Most of us Americans, down through history, have felt that there should be no upper limit on what an individual can achieve nor (which is different) what an individual can honestly acquire.
Along with that, we have had another idea–that there are certain things that everybody should have, regardless of who they are. We Americans were pioneers in the idea of free, universal public education. We have public library in which everybody, regardless of ability to pay, can borrow and read a book. We have public highways which anybody can use. The U.S. Postal Service provides affordable mail delivery to all Americans, no matter where they live or hard they are to get to. Historically our regulated utilities – telephone, electric and gas – were expected to provide a basic affordable service to all customers in their area. For a time all or almost all states provided affordable or even free college education to everybody who was able to do college work.
In short, there is no ceiling in American society over how high you can rise, but there is a floor under certain things, so that everybody has access to certain basic resources.
I was talking recently with my letter carrier about how the idea of universal service is under attack. The U.S. Postal Service is burdened with a requirement that it fund its retirement system 75 years ahead–something no other organization of which I know has to do. Without this requirement, the U.S. Postal Service would be self-sustaining. Now it is being operated as if it were a corporation in decline, like Eastman Kodak Co. in its last days.
The requirement was imposed by people in Congress who do not believe in the ideal of universal service. They think that what you get should depend on your ability to pay or, if you are a child, on the ability of your parents to pay. The same impulse, in my opinion, is behind the current attack on the public school system. If the move to privatize public education is carried to its logical extreme, then the quality of your education would depend on the economic class into which your parents are born (even more than it is now).
The deregulation of public utilities in the late 1970s and early 1980s was based on the theory that the benefits of competition outweighed the benefits of guaranteeing everyone access to energy and communication. The problem with that is that investment in public utilities requires planning on a much longer-term basis than the average individual investor is likely to entertain. In the old days, electric and gas utilities were required to have enough reserve capacity to provide for the maximum foreseeable demand plus a substantial margin for error. This is no longer required, and incentives for short-term profit are not a substitute for this requirement, in my opinion.
I remember reading in my local newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle, that when a public water supply was first proposed for Rochester, N.Y., many wealthy people, who could afford potable water for themselves, objected to being taxed to provide a universal service. Only when it became clear that impure water was a source of infectious disease, and that infectious disease did not respect income levels, did they agree to support a public system.
I think the objections to universal service are often based on that kind of attitude. Of course there are limits to what can be provided. Reasonable people can differ as to what these limits are. But I think I am individually better off, not worse off, when others have access to knowledge, communication and necessities of life.