Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics


Souls and Bellies: Why I am a Progressive

Yesterday, Cassandra asked about the source of the quote in my sig line. I had already written an article on Yahoo Voices, but I retained rights to republish, so here it is:

Rabbi Israel Salanter once said:

“Most people worry about their own bellies and other peoples’ souls, when we all ought to worry about our own souls and other peoples’ bellies”

To me, this is the essence of progressivism: Your soul is not my business but your belly may be.

Part One: Bellies

But why must the government do this? Why not rely on individual charity?

When most people lived in small towns or villages, everyone knew their neighbors. People knew who was hungry and who was not. Even so, charity often failed. Sometimes, as in times of famine, no one in the local community had enough to share and everyone starved. Other times the hungry person was a member of some group that was stigmatized. In different places, different groups were stigmatized, but there were usually some groups that were.

Today, with more and more people living in huge cities, many people do not know their neighbors. If someone is hungry, we may not know; and if someone is begging, we do not know if that begging is legitimate. There certainly are organized charities that attempt to ameliorate some of this problem, but they have too few resources and are not always able to reach everyone. There is a food pantry near where I live in New York City, and I donate to them. But they can’t reach all the hungry people; and they can’t provide other necessities of life such as shelter or clothing, and they aren’t open every day.

The only organization large enough to organize efforts to feed and shelter the poor is the government. Therefore, I support government efforts to do so, and I am willing to pay taxes to enable the government to do so. I go further: Not only do I think no one should be hungry or homeless, I think people should have the opportunity to be educated, and so I support public education and am willing to pay taxes to do that.

And further, I am concerned about pollution because I take a broad view of “belly”. I think it includes lungs. Air pollution harms people’s lungs, so it is a legitimate concern of mine and of my government’s.

Part Two: Souls

On the other hand, I do not think your soul is my business, much less the government’s business. If what you are doing does me no harm, nor harms others, then it is not and should not be the government’s business. As Thomas Jefferson said

It does me no harm for my neighbor to believe in many gods or no god. It neither robs my pocket nor breaks my leg

This applies equally well, I think, to such issues as gay marriage. It does me no harm. Some people will claim that it is morally wrong; that it is forbidden by the Bible or the Koran. That may be. I will not argue that point (although certainly some Jews, Christians and Muslims will argue about that). But it does me no harm. It neither robs my pocket nor breaks my leg. It may (or may not) be about your soul, but it is not about my soul; thus, it is not my concern or that of my government’s. (Beyond cases where I know the people involved, in which case I wish them happiness).

This quote from Salanter does not cover the whole of the progressive-conservative split. But it does a remarkably good job of covering it.