There are, of course, many theories explaining how humans obtained the upper hand in the never ending battle of evolution. Certainly a key component in human (and pre-human) success had to be teamwork, which later, as more complex human emotions developed, manifested as compassion. Where in the evolutionary cycle actual emotional compassion occurred is not relevant to this discussion; regardless, it is hard to imagine the success of the human race without people caring for one another. (Much archeological evidence of compassion exists, such as when the fossilized bones of an obviously crippled “cave person” provide evidence that this person was cared for by members of its family or tribe.) Whether working together to hunt, gather, protect or survive, no doubt group effort and its emotional counterpart, compassion, has existed for a long time—most likely in abundance.
Fast forward to today. If our emotional makeup is different from our early human ancestors, it is probably not by much. We are very much hard wired to feel compassion for other humans. Of course individual exceptions exist—even without the extreme examples of sociopaths and psychopaths—and much wartime cruelty evidences the wide range of human emotion and behavior; but by any account, the modern human world abounds in great and plentiful compassion.
But here’s the rub. As humankind has built successful societies, societies have centralized themselves into large and strong governments. And more recently, for example in the united states (lower case intended) since Roosevelt’s New Deal, government has increasingly been called upon as the primary vehicle for the eradication of suffering. This would be well and good if there were limits on what the U.S. government could do; or rather, if there were limits that were respected and followed. Without limits, the government can tax as much, spend as much, and borrow as much as it sees fit. Rarely are overtaxing, overspending or overborrowing good, but all appear completely justified to many people, even over many decades, as long as they are done in the name of compassion.
So here we are, rounding the turn with speed at $17 trillion in national debt. (See http://www.usdebtclock.org/ for the latest frightening view.) This should concern you. If it does not, consider that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is approximately the same size (at just north of $16 trillion) as the national debt (which is closing in on $18 trillion) and that one of them is growing at 2% and the other at 4%. (I’m sure you know which is growing faster.) Despite observations that the economy is in recovery and tax revenues are up handsomely, it is hard even for the most optimistic to conjure up a scenario where these percentages flip, that is, where the growth in GDP is larger than the growth in the national debt. (This is likely not even remotely possible given the abandon with which congress continues to spend.) So, if the national debt continues to grow faster than GDP, it is an inevitable conclusion that there will be a point at which the income of the government (or the country) is unable to repay the national debt. Whether by default or inflation (which is the usual path of governments), things get ugly. Really ugly.
If none of this concerns you, please check Wikipedia for “Weimer Republic” or “hyperinflation”. (If this is news to you, before you start reading, please sit in a comfortable chair and get a cold cloth ready for your forehead.)
The intention here is not to sound the alarm bell (which you have no doubt heard before), but to identify the cause of what seems to be a decades long societal rush toward the bankruptcy of the government.
After pondering this for the last twenty years, it is apparent that the heart of the matter (no pun intended) is human compassion. This at least creates the willingness (or desire) to spend; the other half of the equation is that the wealth and prosperity of the country provides the ability to spend. “Of course we can afford it. We’re the wealthiest country on earth. How could you be so uncaring?”
Yes, prosperity sows the seeds of its own demise.
So, in summary, we are not destined for the fiscal cliff because politicians are entirely evil. (Yes, they are evil, but not entirely. Not all of them.) Or because Obama (or anyone else) wants national bankruptcy so he can institute the long dreamed-for socialistic utopia. Or because democrats are completely stupid. (Yes, their calculators appear to be broken, but they are not stupid people.)
No. The problem, rather, is that most people want to turn their compassion into a government program. And why not? If your cause, your passion, might be solved by throwing the weight and financial muscle of the united states government, why wouldn’t you want that?
So, in the end, we are compassionate people. And, like all things human (and despite that most people would deny it), our emotions call the shots and our intellect merely justifies. That is why we need limits on government spending.
It might take a long time (or, for that matter, it might take a frighteningly short time), but there might be a time in the future where we return to manifesting compassion on an individual level. That is, by donating time and individual involvement (and, yes, money—to charities that prove they can operate honestly and efficiently) to make better the lives of the truly needy and temporarily downtrodden. This seems infinitely preferable to a government that is driven by special interest groups and that spends its way into oblivion. Doesn’t it?
So, the paradox is that while human compassion likely played an indispensable role in the success of humanity to date, it today appears to be the primary force on our drive toward financial ruin.