Americans need more ‘can do’

Watching the political process play out is more discouraging each election cycle. Even the freshest faces in the field eventually descend to the level that handlers and pollsters tell them they must in order to win: criticizing other candidates in the same party (many of whom they’ll have to work with later if they win); blaming the current administration or the opposing party for all of society’s ills; demonizing half the country; and promising the other half of everything for free.

And the excuses. Oh, the excuses that we hear for why we have problems.

The greatest problem facing the United States today is the disappearance of the can-do attitude that built the country. Some call it the “entrepreneurial spirit” or the “American dream,” but at its core, it is simply an attitude that every problem has a solution, and the determination to find or create it.

We’ve lost the sense of individual responsibility for our problems, and that’s bad enough. But what’s worse, we’re losing faith in our ability to solve our problems. This acquired sense of helplessness is catastrophic, and it has paralyzed large swaths of the American public — rural, urban and suburban.

Our most recent outrage was “rat-infested” Baltimore. All over the media, we’ve seen footage of buildings in disrepair, piles of rotting trash, rodents running amuck and residents calling for government help. Here’s a question: What would be done if there were no government to rely upon? Would neighbors band together and clean up the trash and messes that attract vermin? Would they rebuild decaying buildings? Or would they just live in squalor forever?

Encouraging dependence upon government not only creates generations of helpless people, it inures them to government’s ineffectiveness. Once government gets involved, the costs of doing anything skyrocket. Layers of bureaucracy hamper citizens’ ability to solve their own problems without this permitor that license. Endless meetings take place to discuss countless studies. Eventually, those who discuss solutions become more important than those who produce them.

The focus on government as societal savior also feeds the illusion of one-size-fits-all solutions, which inevitably fail. Why? Because what’s needed to improve educational outcomes in rural Appalachia, for example, will not be the same as what’s needed in south central Los Angeles or the border regions of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

“But these problems take huge sums of money!” everyone cries. “They require federal intervention and massive taxes!”

That’s a popular — and expensive — falsehood. We’ve spent anywhere between $15 and $22 trillion (depending upon who you ask) on the War on Poverty, and yet we have approximately the same percentage of people below the poverty line as we did when President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation in 1964. If that amount of money didn’t eliminate poverty, then clearly, money is not the solution.

People’s belief in their ability to solve their own problems enables them to devise solutions that work for them. If lessons can be learned, adopted and applied to other regions and populations, great. But these success stories are always bottom-up, not top-down.

Even smaller cities prove government’s ineffectiveness. Austin, Texas, has approximately 2,000 people living on the street in any given year. Advocates insist that the city needs to spend $30 million annually to successfully combat homelessness. But Austin spent $33 million in 2018, and officials still complained that there were insufficient resources.

By contrast, consider the privately funded Community First Village. Texas residents Alan and Tricia Graham started the housing program for the city’s homeless in east Austin three years ago with an idea and one $5,000 RV. Now the 27-acre farm houses 170 formerly homeless men and women in dozens of RVs and “micro-home housing.”

Community First Village is funded by donations. But the problem facing the homeless isn’t lack of money, Alan Graham says; it is “a profound and catastrophic loss of family.” Meeting residents’ personal needs one at a time has enabled Community First Village to succeed and expand. It will soon be able to provide residences for 500 individuals — roughly 40% of the city’s homeless. State and national publications are heralding the Grahams’ program as a national model.

That’s what I’m talking about.

I would love for a political candidate to say in a debate, “You all don’t need me. You don’t need the Republican or Democratic Party. You don’t need the president of the United States, Congress or the Supreme Court. What you need to solve the problems in your area is you — stepping up to the plate, figuring out what needs to be done and doing it.”

We’d be a stronger country for it.

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Laura Hollis is a Creators Syndicate columnist and a teacher of business law and entrepreneurship who holds faculty appointments at the Mendoza College of Business and the Law School at the University of Notre Dame.

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