Relative Happiness…

Originally published in the Grand Rapids Press, April 16, 2011

I had a history teacher in high school (Mr. Winchester, I believe) who explained one of the major causes for the Civil War this way: Slavery was integral to the South’s economy. The large plantations needed the inexpensive labor it provided. But if it was just that, the large plantation owners alone would not have been able to rally support for and support a massive four year war. Ultimately, they would have found other sources of cheap labor. But slavery was also integral to the South’s society. Poor whites lived largely the same difficult lives as blacks. The only thing the poor whites had going for them was that they felt better about their lives relative to blacks — they had more supposed freedom, more supposed opportunities. It was the poor whites who made the bulk of the soldiers who actually fought the war for the South.

I get a similar vibe these days when I hear and read people talking about things like health care benefits or tax structures. We don’t mind so much having crappy benefits or paying unfair taxes as long as somebody else (like our neighbor) has it worse. In tough times, we trend toward living relative lives when obviously we should be concentrating on solving the actual problems. Best results come from shared sacrifice and shared rewards, not satisfaction in being slightly further ahead than the guy down the street.         

That said, if anybody in my family gets more candy than me in their Easter basket, I’m going to throw a fit.

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