Respectables on Welfare

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Ludwig von Mises noted that by calling their program "welfare" the economic interventionists slanted the debate in their favor, for who could oppose such a thing? Everyone wants welfare in the broad sense. Indeed, the "general welfare" is a principle, however confused, affixed in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution.

Today, welfare has lost its rhetorical advantage. Ever since the bipartisan welfare reform of the 1990s, the word "welfare" has not had the positive connotations of the past. Liberals rarely talk openly about how we need more of it. Conservatives talk freely about how it should be discarded. Even in substance, the debate has changed somewhat.

So too has the center left abandoned its talk about redistribution for the very poorest among us. Liberals used to complain about homelessness, calling it an epidemic. Their programs have not improved upon the situation. Now it is mostly ignored.

It makes strategic sense to neglect it when the welfare state is much more palatable when directed not toward the very bottom of the ladder, but to voters of the middle class. This helps explain why those opposed to welfare by name have won the linguistic struggle that Mises long ago identified, and yet have lost the entitlement war. Also important is that when conservatives denounce welfare, they are mostly condemning payments to the poor — programs like the long-maligned Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps.

These programs are socially destructive and should be abolished. That will do only so much good, however, because the preponderance of the Bismarckian welfare state is not just tolerated but defended by all the respectable people, the conservatives and middle class.

When the financial crisis hit in late 2008, across the spectrum were pleas to do something to save middle class homeowners from losing houses they probably shouldn’t have bought but did because of credit expansion, Fannie and Freddie, Bush’s Ownership Society and the entire insane bipartisan project to stuff all of bourgeois America into increasingly expensive houses at increasingly declining costs. Few people saw the desire to shore up universal home ownership as a welfare scheme.

In attempting to oppose expansions of government in late 2008, such as Bush’s TARP bailout, the conservatives were in a bind, for they had been cheering on the biggest welfare statist president since Lyndon Johnson. Bush's Medicare plan was the most obvious example. Today we see that Medicare and Social Security — Great Society and New Deal plots that conservatives once called socialistic — are now favored by nearly everyone. The left is shrewd to frame its argument for nationalized medicine in terms of "Medicare for all," since it demonstrates that the premise of health care subsidies has already been accepted by the conservative movement. Most opponents of Obamacare said they would support guaranteed coverage for those with preexisting conditions, and many attacked Obama's plan for threatening the existing welfare apparatus. We've all seen the Tea Party activist holding up the sign warning Obama: "Hands off my Medicare!"

The idea that the elderly are entitled to this money has enticed the entire right. The intellectual purpose of the entitlement state — conditioning people over generations toward dependency with vows to loot future taxpayers to maintain the system — has worked perfectly. But no one has a right to Social Security or Medicare, any more than they have a right to food stamps or other welfare. Yes, they were robbed for years, but that money has been spent already. Their victimization at the hands of the state gives them no moral claim to victimize current workers, any more than an abusive father having been brutally beaten as a child can use this as an excuse for his own abusive behavior.

Another key feature of the welfare state universally accepted is the disaster called public education. This is fundamental to the modern state, much more than direct handouts to the poor, as it inculcates the principles of collectivism in the young. Conservatives used to at least call for decentralization, removing Washington's influence from state indoctrination. Whether this would immediately mean more liberty for students and parents is not a priori obvious, but it would likely allow for pockets of freedom to emerge and perhaps the eventual separation of school and state in some places. In the post-No Child Left Behind era, the nationalist conservatives have a position essentially identical to that of the social democrats. They may call for charter schools, as does the Democratic president, or even advance the program of school vouchers — an expansion of the welfare state even further into private education. The omnipresence of federal aid in higher education is also a mark of the respectable classes’ comfort with welfare. Needless to say there is not the stigma attached to sending children to public school that exists with other welfare. Whether there should be, it is indisputable that this component of contemporary welfarism is accepted by all but the radicals. However, until public education is abolished or seriously compromised, statism will dominate the culture.

Vast cultural approval also exists for more conventionally identified forms of welfare. Receiving unemployment insurance is regarded as less contemptible than accepting traditional handouts. Apparently, having had a good job and losing it privileges one to feed at the public trough, whereas never having such an opportunity means one is simply a bum. One can counter that a fraction of one’s income goes into this “insurance” program, but in the end if it is justifiable to receive money financed through taxation, then the principle must be observed more consistently. As Walter Block argues, it is not unlibertarian to take money from the government. The point here is not to condemn those who do it but to recognize their daunting number — many in the bourgeois sector should therefore not find themselves to be holier than a typical welfare case.

The whole society clamors in defense of subsidies not seen as welfare at all. Agricultural aid is particularly popular on the corporatist right, as are obscenely expansive patent protections, certain "uncontroversial" avenues of scientific research, space exploration, new resources for law enforcement, and protectionist trade policy. As for the various public servants, especially those doing some of the most harm — fighting the state’s wars, enforcing its laws, teachings its values to students — they are regarded as respectable members of society. They are said to work for their share, although in most cases what they do is socially deleterious and they’d be on better moral footing if they just accepted handouts. Not only is their income considered by virtually everyone to be in a different class from welfare, so too are their cushy benefits and pensions. Veterans’ benefits in particular have obtained a nearly sacred status in this society. A conservative who cheers on these programs and argues for their aggrandizement and then condemns welfare mothers in the next breath may wonder why the left finds his views so hard to swallow. It is at least in part because they make no sense.

Foreign policy presents an interesting case. Most Americans think the U.S. has some sort of duty in some instances to elevate the beleaguered peoples of the world. The conservatives argued for invading Iraq to save the Iraqi people. The liberals argued the U.S. couldn’t leave until this job was done. Americans fancy themselves generous in their warmongering. Few Americans recognize the immorality of seizing tax dollars to pay for wars of occupation, putting aside the fact that they are utterly immoral in themselves and fail to bring about freedom and prosperity worldwide, but rather spread despotism and mass death.

Welfarism has moreover corrupted the immigration debate. The right complains that immigrants, illegal as well as an excess of legal ones, drain the public treasury. This is an empirical question much more complicated than often assumed, as both citizens and foreign nationals pay taxes. Yet the obvious solution — ending the welfare state wherever it exists — is much harder to sell than it should be, precisely because the welfare state's permanence is unchallenged. If the notion is framed as though they are taking our public benefits, the whole collectivist premise has already been stipulated. Signing up for government aid has become part of the very identification of being American, and so is it seen as inappropriate for non-Americans, however defined, to get in on the nationalist socialism. There are enough conservatives in America to push for welfare reform that would undercut any actual problem with illegal immigration, insofar as welfare is the problem as they claim. But they do not mobilize to do it. They are as invested in maintaining and solidifying the idea of the modern American welfare state as is the left, and so in response to immigration they mostly propose violations of commercial freedom and police state measures to strengthen the national collective rather than undermine it through a frontal assault on the entitlement state.

The welfare state has won over all of society. It has succeeded in making the entire culture dependent on it. Middle class conservatives condemn welfarism even as they clamor for better public schools, apply for student loans for their kids, hold jealously onto their Medicare and Social Security benefits, accept unemployment checks when they’re expedient, and resist any talk about cutting back the government’s support for its police and soldiers. Liberals today say they are realists on welfare but never cease to agitate for more ways to put us all on the dole. As we find ourselves in the wake of fiscal catastrophe, we must recognize that only a tiny portion of government expenditures go to the easy targets — the earmarks, the welfare mothers, the roads to nowhere, the Woodstock museums, the funding to study bird migrations, even the salaries of bailed out CEOs. America is, despite the conservative and liberal propaganda to the contrary, essentially as much a welfare state as most other nations of the West, and the hugest chunk of the entitlement expenditures are going not to the easily scapegoated classes, but rather to the respectable masses.

Thanks to Alexander Ovsov for this translation of this article into Romanian.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is research editor at the Independent Institute. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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