of a new Department of Defense, that is until 9/11 and domestic terrorist attacks brought out America’s first line of defense, the National Guard, as principle defenders of the homeland.  (My thesis pre-dated 9/11 and, to the amazement of my thesis adviser, predicted something like it.)

Which left public assistance or welfare, since the age of Roosevelt a national responsibility.

All this was brought to mind by a heart-warming story this week.  A young woman ran out of gas on a secondary highway in New Jersey at night. She started out to walk to a service station but was stopped by a bearded homeless man who instructed her to return to her car and lock the doors.

After a time, the man returned with a can of gasoline for which he had paid with his last twenty dollars.  Deeply moved, the young woman returned the following night with her boy friend and repaid the twenty dollars.  Her guardian angel was at his usual place and revealed that he was a former combat Marine with experience as a helicopter rescue crewman.  He was homeless and unemployed.

The young woman set up a website with her story, asked for small dollar contributions, and announced a goal of $10,000.  In short order she raised more than $300,000 and contributions continue thereafter.

One wonders how many of those contributors supported candidates committed to serious reductions in federal public assistance programs, some of which are directly related to homeless veterans.

There are many instances of those who oppose “big government” welfare programs who, nonetheless, often (though not always) are moved to provide financial relief for real-life need at the local level.

There is nothing to prevent a national program of relief for those in need of food, medicine, housing, and a hand up, with national standards adjusted to local circumstances, but one administered under national guidelines by local people who are familiar with local neighbors in need.  A number of human relief programs are premised on this principle.  Mal-administration can readily be exposed by local press outlets.  Local taxpayers can see their neighbors in need receiving humanitarian help and their tax dollars visibly lifting human spirits.

The story of the young woman and the homeless veteran dramatically illustrates the point.  Some among us will always be on the side of Ebenezer Scrooge.  But for most of us we must believe that those in need, particularly in our towns and neighborhoods, are decent people who just deserve a break and a helping hand.

If you believe in human kindness, as I do, responsible citizens, such as those who contributed to the unemployed Marine, will share their blessings with those who are not blessed and their communities, and their souls, will be better for it.

2 Responses to “Kindness and the Small Republic”

  1. Neil McCarthy Says:

    Don’t current “welfare politics” refute your notion that relief can be funded through, as it were, a thousand (Jeffersonian) points of light? Right now, liberals in blue metro areas are much more in favor of relief than conservatives in red ones, and under your suggestion, wouldn’t those conservative simply act on their impecunious impulses? Or is your point that relief is much more likely when it has a known face and a named recipient attached to it? Even then, however, how would we deal with any stigma issues? We live in a country where being poor is not considered cool and is often — wrongly — considered a matter of personal (ir)responsibility rather than luck (especially the luck of having been born into the right socio-economic class). Do the poor really want their neighbors knowing they are poor?

    Maybe I’m just channeling my Catholic background. In the mid-’60s, when I was 10, my parents separated. That was still taboo in our religion, and when we moved down the street to grandma’s, all the kids kept asking me why. I invented reasons to avoid having to disclose the real one. Anyway, I’d hate to be the poor guy or gal running into the local neighborhood welfare administrator stuck on personal responsibility. Sometimes anonymity is a blessing.

    One more point on the perils of local “moralist”s. We allowed “moralists” to run welfare once before (with the man in the house rule) and that didn’t work out so well.

    Finally, what do you think Daniel Patrick Moynihan would have thought of your proposal? It seems to me that, with his proposed cash GAI (guaranteed annual income), he liked the notion of anonymity.

  2. Paul G Says:

    HUMBLE, HONORABLE STATESMAN HART: Happy 48th!

    Principles of kindness’ enduring spiritual benefits are illustrated in the Good Book’s parade of stories.

    Like a new testament hero, our honorable host offers us a not only a principled guide for our secular benefit but a glimmer of hope through the story of enormous sacrifice by a homeless marine and the resulting better angels of our nature’s higher calling.

    Like a shepherd leading us through our awful fog of wars and recrimination, Statesman Gary Hart still suffers our relentless trolling media wolves to stand like a rock on our hard-earned principles of an educated, free and prosperous citizenry.

    Still feeling like a 48-year-old: Happy 81st!

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