It was a question that trumped all other questions, twenty years ago. A question that won an election. Pundits still refer to it, and candidates, too, with great reverence, as if its profundity were self-evident. As if it were a moral question:
"Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
But that is not a moral question. It's a bald question about self-interest. It ignores the issue of whether or not a voter has any responsibility to anyone but himself, tempting us -- and the temptation has proved brutally successful -- to consider our own immediate well-being alone as we cast our vote. Tempting us to embrace the shortsightedness of immediate gain as a moral good. Luring us, by means of our dwindling attention spans and our growing self-absorption, toward a society in which "Every man for himself" is an acceptable philosophy for living.
It is not acceptable. It is not sufficient. Of course everyone wants to provide for himself, for herself, and for the family. Of course everyone wants security. But the body politic can't hold if all of us do only that. Our society will come to an inglorious end -- more quickly than we might imagine possible -- if we gauge our greatness only by how rich the richest of us become, how strong our strongest, as if our capacity for wealth and strength were infinite, and not by how we make common cause with those who are neither rich nor strong.
Nothing here is infinite. Everything comes from somewhere. There really is no such thing as a free lunch -- you may not pay for yours, but somebody, somewhere, is paying. Anyone who tells you that taxes are somehow unfair, that we have the right to have roads and services and national security and dependable justice but not the responsibility to pay for those things, making government out to be little more than a thief, is inviting you into a life governed by your own selfishness. Such a life is a disaster.
Suspect a politician who tells you that you can have something for nothing. Suspect a politician whose biography gives little or no evidence of self-sacrifice for the sake of a greater good. Who wants you to think that your own interest is the only interest that matters -- it is a sign that he believes that about his own interest, too, and he will probably be willing to sacrifice yours to his. Because if the only question that matters is "Am I better off?" that's where we all end up.