A mutual friend told me about your book. Congratulations. I doubt I can offer anything to the conversation that hasn’t already been said, but perhaps it’s a good thing to retread the well-worn halls. Nothing like looking at portraits of your ancestors for inspiration. Saying a few things that have been said before. Raising a few issues that concern me, and others.
I’m delighted for everyone involved in all the innovation that happens today. It’s been a lifetime of incredible change for me, but the young people I know–some, not all–seem to be adrift. Aristotle complained of the same thing, if I recall correctly. Perhaps it’s not new.
Traditions, I think it needs to be said, endure because they have a certain intrinsic value to people as individuals and society as a whole. Cast too many of them aside, and you have nothing to reach out to. Nothing to hold on to. Nothing to hand over to the next generation. Life can be bumpy. The familiar can be sturdy.
I’m old enough to be comfortable with candor. There are a couple of misconceptions out there today. One is that we’re a dull bunch, wearing the same clothes our parents wore, being reserved in public, and often in private. Working at our professions or tending to our gardens or attending our events. Driving old cars and turning a New England fisheye to anything new. The truth is we have a lot of fun. We laugh until our throats are on fire, talk until midnight, and listen to music that might surprise you. We just don’t do it in public.
The second misconception is that we don’t care about other people. We do. There’s just a limit to what a wealthy person can do for a working class or low-income person. We can pay taxes, which most of us do, quite legally, because we simply don’t want a problem with the Internal Revenue Service. It’s poor form and never ends well. We hold public offices when we’re so inclined. If we run a business, we employ people. We give to charity. Taking all of our money through exorbitant taxes won’t solve anything. Initiative will simply be destroyed. Money will go elsewhere. Corruption will run rampant, and nobody will be better off.
The government is in charge of the general welfare. Churches and charities lend a hand, but the bulk of the responsibility falls to public institutions and the people who staff them. I hear even some of our group talk about ‘getting back to limited government’. It was never limited, not since FDR. So many of us made money on government contracts. The hypocrisy needs to stop. We have labor laws and environmental laws that make life very good for everybody. Social security and unemployment assistance are beneficial. We have a big country and a big government.
However, education and ethics are key here. If the people who work in these institutions lack formal education and a sense of integrity, these institutions fail in their mission. Years ago, young men of our class went into pubic service. There was no money in it. There was no really future in it, in terms of ambition. It was done out of a sense of duty. Sometimes it was a career. Sometimes the decision was made after a period of time in commercial or professional work. The person had an aptitude for administration, or public policy expertise, and they did their part.
One of the things I miss about that time is the absence of greed. Money had been inherited, or made, and that was enough. Public service wasn’t about handing financial favors to friends. There was also a distanced approach to recognition. It was given to others, but held back for oneself. Doing a good job was enough.
‘Enough’ is a concept I miss. Restraint, modesty, courtesy. Traditions. I’m optimistic most of the time. I see small colonies of them: tweedy, khaki’d, penny-loafing, penny-pinching, literate, and hard-working. I hope they carry the day. – Allegra