Just a Simple Wish?

Chicago celebrates (or at least marks, for there was little dancing or drinking to commemorate the event so far as I could tell) Jane Addams day on December 13. (I’m guessing Addams would not have approved of dancing or drinking anyway.) Jane Addams was the turn-of-the-last-century “reformist” busy body whose “Settlement Houses” were allegedly designed to deal with urban poverty. For about 10 years from the late 1890s through about 1905 or so, much of what Addams proposed was enacted into policy, locally, and considered at the level of the federal government. (This according to Robert Nelson, author of Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics.) I doubt Jane Addams would have approved of drinking as a celebration anyway.

I only know that December 13 was Jane Addams day because there was on an advert on a Red Line train, complete with a quote:

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.

Is this conventional wisdom? Merely the hopeful yearnings of someone who thinks we should all live for each other rather than for ourselves? Or is there something more to this? I think there’s something more. The likes of Jane Addams, who have the ears of legislators who can enact “reforms” into law and make them happen, do not merely sigh and fancifully wish the world should be a better place. I have a few questions:

  1. What is this “good” and who gets to say what it is?
  2. What does it mean to secure, and how far does the person making this sentiment feel she is entitled to go to secure that good? After all, this good is “precarious and uncertain” unless it pertains to all of us. That’s a fairly urgent justification for compulsion.
  3. What does “incorporated” mean in this instance? Do I get a say in how much — or how little — I incorporate or am incorporated? And what is the “common life” anyway?
  4. Do I ever get to say “no” to any of these things? Am I allowed? What is the speaker entitled or empowered to do if I want neither this good nor any share in this common life?

I think the last century of life in the United States shows that there is no saying “no” to the welfare/warfare state — that is, after all, what Addams was pining for when she sighed about the “common life.” This “common life” is life in, with and under the state, and there is no choice about being a citizen of an Enlightenment-industrial state. The state, after all, can and will shoot you if don’t want to play.

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