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February 16, 2012

The Daily DOOM


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[PSA: Today's post is in the form of an essay rather than a series of links. If you want to read the links, you can check my Twitter feed from yesterday.]

In response to my welfare-state rant from yesterday, Marc Eisner of Pileus did me the courtesy of writing a thoughtful response, so rather than abstract it here, I urge you to go read his piece in full before reading my rejoinder.

...all done? Great.

I think Mr. Eisner and I are about 90% simpatico on the question of entitlements and the welfare state in this country. In particular, I agree completely with this paragraph:

Ideally, reform would occur in a deliberate and reasoned manner. But if broad support for reform is difficult to create or maintain, an incremental path to reform will be politically impossible. Ultimately, fiscal crisis could open the door to changes that are far less compatible with liberty than one might hope. This too, is not difficult to imagine.

We do not live in an ideal world. Ideally, we would not be in the mess we're in right now. Ideally, we'd have an electorate that would understand the long-term harm their addition to welfare dollars is. Ideally, the government would stick to the functions proper to a government and leave the citizens to lead their own lives as they see fit. Ideally, no welfare state would be necessary because the citizens would recognize it for the untenable and liberty-sapping lie that it is.

I've often said that I don't hate the welfare state on fiscal grounds alone. I hate the welfare state because it is morally wrong. I'd hate it even if were indefinitely sustainable. I'd hate it even if it didn't cost me a dime. The modern welfare state, as an expression of the great "progressive" drive towards a secular Utopia, is a poison to the body politic. Whatever good its proponents claim for it in the short run, in the long run it will destroy us if we do not purge it from our society. (I am not speaking here of charity, which is an action taken by the individual for motives of their own; I am speaking of money taken from the individual by the State and redistributed to other individuals deemed by the State to be more worthy of it.)

I think conservatives fear being called heartless or cruel if we push for an end to the welfare state as we know it. Well...perhaps so. Children call their parents cruel when they are forced to take nasty-tasting medicine, or perform some unpleasant task. But the parent knows that whatever the short-term unpleasantness, the action is necessary for the child's long-term health and well-being. A parent unwilling to inflict a small amount of hurt on their child out of misplaced kindness may do the child unspeakable harm in the longer term.

But there is a danger in this metaphor: the government is not your parent. It does not love you. It cannot love you. It cannot give you joy, or happiness, or fulfillment, or a sense of purpose, or satisfaction. The very best a government can do is nurture and protect a society in which those things are made possible. National defense, rule of law, property rights, a level economic playing field, a just and fair tax system: those are the rightful tools of a government in a nation of free people.

So-called "progressives" have, over the past century, convinced many Americans that it is within the government's power to grant us rights and freedoms that we would not otherwise have. This is nonsense. What rights we have, we are born with. The government did not grant them to us; they are natural to us as human beings. Our government is tasked to protect them, not to invent wholly new and artificial "rights" to suit whatever whims may move us at any given time.

The welfare state began (ostensibly) as a project to protect the poorest and most helpless among us: the crippled, the elderly, the abjectly poor, the mentally challenged. Yet now the bulk of the welfare state is aimed not at the needy, but squarely at the relatively wealthy and able-bodied. Social Security and Medicare alone account for nearly half of all government spending -- and that money goes mainly to the relatively well-off elderly. Our welfare state doesn't even fulfill its own mission of lessening the misery of the poor; it simply transfers wealth from the (comparatively poor) young to the (comparatively wealthy) old.

There is so much wrong with this situation, so much that is outrageous and unjust, that it's impossible to discuss with any brevity at all. However pure the motives were of the progressives in creating the welfare state (and I don't think they were particularly pure, even then), it has morphed over the years into a money-gobbling amoral monster that threatens not just our financial futures, but our very existence as a free and sovereign nation. In addition to impoverishing us, the welfare state also enfeebles us -- it turns even the able-bodied into helpless wards of the state, not citizens so much as inmates who cannot imagine a world without regular payments from a faceless government bureaucracy.

I think most conservatives and libertarians agree that this is a horrible state of affairs, but there is no consensus on how to solve the problem. The welfare state is what it is, the argument goes; it is a problem of sunk costs. No one wants to write off all the money they've plowed into the entitlement programs for all these years, particularly people who are near retirement. Political reform is impossible because too many people depend on the money being doled out by the government. We cannot fundamentally change the entitlement system without hurting a lot of people.

Well, here's the thing: the welfare state is going to fall, one way or the other. People are going to be hurt no matter what. We may delay it for awhile, but sooner or later the reckoning will come, and the longer we wait, the more painful the reckoning will be. We need to remember that the welfare state as we know it is a modern contrivance, an experiment gone horribly awry. We are living in an unprecedented historical bubble of relative prosperity and peace, but it is an anomaly in world history. Our ability to sustain this monster we have built is fading fast as the prosperity bubble shrinks.

It's not a question of whether to reform our welfare state: that choice is not in our power. Change is coming, whether we like it or not. The real question is: do we shoulder the burden now, of our own free will, and accepting of the burdens and pains our action will bring; or do we shrug apathetically and let history do the job for us, ten or twenty or fifty years from now?

Progressives have a lot to say about "fairness", but I think they'd better pray that our lives continue to be unfair. We don't deserve our prosperity and peace -- we received them as undeserved gifts from our forebears (and from God, I believe). We don't deserve the food we eat or the clothes we wear or the houses we live in or the cars we drive. We all benefit from the unfairness of civilization. The welfare state is the most unfair thing of all -- the government money-rain falls on the deserving and undeserving alike.

We will revert back to the "fair" mean, though, and probably sooner rather than later. You cannot continue taking more out of a system than you put into it and expect the machine to keep running. (Greece is an object lesson in what happens when a "fair" equilibrium reasserts itself. Pay heed.) If you keep drawing energy from a battery without ever charging it back up, it will go flat -- and all the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the world won't start the current back up again. This is a completely fair outcome as far as Nature is concerned.

I am losing hope that we, as a people, have the will or courage to shout "HALT!" at the runaway train of government spending -- particularly entitlement spending. No one wants to read about old people who can't afford to heat their house in winter, or to buy their heart-pills, or any of the other million-and-one sob-stories Democrats always trot out when their cherished programs are under attack. And many otherwise-conservative people themselves often depend on government largesse in the form of Social Security or Medicare (that "sunk costs" problem) and so try to convince themselves that we can solve the problem later. And later. And later.

We'd all better hope that "fair" isn't our destiny, because it means we would get exactly what we deserve: nothing.

Yin and Yang

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posted by Monty at 09:00 AM

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