Thanksgiving. It is the quintessential American holiday. At the conclusion of the harvest season, we gather together to take stock of the good. In the words of George Washington, it is set aside “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”
With fury and noise throughout the world and domestically, there is something to be said for focusing on the positives. They are many.
If you’re reading this, we can safely assume you are literate. In the early 1600s, when the first Thanksgiving was celebrated, nearly 50 percent of British citizens couldn’t read; the number was closer to 75 percent for Germans, French, and Italians. Technology and education have democratized access to information. Through the internet, you can view more information with less effort than Albert Einstein, Catherine the Great, or St. Thomas Aquinas could ever have during their lives.
Despite what that democratized information might lead you to believe — whether hype from terrorist attacks, shootings, or strife in the Middle East — we are living in the most peaceful period of human existence. Ever. The likelihood of any individual dying to intentional human violence is at its historical perigee.
And when it comes to disease, we have all but eradicated polio and malaria; smallpox is no more. HIV, cancer, heart disease — all are maladies which humans have made remarkable progress on treating.
Other health problems are driven, not by scarcity as faced by our forebearers, but rather abundance. Obesity is a challenge we face because our production of calories has outpaced our need for them. This is exacerbated by sedentary lifestyles; we utilize machinery rather than manpower to accomplish countless things.
This doesn’t mean everything is perfect. But it is important to look at things in relation to our history. No matter your status or station in life, this is a great time to be alive, especially as an American. Even worldwide, the percentage of people living in true poverty — lacking basic necessities — is at the lowest it has ever been.
From this fortune and abundance, we can look to meet moral imperatives. Food, shelter, water, warmth — no matter what time period a person is born to, these are always basic needs. Ensuring others have access to them is a moral responsibility. How to do so is a political question.
Domestically, our hodgepodge of social programs tries to meet these needs. We require unemployment insurance to provide resources should someone lose employment. We offer food stamps to ensure basic nutritional requirements are met. We’ve instituted Social Security to prevent retirees from going destitute as they age out of the workforce.
Those examples just scratch the surface. There are literally hundreds of other programs and tax credits available in the public sector. And in the charitable realm? Between human service and religious organizations, Americans gave away more than $160 billion; overall giving topped $390 billion.
Countless arguments will continue to rage back and forth over how to best accomplish these goals. Should we use the power invested in government to compel the contribution of resources to meet the need? Should we rely upon individual morality to acknowledge the right thing to do, voluntarily contributing time and treasure? These are big questions.
One idea is to eliminate all the social programs — unemployment, Social Security, food stamps — and reimbursable tax credits, and instead provide every American a simple stipend sufficient to meet those basic needs. There is beauty in its simplicity. It eliminates welfare cliffs. Every dollar you make will make you better off, incentivizing work and the dignity which comes with a job.
The challenge becomes defining a “need.” A television? Internet access? Cell phone? Car? Movies? If we define it based upon a certain standard of living, things will continually be in flux.
So maybe we take some inspiration from that first Thanksgiving and have some clarity of purpose. Ensuring everyone has food, warmth, and shelter is a noble goal and a starting point; if we achieve it, we can go from there. Because of our good fortune to live at a remarkable time in human history, it is likely doable with work and focus.
And that is a great reason to celebrate Thanksgiving and acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”