A recipient society produces the government plantation.
So much of Rhode Island’s predicament can be explained by incentives. People who rely on government for their prosperity, for instance, have a great deal of incentive to manipulate the processes thereof, whereas our community lacks institutions with incentive to counterbalance them politically. Something similar and related — though much broader on a social scale — is observable in the news and the stories we tell.
Not that long ago, newspapers had incentive to find success stories in their communities, at whatever level they covered. People subscribed to see their families and friends receive recognition, and then they bought the photos that went with the stories. They took out ads even just to announce happenings in their lives. Whether because such stories can’t survive in a quick-read, free-based, social media environment or because journalists moved from blue-collar workers to over-educated scion of the elite, the stories and the newspapers are less robust than once they were.
At the same time, we’ve entered the world of PR, especially in government. Whereas newspaper editors used to collect the press releases of organizations and make decisions about the size, placement, and mix of the articles, well-paid government PR flacks now craft articles and posts, and their content permeates social media, reaching those who follow the government accounts and promoted by those with a direct financial interest in the content.
So we see another type of story promoted more frequently. Modern success stories are not about achievement but receipt. For instance, we don’t see a story about a student from Rhode Island College who is working two jobs while studying a practical topic because he or she knows the degree will lead to a better life as part of a meritocratic plan, advancing his or her family generation by generation. Rather, we see a story about a student who was working while en route to certification as an art teacher who now does not have to work because Rhode Island taxpayers will be covering his tuition.
Don’t underestimate the importance of the cultural stories we tell each other. If we celebrate people who resolutely overcome obstacles with their own effort and grit, we’ll get more Americans growing the economy as they pull our society forward based on their own initiative and incentives. If we celebrate people who fill out applications for handouts at the expense of others whom politicians force to pay, then, well, we’ll get more of that.
Rhode Island may have removed the word “plantation” from its official name, but the state has internalized the idea as its social model. On the government plantation, special interests cultivate recipients for public services and then go in search of servants to pay for those services. Meanwhile, we’ll see stories touting the stress relief afforded to recipients who don’t have to work too hard, but other stories, especially about Rhode Islanders whose businesses can’t survive the heat of local public policy, go untold and are maligned when mentioned.
Featured image by Justin Katz using Dall-E 3.