Wouldn't it be interesting if, just for a year or two, we could agree not to advocate any program or policy on behalf of other people that we would not want to see implemented for ourselves or our children?
I don't imagine for a minute that it would settle the philosophical differences among us. There would still be liberals and conservatives, advocates of big and small government, pro-lifers and pro-choicers.
But particularly with regard to those programs we advocate to assist those who need assistance, it might be extremely helpful if we adopted the maxim: do unto others as though you were the others.
Take low-income housing. The non- poor among us imagine that we do the poor a favor by giving them neighborhoods whose sole criterion for residency is economic failure. Prove your poverty and you become instantly eligible. Stop being an economic failure, and you have to move.
Is this how we would do it if we were devising a housing program for ourselves? I doubt it. What we would want, I suspect, is the establishment of criteria that would reward our virtues, not just our shortcomings.
Certainly if we were poor we would want low-cost housing made available. But we might find it reasonable to reserve the best of the low-cost housing for those among us who exhibited the best behavior: those who took the best care of the property, who planted flowers or undertook minor repairs on their own or at least saw to it that their children didn't make the place a shambles.
The harder hearts among us might be willing to leave homeless any low- income family that abused its government-subsidized housing. But even the soft touches would (if we were advocating for ourselves) want the chance to earn their way to better, more prestigious, quarters, through decent behavior: both because we, being decent people, deserve it and because it would strike us as a reasonable way to inspire others to decency.
Even such a controversial notion as affirmative action might be usefully modified if we thought of it as designed to help people like ourselves rather than some unlucky fellow for whom we feel only pity.
I know a lot of well-motivated supporters of affirmative action. But I know very few people who would want their own employment, promotion or school attendance based primarily on their sex or ethnicity.
What they want is some assurance that their qualifications, their skills and their potential will not be undervalued because of their race or sex. Don't assume that I can't be a competent cop or engineer or student just because I have had insufficient opportunity, or don't speak like a network anchor or look like your idea of a competent professional. Judge me fairly, even if that means taking an unusually careful look at what I have to offer.
Or take welfare. Most of us would support a program that guaranteed that no matter how rotten our luck, we wouldn't have to face the prospect of starvation. But we would fashion such a program (if we were fashioning it for ourselves) so as to help us through our bad luck and return us as quickly as possible to self-sufficiency.
Even if circumstances beyond our control made full self-sufficiency an unrealistic goal, we would want the chance to do something worthwhile, some way to reassure ourselves that we're worthy of society's helping hand. And we would want some means of distinguishing between fine fellows like ourselves and the deadbeats who, unfortunately, do exist.
We wouldn't want anybody to assume we were deadbeats, of course, which is why we might object to the coercion of "workfare." What we would want (for ourselves) is the opportunity to become self-supporting.
And yet we persist in prescribing for others things we would not want for ourselves or our children -- social promotions, make-work jobs, lowered qualifications -- a whole list of things that add up to just one: Pity.
Devising our programs of assistance as though for ourselves would not end our social problems. But at the very least, it might avoid making them worse, which is a lot better than we are doing now.