The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, as the Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers demonstrates in his recent book, "The Age of Fracture," American public discourse was filled with references to the social circumstances of average citizens, our common institutions and our common history. Over the last five decades, that discourse has changed in ways that emphasize individual choice, agency and preferences. The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.
In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other -- not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become "entitlements," a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.
Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words -- and with them the ideas -- to frame our situation appropriately.
Can we talk about this? Maybe not.
Theodore R. Marmor is a professor emeritus of public policy, and Jerry L. Mashaw is a professor of law, both at Yale. They are co-authors of "America's Misunderstood Welfare State: Persistent Myths, Enduring Realities."
How Do You Say 'Economic Security'?
By THEODORE R. MARMOR and JERRY L. MASHAW
Published: September 23, 2011
Where politicians once drew on the language of people, family and shared social concern, they now deploy the cold technical idiom of budgetary accounting.