Politics & The Parable of the Swimming Pool

The essential difference between Republicans and Democrats in our country is the degree to which they believe the government should be allowed to interfere in the lives on individual Americans. This fundamental divergence in philosophy has caused no small amount of rancor throughout history. Recent history underscores this hyper-partisan jockeying to control the amount of interference.

Personally, I am less concerned with how much or how little the government interferes and more concerned with whether or not that interference is helpful.

Let me try to explain.

Imagine you are in a swimming pool on a cloudless day. You’re relaxed on a floating chaise lounge, reading a paperback, an ice-cold beverage in the cup holder. Your sunglasses are on. Your ear buds are playing your favorite music. Your breaths are deep and your pace slow. You don’t have a care in the world — or at least none that can’t wait a few hours.

Suddenly, a huge splash douses your paperback and ruins the moment. Someone has plunged into the pool, nearly landing on top of you, watering down your drink and leaving a bunch of little drops of water on your sunglasses. It’s annoying. It’s rude. It’s unhelpful. You were doing just fine on your own, and their interference spoiled the whole thing.

That’s how some people view government. Individuals can take care of themselves and government should stay out of it. You don’t need their help and, frankly, when they jump in it’s a real hassle.

But let me invite you to look at it another way:

What if the huge splash is not created by a careless teenager but rather a lifeguard? What if just a few feet away from where you were reveling in the perfect day there was someone drowning? They can’t breathe, they’re wildly flapping their arms. They don’t have a paperback in hand. No headphones or beverages, either. Their only concern is survival. They are gasping for air and trying to yell for help as they frantically tread water. They’re sinking fast in a pool with plenty of people around — most of whom have their ears shoved shut with headphones or their faces in a book. They’re not doing anything wrong, of course. It’s okay to relax on a day like today. If they knew you were drowning, they’d surely help. They’re just not paying attention.

All except for the lifeguard, that is.

They saw your plight and they engaged. You needed help, and they helped you. The big splash, therefore, was not rude or annoying — it was needed and necessary.

This is what I’m getting at when I suggest it’s not about whether or not the government interferes a lot or a little, but whether or not the interference is helpful. In my experience, the rebuke of government involvement in the lives of Americans often comes from people who spend much of their time in relative ease, relaxed with their drinks and enjoying the day.

But they are not the ones who are drowning.

I don’t know anyone who would remain in blissful ignorance while someone was struggling for their lives nearby in a pool, sipping their drinks and reading their romance novels while someone a few feet away died. But what is happening in our country is not altogether dissimilar. There are people fighting for survival. Our obliviousness to that fact is irrelevant. It is true. Some of us have good rafts, good tunes, and good drinks. But others of us have rafts with a leak, or something pulling us under, or less than capable swimming skills.

The swimming pool parable offers a helpful frame. Perspective matters. Our experience is not everyone’s, and our conclusions are incomplete if they are solely based on our experience.

Of course, not all government interference is helpful. To risk extending the metaphor too far, there are lifeguards who jump in when no one is actually drowning, and sometimes there are twenty life guards on duty when five would suffice. I get that.

I am also aware that many argue helping the poor and disenfranchised (a common form of “drowning” these days) is not the government’s job at all, but the responsibility of private citizens, nonprofits, and churches. I don’t disagree. But for every person I’ve personally heard make that argument — and who back it up in their own lives with great generosity — I imagine that there are three or four who make the same argument and do little to nothing in support of their own supposed belief.

Again I’ll risk extending the metaphor: There are some in our country who know people are drowning but don’t want to be bothered. They pop in their ear buds and stay lost in their own little world. You may not like to think about it, but it’s true. In a perfect world we would have people looking out for each other. We wouldn’t need the government to interfere if people did what was right.

Then again, we are the government. What difference does it make if we slide off our floaties and do the work individually or we elect some lifeguards to save those who need help? We live in a society where so many of us may not be noticing the needs around us. I kind of think if we’re not willing to put down our margaritas and unplug our ears then we shouldn’t object when a splash nearby interrupts our me time.

Someone not all that far away from us is struggling to survive, and a paperback getting a little wet isn’t the biggest deal in the world.