How do you explain deprivation to a society that has had everything for the last fifty years? But it is important to understand deprivation; because it is, in essence, what drove the creation, rise and dominance of America.
My parents never really explained it to me even though they lived through it – the Great Depression of 1929-33 – but you got a hint about it in the way they conducted themselves. They scratched their way up from nothing and they appreciated all that they had. And even though my parents became a part of the great Middle Class, their lifestyle was glamorous in comparison to my grandmother – and the same goes true when I asked my wife about her grandparents and great grandparent growing up in north central Montana. My grandmother was left penniless when my grandfather walked out on her and moved to the Dakotas. She had a son – my father – but no skills. She was so poor that she had to farm my father out to another family so that she could work as a cook at one of the ranches in eastern Montana – it was what her father, after migrating from Scotland through the Falkland Island, did before her – a camp cook. My grandmother lived in a log cabin with dirt floors with a piece of linoleum laid over the dirt – she had indoor plumbing but an outdoor toilet. Even after she was able to retire on her social security and move to Miles City she lived in a one-room house off an alley. There was neither opportunities nor choices for her. It was work on the ranches or die.
My father had to quit high school for a year so that he could work as a dishwasher and save enough money to live on while he finished high school. He was smart – a fact that he probably did not appreciate until well after high school. He married, got a job as bookkeeper for a local merchant, and in quick succession had three children. He had neither the time nor the resources to gain an education beyond high school – they didn’t have the myriad of programs to assist the poor in those days. Initially, we lived in an apartment house adjacent to the railroad tracks – it was one bedroom with a sleeping porch which was OK during most of the year but winters in eastern Montana regularly charted minus degree temperatures – think Minnesota without the humidity.
When my father finally realized he was smart, he engaged in home study to first become a certified public accountant and then a lawyer – he never was able to attend college. And all the while he worked, and saved, and did without so that his children could get an education. We rose to a decidedly middle class family living in a small town. In between work, home study and raising a family, my father served the community. He was a city alderman and city attorney. He helped resurrect the Miles City Club and helped establish an art museum. And he was always wary of being hungry again – of losing everything and being back to washing dishes for scraps. The deprivation of his childhood was never far from his thoughts.
And with each succeeding generation the fear of deprivation fades. My sister, brother and I all graduated from high school, college and law school. There were no luxuries, no cars upon graduation, no spring breaks in Cabo, no credit cards, and no unlimited checking accounts. (Cell phones, computers and social media had not yet been invented.) We all worked each summer for the spending money we would need for the ensuing year, and when that money was gone so was our discretionary spending. Upon graduation from college I received a handshake from my father and encouragement that law school would be even harder. And when I graduated from law school I received a brief case to begin my career as a lawyer. None of us experienced deprivation but we were all cognizant that the result of failure would likely mean deprivation – there was no returning home to live in the basement.
Our children never experienced deprivation. In fact, we did our level best to shield them from the trials and tribulations of life. They never saw the doubt and uncertainty my wife and I experienced as I changed careers, moved farther from our familiar Montana and faced the capricious decisions that accompanied management changes in our corporation. They never saw us stand in the kitchen worrying about whether we would have a job the following day and what we might do if we didn’t. We still wonder whether we did our children any favors by shielding them from these periods of distress. But like most parents we wanted something better for our children – not just materially but also emotionally – a period free of worry, stress and want. And that put us in league with virtually every parent that we knew.
There are several points to be made here.
First, deprivation is not just doing without. Deprivation is facing the existential point in your life – do this or die. You don’t have to experience deprivation yourself but you do have to understand it. Understand it at the level where the next choice means living or dying.
Second, deprivation is a significant driver toward success*. It is woven into the fabric of our nation. Many immigrants arrived on our shores because of deprivation in their home country. And when they landed they still faced deprivation. Arriving was only half of the battle. But in America, deprivation was most often accompanied by opportunity. And even when the opportunity was seized, the taste of deprivation was never far behind. It drove settlers west into an unknown wilderness. It drove those without to challenging jobs from which they grew. It was the foundation from which Americans challenged the future, the science, the status quo. And each succeeding wave of immigrants faced the same challenges and most met the challenge because along with the deprivation there was opportunity.
Third, while the modern welfare state has eased the burden of deprivation it has not eliminated it. The plight of the poor and those confined to the ghetto are not solvable unless you understand the helplessness of a life without choices. Welfare is not a choice; it is the “new plantation” and the only difference between it and deprivation is that you are not likely to die. As always the way out is opportunity – not increased welfare.
I say all of this because we are facing our first serious movement toward socialism in over half a century. We face it in large part because the recognition of deprivation caused by socialism (Russia, China, Viet Nam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, etc.) appears to have faded – they are certainly not taught in our public schools. And thus the false promises of socialism – economic equality – appeal not so much to those facing deprivation but more to those who have not gained what they believe to be their “right.” It is not opportunity they seek, rather it is the result – a guarantee of economic equality. The end result of socialism is often economic equality for the masses – poverty – with untold riches for the few that lead the socialist government.
Regardless, of the outcome of this election, the false prophets of socialism –mostly found in the Democrat Party – will be the major challenge for the next decade. While Mr. Trump can declare that we will never be a socialist nation, unless he can once again unleash the economic growth that has led to lower unemployment, higher wages and greater opportunity, the press for socialism will continue – only opportunity can repel socialism. Should Mr. Biden be elected he will have to withstand unparalleled pressure to hasten the march toward socialism by his own party and we know how that will end.
More than anything else, the unrelenting press towards socialism is the major challenge. Are the people we have sent to Congress up to resisting its cosmetic allure? For those of us who are grandparents and great grandparents it’s probably time to sit with our succeeding generations and talk seriously about deprivation and what it really means.
*You may ask why if deprivation drove success in America, why wouldn’t the same be true of deprivation under socialism. The difference is because opportunity abounded in America and there was never an armed government blocking your path to pursuing that opportunity.