I like this poetic definition of a Democrat from Garrison Keillor: "This is Democratic bedrock: we don't let people lie in the ditch and drive past and pretend not to see them dying."
The idea of the social safety net as being the ethical thing for a developed society isn't new.
But I've been thinking about another reason, discussed in some aspects by people like economist Paul Krugman. So often we as a country have to make drastic, sometimes catastrophic decisions, in part because we delay and delay until we run out of choices. Having a social safety net could give us the time and the space we need to make smart decisions, the ability to not have to make choices between which group of people get royally screwed.
The outsourcing issue is a case in point. Most economist agree that globalization of the workforce, outsourcing, etc., is a good thing. Well, maybe not good so much as necessary to maintain economic stability on a world scale. Krugman et al state that outsourcing could be a positive phenomenon if our country had the infrastructure--education, financial safety nets, etc.--to weather the dark side of the process and come out smarter, more skilled, and just generally ahead of the game in the end.
I was up in the North Cascades this weekend, and I started thinking about logging, which inevitably led to the spotted owl. That controversy came down to a stark choice between the health of a national resource (symbolized by the spotted owl) and the livelihood of a significant segment of the local population. If we'd had our infrastructure in place, the issue wouldn't have had to come down to literal life and death, owl vs. man. We would have had the time to make other choices.
So in the end, advocating a social safety net is nothing more nor less than enlightened self interest. I don't want to have to move to India or China because that's where all the jobs in my field are. I sure don't want to work for a second-rate company because that's all the US can manage to produce. I want to have a good job here, and I want to know that the work I and my colleagues do is recognized as the best.
And yes, I want to be proud of the fact that Americans don't cross to the other side of the street when they see a body in the ditch.