Liberty and the Atomistic Welfare State


Even though I am not a leftist — and certainly not part of the so-called Religious Left — I receive regular emails from a left-wing Washington, D.C., organization called Sojourners Fellowship, which produces the magazine Sojourners. Moreover, I have been very critical of the organization and its leader, Jim Wallis, whose writings are full of the usual anti-capitalist diatribes that one expects from leftists, except he likes to pepper his arguments with Biblical passages.

(Basically, there is no difference in what Wallis says and what one might expect to read from the atheistic The Nation or the New York Times editorial page. I had no idea that the prophets really were preaching against capitalism or that the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to promote socialism, but Wallis swears it is so; such is the state of religious leftism these days.)

One of the continual points that Wallis and his followers like to make is their belief that capitalism is based upon individualism, while socialism and the welfare state are the essence of community. Because they see the essence of Christianity as being a religion of community, their antipathy to things like private property, profits, and entrepreneurship are fundamental to their way of thinking.

Thus, we can see these beliefs in action, as the Sojourners site has an anti-Wal-Mart section ("Wal-Mart destroys communities and promotes consumer individualism"), and promotes whatever the welfare state has to offer, while denigrating capitalism and individual freedom.

In modern politics, rhetoric seems to be the substitute for reality, but at some point reality must break through. The rhetoric about creating "democracy" in Iraq has been overshadowed by the reality that Iraq today is a pure hellhole of violence, murder, and brutish occupation by U.S. and British forces. Likewise, the fact that President George W. Bush cloaks his speeches in the language of liberty still cannot hide the sad reality that the Bush Administration has done more to erase our liberties than any presidency in the modern age — including that of Richard Nixon.

The rhetoric used to support the welfare state is that of "creating and sustaining community," but in reality what it has done is to create and sustain a hellish reservation system that not only encompasses the Native Americans, but also is the major factors in turning inner cities into war zones that completely are bereft of those very things we hold to be nature of real community.

Support of the welfare state as the creator of community is not the sole property of the religious left. The Neoconservatives as well as scions of the Religious Right such as Gary Bauer and James Dobson also have come out in favor of the welfare state because they believe it takes away the pressures that exist when people have to work for a living and, thus, permits them to spend more time with their children. (For example, Bauer was against the mild Republican-sponsored bill of 1996 that placed some restrictions upon some recipients of welfare, stating that he believed the measure would lead to more abortions. His worries were unfounded and unproven, but it does provide a window into the thinking of so-called religious conservatives.)

But while people on the religious left claim that the welfare state promotes the spirit of cooperation and community, Tyler Cowen recently — and perhaps unwittingly — has noted that the welfare state — or at least the Swedish welfare state — has promoted individualism, or at least individualism of the atomistic kind. He writes on his blog in a section entitled "Why I Love Sweden":

A loyal MR reader asks:

Back in 2004, you wrote "I’m willing to take the Swedish model seriously. I’ve been to Stockholm several times and loved it". What exactly did you love about it? What made Sweden attractive?

I won’t dwell on the beauty of Stockholm, the quality of the seafood, or the intelligence and good judgment of the people. Swedish women seem OK too, and Swedish Impressionist painting is underrated. I even liked the place in December. But what I enjoy most about Sweden is the sense of freedom.

Let’s be blunt: much of this freedom stems from government, and what you get is freedom from other people. People are not less free of the tax man, but in Sweden you don’t need other people very much to insure your economic well-being. You can do your own thing, without much fear (relatively speaking, of course) of personal oppression from others. You really can choose which personal relationships you wish to have. Autonomy reigns. The Swedish family is, of course, fractured. For all of its collectivist reputation, Sweden is the land of the true individualist, sometimes verging on atomism. At will you can go off into the woods and eat your lingonberries, weather of course permitting.

I can assure you that this is not what Jim Wallis and Marian Wright Edelman have in mind when they are promoting the welfare state, but Cowen is much closer to the mark. Indeed, the welfare state, by releasing individuals of their obligations to others via institutions like families, churches, and the like, does help to create this atomistic society that Cowen so admires. Yet, as I pointed out last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there is a price to pay:

…most of the people who survived the tragedy and who have been heroic in their response are people whose lives revolve around organizations built largely upon trust and exchanges of mutual benefit. The New York Times crowd may disparage the world of churches, business, nuclear families, schools (especially private schools), civic clubs and the like, but it is through those voluntary organizations that many of us are taught the basic lessons that enable us to survive and even prosper when disasters strike.

People of the reservation, on the other hand, have none of these important support mechanisms. Few of them have intact nuclear families, religious education either through church or school is almost nonexistent, and forget participation in civic organizations (other than the government-organized tenant associations of the projects). In short, what little order they have in their lives is kept together through force. While they may be “free” to come and go, their existence is little better than what one has in prison.

In Cowen’s defense, Stockholm, Sweden, is not New Orleans, or at least the part of New Orleans that received the lion’s share of post-Katrina attention. Yet, the welfare state there has had much of the same effect in its destruction of those very institutions that help hold a society together. Writes Cowen (admiringly, I admit):

I’ve heard it said that “socialism is the religion of the Swedes.” This is not quite correct, though it hints at an important truth. I think of “being Swedish” as the religion of the Swedes. And the more cosmopolitan they behave, the more they are partaking in this religion; don’t be fooled!…But Sweden (or should I say Stockholm?) remains one of the best places in the history of the world to date, and we are fooling ourselves if we don’t recognize that.

In a recent blog posting, Tom DiLorenzo points out the same thing regarding the way that the welfare state degrades social institutions:

…the “atomism” that he applauds is actually a major source of human degradation caused by the welfare state. Having to work and engage daily in the international division of labor forces one to develop skills, learn how to communicate with others, present a civilized appearance, and to essentially live unlike a caveman.

It is important to note that Cowen represents the libertine strain of libertarianism that is as scornful of social institutions as is the left. Like the leftists, they support the Sexual Revolution as a major advancement in human civilization. Indeed, most children in Sweden today are born to unmarried parents, which is the same as in the inner cities of the United States.

Therefore, Cowen celebrates the Swedish welfare state precisely because it does fracture institutions like marriage, churches, and the like, and replaces all of them with government wealth transfer programs. He is correct when he says that Swedes are free to live their atomistic lives because they know the state is covering their backsides. Not only is the Swede free to eat his lingonberries, but the government no doubt "provides" the berries for "free" and even sets off that patch of woods where the atomistic citizen can eat in solitude. (However, I cannot understand why Cowen uses this as an example of individual freedom. I am sure that even North Koreans are free to walk in the woods and eat berries — if they can find them — and even people living in that capitalistic hell known as the USA have the freedom to do such things.)

Yet — something that Cowen as an economist should know instinctively — the Swedish state provides nothing that first is not provided by an individual who then is forced to give up a large portion of what he or she has created. In short, someone has to show up to work and do well enough to produce that service which ultimately makes the welfare state possible.

I read Cowen’s words after having heard a radio report celebrating the 50th anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which was a missive against American society in general and capitalism in particular. In fact, he likened capitalism to Moloch, the ancient Canaanite god to whom worshipers sacrificed children by burning them to death. Somehow, in Ginsberg’s world, society could have a high quality of life only if nobody actually had to work. Like leftists who believe that placing a price on an item is what creates scarcity, Ginsberg believed that the presence of capitalism was what forced people to have to work for a living and kept everyone from being poets like him and his Bohemian friends.

Ginsberg had it backward. It was the fact that a capitalistic economy — with people doing those “oppressive” things like showing up for work and devoting their time to supporting “oppressive” institutions like churches — that permitted him to live in relative comfort and write his anti-social diatribes that masqueraded as “great literature.”

In one sense, Cowen’s praise of the Swedish welfare state is not unlike Howl. Like Ginsberg, he is scornful of those institutions that bring about social cohesiveness and believes that the state can replace them in the creation of the Ultimate Bohemian Society. To his credit, he says that this model is not likely to be repeated outside Sweden or at least the Scandinavian countries, but he still holds that the Swedish state is a promoter of real freedom.

Of course, anyone who is familiar with modern Sweden knows that the people find their lives heavily regulated, from heavy taxes to the imprisonment of pastors who say "politically incorrect" things from their pulpits. Yes, the Swedes have a libertine society but it comes hand-in-hand with an all-powerful state that enforces political correctness with an iron hand.

A society is not “free” when the state uses its powers to attack human institutions that have stood the test of time, yet the government of Sweden openly pursues policies that encourage the destruction of marriage and the practice of hedonism. Libertarians say that individuals should be free to make their own choices, including whether or not one marries or lives together or follows some other lifestyle activity. However, that is a far cry from what is occurring in Sweden, where the welfare state encourages people to turn their back on institutions such as marriage and religion and embrace statism.

If Cowen believes that the essence of libertarianism is statism, or at least the Swedish variety, then perhaps he does us a service in demonstrating the real divide among modern libertarians. On one side, we see people who believe that voluntary institutions do matter, and that they act as a cohesive force and promote individual well-being, with the state being the entity that ultimately destroys social cohesion.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts