Death and Taxes and Flat Bike Tires: an Annoying Political Parable
I don’t know why this matters to me so much, this whole political quagmire that inspires people to get all insulting and divisive and worked up into a lather. I tend to think about it, I suspect, far too much. I should instead be thinking about story ideas, or game concepts, or other much more fun (and potentially lucrative) concepts. But I can’t seem to stop myself. The thing about me, apparently, is that I want to be understood as much as I want to understand.
Scratch that. I just want to be understood. It’s the writer part of me, probably.
So I went for a bike ride the other day, and I was thinking about a conversation I had been involved with. A likeable, seemingly reasonable person was telling me how conservatives have always been out to harm the poor and prop up the rich. Ever since the New Deal, this person insisted, conservatives have worked on behalf of the white male religious power structure (i.e. the hated “rich”) and actively thwarted efforts by liberals to help the poor.
Of course, this person was forgetting (or more likely, ignoring) the fact that he was, in fact, talking about me. I am a conservative (not to mention white, male, and nominally religious). I know what is in my head and heart rather better than he does. And yet he felt blithely comfortable telling me what my beliefs—and even my intentions—are. This is surprisingly common, and is most often done, ironically, by the sort of people who pride themselves in being the most non-judgmental.
But back to the bike ride I enjoyed the other day. It is a very good trail. It goes like this: there is a dirt path through the woods near the Missouri River. At one point, the trail meets a new trail, which is seductively paved in immaculate black pavement, smooth as silk. You angle onto this and bike through low canyons of wooded hills, carpeted with tall grass and intersected with streams. You cross a wooden bridge and realize that the trail is actually angling upwards. It is such a gentle slope, however, that you barely notice it, at least at first. Soon enough, as you cross a few more quaint wooden bridges, the feel the slope increasing gradually, deceptively. Eventually, a few miles in, you find yourself shifting lower and lower down your gears, fighting gravity as you push up, up steeper slopes. Finally, the incline becomes great enough that you are nearly standing on the pedals, inching forward, sweat running down your face, hoping that this, finally, will be the top of the hill.
The first time I rode the path, I gave up at this point. I walked the bike the rest of the way, breathing hard. It was the last hill. The top opened onto the edge of the woods, revealing a wide open, sunny space. There was a much needed bench, where I rested and cooled off and drank from my water bottle.
This time, however, I pushed it the whole way. It was very difficult—I am not the most in-shape person in the world—but after a summer of riding, I was able to do it. I made it to the top of the hill, felt that prosaic bliss of rolling over the last hump and onto flat path. I looped around a bit, rested, and then turned my bike back to the slope again, this time from the top.
Now this is the fun part. This is why the hill is worth climbing, strenuous as it is. The ride down is totally amazing.
Since the steepest part is at the top, you begin to build up speed immediately. All the sweat dries from your brow. The shadows of the trees whicker over you as you go faster, faster, almost giddily fast. One is tempted to squeeze the brakes, but if you ever ride this path, I challenge you not to. The path has no hard turns, just gentle swoops. You can manage them. I did. The wooden bridges that you labored slowly over on the way up whoosh by like clouds on the way down. And you just keep… on… going.
It took me almost exactly eight minutes to roll all the way down. I timed it. I never once had to pedal the whole way. I rolled almost right to the end of the paved trail, cooled off, exhilarated, and wanting to do it all over again. If my thighs could handle it, which they probably couldn’t.
And this idea occurred to me. It’s a sort of story. Follow along.
Let’s say, when I finally rolled to the bottom of the hill, where the paved trail met the dirt trail, there were some people there. They were watching, a young woman and a child. Let’s say the woman is in somewhat shabby clothes and the child is a boy, about three years old. I stop near them to say hello and the woman tells me, somewhat sheepishly, that her son loved the idea of riding the hill, but she cannot afford a bicycle for him. Furthermore, he has an illness that makes him too weak to navigate a bike all the way up the hill.
Being just the sort of spontaneous person I am, I offer to put her son in my bike stroller (it’s in the trunk of the car) and take him to the top. I may regret it—my legs are a little weak from my own ride up, but I have a soft spot for kids. He can’t weigh more than twenty-five pounds.
I do it. The boy yells “wheee!” most of the way down. I reach the bottom exhausted, but pleased with myself. The boy returns to his mother and everyone is happy.
A few days later, I return to the trail. This time, I find three or four people standing around. One is very sickly, another is old and frail, still another is young and thin. They look at my bike with wistful eyes. I stop to ask what they are doing. They variously explain that they had heard what a wonderful experience it is to coast down the hill, thus they had come to do it themselves. Unfortunately, they are either too old to undertake such a strenuous ride up, or too sick to endure the effort, or too poor to afford a bike.
Feeling somewhat guilty, I consider how I might help. No fear, they explain, and produce some new pegs for my rear bike wheel. In a flash, they are installed on my bike and the old man jumps on. I take him to the top of the hill. It is much harder than it was with the kid. We barely make it, and by the time we get there, I am exhausted. The old man enjoys the ride, however, which makes it worth it. He is thrilled with the long, swooping journey back, and I find myself smiling by the time he climbs off at the end.
The sick person climbs on next. I try to get her to the top, but I am too tired. We make it to the final, steep ascent and I just have to stop. She seems somewhat annoyed but doesn’t say anything. After a short rest, we coast back down. She thanks me.
The teen is next. I offer to let him just ride the bike himself—I am too tired to make the attempt again. He agrees and pedals off. Less than fifteen minutes later, he comes coasting back looking somewhat disgruntled. He hops off and hands the bike over to me without a word. I ask him if he enjoyed the ride and he shrugs. It was too much work, he explains, so he stopped after the second bridge and rolled back. He fails to see what the big deal is about the ride. I try to explain that he had barely made it to the really good part, and that the fun is in the exhilarating ride after all the hard work, but he shrugs and walks away, not listening.
A week later, I get to the trail to find a dozen people. Two or three of them are sick and old, but most of them look perfectly healthy. I consider riding right past them without stopping, but I can’t quite do it. They all expect rides to the top so that they, too, can experience the thrill of the coasting journey back. I am a people-pleaser, so I begin with the oldest ones. Fortunately I have built up some endurance over the last several rides. I make it to the top with the first few and ride them back. They thank me, but perfunctorily. The next person is a young woman. She seems perfectly healthy, but she doesn’t want to ride the bike herself. She just wants to experience the return trip. I look at her incredulously, but she is already climbing onto the pegs. I begin the ride. It is much harder this time (admittedly, my attitude does not help) but I do reach the top. The girl does not seem to enjoy the ride back, though. She complains that she is bored and demands that I do some jumps or wheelies. At the end, she climbs off the pegs without a word.
I am too weary to ride anymore. A few of the others attempt to use the bike themselves while I rest. Some make it to the top and enjoy the ride back. A few others only get halfway. The last rider comes walking back down the path with no bike at all. I ask where it is and he shrugs, pointing. He got tired of peddling and just abandoned it at the first bridge.
Wearily, I retrieve it and go home.
Yet another week goes by. This time, when I come back to the hill trail, there are nearly thirty people. Most of them are perfectly healthy looking. One of them is morbidly obese. I try to ride straight past without stopping, but a Voice of Authority calls out, stopping me. A stern looking man from the federal government shows me a badge: Internal Recreational Service. He explains that the IRS legally requires me to share my bike with those less fortunate than me. One third of my rides, he insists, have to be either carrying someone else, or letting them use my bike.
Suddenly, I am no longer charitably helping needy people. Now I am being forced to give my efforts over to anyone that the government deems worthy. And it seems that the government is simply too big and busy to be discriminating. While there are a few sick people and children in the group, there are a lot of suspiciously healthy-looking people standing around, eyeing me and my bike with jealousy and outright animosity. They begin to jostle to be first. I am disappointed to see that the truly needy cases are forced to the back as the seemingly healthy struggle to be first in line.
And thus my new task begins. At first, it’s marginally better, because I can take a few rides on my own. But every third ride (and the IRS insists there must always be a third ride—no giving up and going home after those first two) becomes a nightmare. The riders complain the whole way. They are not only ungrateful, they are surly, demanding, pounding me on the back to go faster, insisting I provide snacks on the way, complaining that the ride down is nowhere near as great as they had heard it was going to be. Worse, they begin telling me how awful I am, how selfish I am to not carry people with me every time I go up the hill. They ridicule me for not doing my fair share. They go into great detail telling me how the bicycle riding population has always worked to keep the non-bicycle riders from enjoying the top of the hill.
Soon enough, a throng of observers gather around the bottom of the hill. Some of them have bikes of their own, but they aren’t interested in riding to the top of the hill themselves, much less carrying anyone with them. And yet, amazingly, they join in the chorus of ridicule, insisting that people like me have actively sought to keep the top of the hill out of reach of the poor, non-bicycle-owning public. They convince themselves that I, and others like me, built the hill specifically to keep the rest at the bottom, to lord over them.
I try to explain. I tell them I had nothing to do with the hill. I try to remind them that it is only by my own hard work that I ever saw the top of the hill at all, and that they, too, can experience it if they only make the effort. A few—a very few—listen and understand. They get their own bicycles and train themselves to get to the top. Soon enough, however, they too are accosted by the IRS. They become targets of ridicule by the crowd, even as they ferry riders up and down the hill.
Finally, the IRS listens to the will of the people. People like me, it seems, simply are not carrying our fair share. Now, I must carry riders two at a time, every other ride up the hill.
I could do it, maybe. I have built up some monstrous thighs throughout this whole ordeal. But I won’t. The view from the top, and the ride down, just aren’t worth it anymore. I throw down my bicycle and go home.
The crowd grabs at my bike, wrestles it upright, and begins shouting for someone to come and ride them to the top. They try to stand on the pegs with no rider and fall over, skinning their elbows and knees on the pavement. They sue me, with the help of the IRS, and win.
The next week, the federal government sends a fleet of bulldozers and backhoes to the bicycle hill. They level the whole thing, flatten it out entirely, and pave it four lanes wide. They remove the bridges and curves, and provide government-issue bicycles for anyone who wants to ride the new trail.
Of course, no one does. The crowds go back home and the trail to nowhere sits empty.
And thus, equality is finally achieved.
That’s the end of the story, of course. I thought all this as I finally reached the bottom, and I wished, rather hopelessly, I am sure, that my more liberal-minded friends could understand: people like me are not against anyone else. Quite the contrary, we wish everyone could see the top of the metaphorical hill, and enjoy the thrill of the ride down. We are even happy to assist in that goal. The difference between us conservatives and our liberal friends is not that we are selfish and evil, and they are altruistic and charitable. The difference is our understanding of human nature. To wit:
One: No one can truly enjoy the thrill of the ride down the hill without first investing in the arduous effort of the journey up. It is not selfishness that causes us to insist people invest in their own journey, but respect and compassion. After all, no one truly appreciates something they don’t work for. Furthermore, dependence not only robs one of the joy of the payoff, but destroys self-respect. We don’t just want people to enjoy the thrill of the ride down, but to understand why that thrill has meaning. If it doesn’t cool the sweat on your own brow, then you can’t understand the pleasure of the ride.
Two: There are, in fact, lazy people in the world. Takers, abusers, and manipulators exist. They will take advantage of the blindly mandated charity of the government, because the government is simply too big to weed them out. Thus, the truly needy get crowded out and those who need nothing more than a swift kick in the pants are allowed to grow weak, dependent, and ultimately selfish.
Finally, three: Government mandated charity is not charity at all because it is no longer voluntary. It is not provided by the government, and yet the government gets the credit. Those who do actually pay for it are inevitably ridiculed for not doing more. Government mandated social assistance inevitably replaces and destroys individual charity, which is far more effective and compassionate. By acting as a commanding authority between the classes, it makes enemies of the givers and ingrates of the receivers
In short, the basic difference between conservatives and liberals seems to be that conservatives assume everyone on the bottom is capable of reaching the top of the hill. If they truly need assistance, assistance will be given. Liberals, it seems, assume everyone on the top of the hill got there by selfish means, at the expense of those on the bottom. Those on the bottom, they seem to think, simply cannot reach the top, thus it is selfish and wrong of anyone to reach the top at all.
So, this is how it all looks to me, in my world. My perspective could be all wrong, though. I would love to hear from my liberal friends. How is this analogy incorrect? How am I potentially missing the truth that, despite what I, as one single conservative, think and feel, the true conservative agenda is to quash and demean those less fortunate? Tell me how carrying those who are capable of moving on their own is, in fact, better for them and not utterly destructive to their humanity?
I want to hear it. I want to know where I am wrong.
But do, I beg, please stop insisting that people like me simply hate the poor. I respect the poor and believe they are capable. I am more than willing to help the poor, and do so in many ways. If I was not taxed as much as I am, I would do even more. I am better at helping the poor in my community than the government is. More importantly, I believe that simply telling the poor that they are incapable of achieving on their own is not compassion. It is condescension.
The biggest problem in our culture today, I think, is that they have come to believe it.
So please tell me: how am I wrong? How is my analogy imperfect or incorrect? Perhaps more importantly, tell me why I shouldn’t simply toss down my bike and say to hell with it? I’m listening.