The New Welfare Bums

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In the 1930s, the great excuse for the dole was unemployment. In the 1960s, poverty. But in the victim-ridden 21st century, it is summed up in one word: disability, and what a preposterous word it is.

Disability: falling short of the average capacity for accomplishing a task, any task. Just as ability is a universal human trait, so too is disability. How many tenured professors in this country can play volleyball? How many Olympic athletes will someday be tenured professors? Everyone is disabled in some particular way.

The idea that a disability as such should mark a person as a victim stems from a nutty egalitarian assumption, namely, that all people should have exactly the same capacity for accomplishing any and all tasks. A Marxist or Leninist might conjure up such a fantasy, but it is utterly alien to normal human experience.

Yes, there are people who are, on the whole more disabled and there are those who are, on the whole, more able. But that does not prevent people from cooperating to their mutual advantage. The point of freedom and the division of labor is that people discover their own comparative advantages and skills and concentrate on them while avoiding areas where they are, comparatively, less skilled. Thanks to the free market, there is a place for everyone within this brilliant system.

Then in walks the state. The state says: no, your lack of ability in a particular area entitles you to the property of others. You have no value that the state does not grant you. Your status with the state entitles you to impose yourself on employers. It entitles you to live off the fat of the land and do no work, so long as you can muster enough pathos to convince an administrative judge of your plight.

This crazy system has a long history, but it has really taken off in the last ten or so years, ever since the last President Bush made such a fuss about the Americans With Disabilities Act. That act is problem enough for American business, but the larger effect has been politico-cultural. It said to an entire generation of workers that if you can discover anything about you that is slightly discomforting, it might entitle you to an early retirement.

Do you find it discomforting to sit for six straight hours during an eight-hour day, or to stand for two straight hours? If you can possibly think of circumstances under which the answer is yes, you are probably eligible for a fat check from the government and all the medical benefits you can use.

Same goes for the great racket of our age: mental disability. Not that there is any doubt that plenty of people are afflicted with grave mental disabilities (look at the Executive Branch!). But bureaucracies are in no position to judge the scientific merit of each case, and so, inevitably, the entire issue becomes political. And if you doubt that mental disability is a disease over which the entire national wealth should be redistributed, you are a heartless troll.

In ten years, the amount transferred from your wallet to those living off disability claims has more than doubled, and become the largest income-support program in the federal budget ($60 billion), larger than unemployment benefits or food stamps.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say you are a low-skilled laborer who loses a job. You are sitting at home trying to figure out what to do. In the old days, the answer was: go out and get another job, even if it means lowering the price for your labor.

After the Great Society there was always the option of going on welfare. But these days, there are many strings attached to receiving welfare. The benefits are not fabulous, and bureaucrats bother you to do things like enroll in a job-training program.

After 1990, the word got around: disability is the most reliable cash cow. All you do is make a claim that is impossible to refute. The overwhelming numbers of disabilities claims come down to two essential sources: back trouble and mental disability. Who is to say you don’t have back trouble? Actually, does anyone over the age of 40 not have some form of back trouble? As for mental disability, there’s nothing like idle hands to create the illusion of grave mental trouble.

It’s not quite an outright scam. Most of the lounge lizards are fully convinced that they have a problem that justifies getting a check. You can try this yourself. Next time you are at the mall, stand on a planter, wave five one-hundred dollar bills and say: if anyone has back trouble, this money is yours. If you had an unlimited pot of taxpayers’ money, you could blow $60 billion in an afternoon.

No discussion of disability is complete without drawing attention to the role of lawyers. Whole law firms have been established and profited from shepherding disability claims through the courts. If Christ asked his disciples to be fishers of men, these law firms are fishers of victims, and they use your money as bait.

If the New York Times is right that disability is growing at alarming rates, and without end, the time could come when the whole of the American welfare state will be recast as an egalitarian disability assistance fund. And who is willing to stand up to this? Who is willing to tear away the mask of the disability movement and expose it as the proto-socialist plot that it is?

Let us draw some lessons. First, it is not enough to reform welfare. It must be abolished, lest the same programs be reinvented under a new rationale. Second, Republican welfare (the GOP gave the disability racket its biggest boost) is as bad or worse than any Democratic form. Third, the state’s rob-and-pay machine is incredibly creative at using even the smallest wedge to accumulate massive power, in this case, using the working class to loot the middle class to fund the overclass.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail], is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of

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