The Welfare State: Shredding Society


What societal and cultural rewards has the welfare state reaped? Lyndon B Johnson's War on Poverty is now 4 decades old. In many European nations, where the idea that the state should alleviate poverty and care for the poor originated, the struggle is much older. Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century German Chancellor, is credited with the creation of the first modern government-run old age pension program in the 1880's. This model gradually spread around the world in various incarnations. The intentions behind welfare programs were arguably for the common good, but the results have been anything but positive for society. The welfare state has created an environment that has been gradually shredding the very fabric of culture and civilization itself.

Economic incentives do matter, and in the case of modern welfare programs, the incentives have been highly caustic to civilization itself. A stable ordered society is not something that comes from a government, but rather from the social values of the society itself. No quantities of laws and cops on the street have made Washington, DC a safe city, nor will it short of complete totalitarian rule, if even then. When government puts in place policies that create incentives that are at odds with the very fabric of society, the gradual decivilization of society will be the result.

I am typically not an empiricist, but statistical correlations this blatant are hard to ignore. The programs of the Great Society appear to have yielded dramatic results within a decade, though they were not the intended results. As the perverse incentives of the welfare state began to produce results, society became increasingly dysfunctional. The "transvaluation of all values" to use Nietzsche’s term, though in the sense that Oswald Spengler used it, has found its catalyst in the welfare state where tried and true traditional values are endlessly attacked and replaced by new sets of values that tend to be nothing more than a rejection of the old. The cold hard utilitarianism, materialism, and social theory of Mills, Marx, and the Frankfurt School gradually have replaced a millennium of traditional Western values. The welfare state is not only the bastard child of this evolving new set of values, but its very existence has allowed for the subversion of the values that make culture and civilization possible.

One telling statistic of the values and civilized behavior of a society are crime statistics representing people's respect for others and their property. While many crime statistics have recently improved, which may speak to a number of factors including an aging population, higher incarceration rates, and welfare reform, they remain significantly higher per capita since 1960. Rapes have more than tripled on a per capita basis, as have aggravated assaults, while vehicle theft and several other categories have more than doubled, with the notable exception of murder, which has increased to a lesser extent.

Many statistics of the family paint a similar picture. Births out of wedlock were consistently at or below 5% between 1940 and 1960. By 1970, the rate had risen to over 10% and has continued to rise to 33% of all births today. Even children born to two married biological parents are much more likely to experience divorce and a single parent household. Divorce rates increased from 9 to 23 per 1000 married couples annually from 1960 to 1980, while leveling off at 20 per 1,000 through 1998. How much of this leveling off in divorce rates is the result of relationships in groups with higher divorce tendencies never evolving past cohabitation is difficult to ascertain. Over half of children born today in the US will live in a single parent household, while in some areas the rate is much higher. It is hard to ignore the statistical relationship between crime and family dissolution.

While crime and family destabilization may be two of the more obvious results of the welfare state, there are many others. The stigma for single mother births has virtually disappeared. Intergenerational dependency on government programs with the related lack of skills for self-sufficiency, much like a farm animal unable to live without the farmer for food and shelter, has created people without hope or ambition. People today have on average a much higher rate of time preference meaning that there is a much greater tendency to spend than save today than in the past. This is also reflected in the contemporary attitude of the need for immediate gratification. The social safety net influences the way people save and spend money.

In Europe, the welfare state has achieved similar results. It would be simplistic to say all societal changes were a result of government policy and programs. Some of the changes in attitude that lead to the welfare state programs being enacted may have also have resulted in changes to society itself. I am not taking the position that government policies and programs have been the one influence of societal change, but theory and evidence indicate that the welfare state has exerted a powerful influence on the structure, quality, and stability of society.

There was a marked deterioration of many societal measures over the last third of the 20th century as noted above. The fraying of society is endemic. There is a definite atomization of society as membership in fraternal organizations has declined across the board and neighbors often hardly know one another. A family having dinner together has become much less common. Single parenthood is rampant.

Government programs have not only created dependency, but have allowed people to escape the social norms that were the result of centuries of successful social behavior. The welfare state put in place a series of incentives that broke people free of the restraints of personal discipline. Before the advent of the full-blown welfare state, an out of wedlock birth was a familial disaster. The moral constraints of the time had some very good economic reasoning within it. Without a father, a single mother would have an extremely difficult time providing for the child, and her fitness for marriage would come into question for many suitors. The result was most likely to be either extreme poverty, an additional burden on the mother's parents, or adoption for the child. When the government steps in and subsidizes behaviors that in previous generations would have resulted in great hardship or even death, a sort of social Gresham's Law takes place where bad behavior chases out the good. Why have a father and husband around when the state will assure your financial situation? Why find a new job when you can collect unemployment for some time? The changes in societal incentives have resulted in a change in societal rules.

Non-judgmental governmental programs where the more dysfunctional the behavior the greater the subsidy were put in place. Therefore, if having one child out of wedlock was worth X dollars a month, having two children out of wedlock was worth X+1. Getting married was discouraged since benefits would be lost, thus welfare subsidies created a disincentive to marriage. It was often of more economic benefit for a father to be absent in a low-income household than to create a two-parent family. Since the state was now picking up the tab, a woman could break free of familial pressures. A high school girl could get pregnant and the state would provide her with her own apartment. It would be difficult to argue that this did not exert a powerful influence on social norms.

The incentives put in place continued to spread throughout society. The effects on crime were direct and indirect. The direct influence was that with an unfeeling non-judgmental social safety net irresponsible behavior was subsidized. You could be a drug-addicted single mother and the government paid for your habit. The discipline of personal responsibility was broken and the children suffered. Indirect effects included devaluing the importance of men, no longer having the responsibility of providing for their families; the government now picked up the tab. Attitudes toward women have been reduced to "bitches and hoes" in some areas, since women are no longer seen as a potential monogamous mate, but rather a sexual conquest without obligation. Increasingly, children were raised by single mothers who were oftentimes dependent on government welfare programs. Girls continue to model their mother's behavior and the cycle of dependency continues. These incentives were especially detrimental for boys since they no longer had good male role models to emulate living at home. In some cases, this has led to increased gang membership for a sense of belonging and role models. Is it any wonder that crime and incarceration rates began to spike?

The government has slowly recognized the disease with myopic clarity, taking steps to move welfare recipients back into the workforce, while failing to understand the full extent of the damage they do. In the typical governmental effort to find new revenue streams, state governments have developed a child support system of Orwellian proportions to feed state coffers. Now the welfare state views the non-custodial parent, usually the father, as another income stream to help offset welfare payment expenses. This creates a disincentive for legal work since payments are income based, and increases the incentive to work in a black market setting. Government has created yet another criminal class for those who are unable or refuse to pay. People are well aware of the nightmare that has become family law, creating a disincentive for marriage and having children. The better educated with better jobs are more aware, and have more to lose financially from divorce with children. For example, an established financially secure man in his mid-twenties or beyond may be very hesitant to risk his accumulated wealth in divorce, and to have future income tied down with child support payments for 18 years. It may be enough to induce some to delay or avoid marriage completely, or not to have children. Thus, a higher percentage of kids are born to welfare families and low-income subsidized families, with the state picking up the tab, and fewer to middle class families. Declining birth rates with negative population growth has become the norm worldwide in nations with extensive welfare regimes.

The weakening of local institutions has been another result of the welfare state. Before the welfare state, people often joined fraternal organizations that served as a private social safety net. Churches and church based organizations such as the Salvation Army also served in the role of social safety net. This was at a time when living standards were much lower, so the resources available were much less than would be available today. These organizations brought people together out of genuine caring and self-interest, helping to create a sense of community. The concept of looking to the government for assistance was not the dominant vein of thought in most developed nations. Tocqueville commented in Democracy in America how in Russia if a church is to be built the people petition the Czar while in America the community comes together and builds the church without government assistance. It did not even dawn on most Americans of the time to ask. Even the Russian serf, though servile to the czar, did not expect the czar to feed his family.

With the advent of the welfare state American's traditional independence from government changed. There was no longer a need for communities to support each other locally. The social bonds that once tied people together were shredded. Dependence on government to do more and more increased. Membership in fraternal organizations has atrophied as government has assumed many roles these organizations once filled. The role of private charitable institutions has declined. Today, society's structure has today become much more simplified and atomized. The interconnectedness that once existed amongst people like a great spider web has atrophied, with the simplified impersonal connections to government now being dominant. People and organizations now petition the government to request tax dollars to fund their pet projects.

The welfare state has also created an incentive for people to have a higher rate of time preference. Unemployment insurance and welfare benefits reduce the necessity of people to save. This results in a change in the habits and outlook of people. Compounding this mindset is the Federal Reserve's inflationary monetary policy and artificially reduced interest rates, incentivizing the "I want it now" mentality that has resulted in America's culture of debt.

Cultural governmental dependency is the norm in much of the world. The welfare state has led to servility and socially dysfunctional behavior. Freed from the discipline of fiscal responsibility, and the norms of family and society, the ability to live a self-destructive life style and not perish is possible. The more dysfunctional the behavior the greater the subsidy as illustrated by Dalrymple's work, "Life at the Bottom". This type of behavior is exemplified by the carnage and chaos that ensued in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Looting and pillaging has become a typical reaction to a disaster, or a sporting event for that matter. The welfare state has decivilized the people and now is reaping its reward. An increasingly unstable and chaotic society has been the result.

The human disaster created by the welfare state will have grave consequences for society in coming decades. Citizens are gradually being replaced by the mob, demanding ever more from politicians who are only too happy to bribe the people for votes with their own money. This dependent attitude coupled with a sense of entitlement and a willingness to use violence to achieve ones ends does not bode well for the future. If the premise that welfare states are destructive to society is accepted, and that the nation state itself is in decline along with its ability to provide social services, seeking a more effective non-political and socially beneficial solution is a rational decision.

The future may belong to those who are able to create societies that do not depend on the whims of an increasingly bankrupt and inept state. A community or several communities may form that realize it is in their self-interest to divorce themselves from all request for governmental assistance. This self-interest would most likely be the result of cultural, social, or safety concerns.

There is evidence that the process of separation from state services has been increasing in recent years. The home school movement and the increase in private schools are examples of the strong sentiment that exists that question the effectiveness and moral values of government-supplied education. The cultural Marxism that has become endemic in the public school system has concerned many parents to the point where they have sought quality education that also reflects their values elsewhere. This rejection of government-supplied education has not yet translated to other social services, but there is reason to believe that there may be underlying pressures at work that will eventually lead to a demand for social services completely separate from the State.

An interesting model for this already exists in the United States, the Amish. The Amish are a people who believe the best way to maintain their faith is to remain separate from the rest of society. They pay taxes, though can apply for the self-employment exemption from Social Security since they do not collect Social Security, but instead take care of the elderly themselves. They also do not accept any other welfare programs, but assist those in need within the community structure. For the Amish, this concept of community assistance generally extends to insurance as well. The point is that the Amish have chosen to separate themselves from the trappings of the State to maintain their culture, their faith, and their way of life. They believe it is their responsibility to take care of their family and community.

There are also examples of private charitable organizations acting as a social safety net. The Salvation Army is a prime example. From the 19th century to the present, the Salvation Army has fed the poor and housed the homeless in addition to other roles. Its mission was changed to a degree by the advent of the modern welfare state, but it still provides valuable private services to those in need. Some will argue that private charities cannot provide an adequate social safety net. Typically, these people are also advocates of the "War on Poverty". As has been demonstrated, poverty reduction programs have done little to reduce poverty and have many negative effects. If one accounts for economic growth and higher standards of living since the early 20th century, and the greatly higher rates of taxation now endured, there is no reason to believe that with the abolition of the income tax for example, that raising sufficient funds would be an issue for private charity.

Private charities have an incentive toward greater efficiency and effectiveness since they are competing with other charities for money and volunteers. If they fail in their mission, they may experience declining contributions, possibly to the point where operations will cease. In simple economic terms, the amount of assistance that reaches the recipients of government welfare benefits are only a fraction of the resources consumed by the supporting bureaucracy. The elimination of bureaucratic rules that fail to distinguish between simple economic hardship and destructive personal behavior would be a great benefit. Disincentives toward bad behavior would be more likely in private charities. Subsidizing substance abuse and illegitimate children would be less likely. Government-based programs are based on a flawed premise. They force people to support them rather than relying on compassion. It also creates a top down approach, rather than community based. The result is the bureaucratic unfeeling inhuman face that is the modern welfare state. Reliance on private charities rather than government programs would create more stable, interconnected communities.

In an increasingly relativistic society, those that do not wish to endure the process of decivilization with all its trappings, may find that creating or joining communities that separate themselves to some degree from the State and society at large to be the only way to continue their way of life. This type of community may take shape in a number of ways and does exist today to a certain extent. Home Schoolers form communities where they share events and common interests. Groups like the Amish form their own communities. Virtual communities on the internet are another possibility, though they may tend to lack the effectiveness that a close nit geographically concentrated community would have. Receiving periodic emails and web blog postings are not the same as living and working closely together in creating an effective community. The Free State Project is another example where people are moving to a common location for a common goal. There is a new current where people are gradually distancing themselves or trying to change government. The next logical step is to work to separate your group from the state much as the Amish have already done, though not necessarily separate from society. The Amish provide a very old model that provides a guide for future social organization without statist influence, with or without the religious trappings.

The simple solution to the destructiveness of the welfare state is to abolish it and allow private charity to fill the vacuum. The likelihood of this occurring in the short run is not good. Therefore, those who wish to live in a community that represents their personal values and without the detrimental effects of the welfare state will need to create their own communities.

The archetype of this type of community would have dominion over its own property. This means the community would decide who may or may not be a member of it, and who could own property within it. Outsiders that did not meet the criteria as set forth by the community would be rejected. Those who are members but violate the contractual principles of the community would be forced to sell their property under contractually agreed upon conditions, and would leave the community. Under these circumstances, a community could contractually keep drugs out of their neighborhood, for example. Owners of neighborhood crack or meth houses would face expulsion. Neighbors would certainly be able to ascertain if a problem exists long before law-enforcement typically does. Other communities may allow self-destructive behaviors. Each community could decide on its rules in a founding community charter for everything from zoning issues to lifestyle. This contractually binding document would spell out the rules of the community, and would prevent arbitrary application of its regulations. It would also provide for a method of amending the charter, which a prudent community would require either a supermajority or unanimity for charter amendments to better assure community continuity. Of course, less rigorous informal models of this sort could exist as they have existed for millennia.

Reversing the social carnage created by the welfare state will only occur by creating socially sustainable communities. Stable community non-state institutions were the norm prior to the advent of the welfare state. The state, with its policies and perverse incentives, has shredded community infrastructures and cohesiveness throughout the developed world. Ironically enough, it may require some petitioning of the state in order to acquire the ability to fully control ones own community, since this violates many existing laws enacted over the course of the 20th century. This is not to say that the welfare state is the only cause of social problems in our modern society, since it is a reflection of deeper undercurrents of a particular Weltanschauung, but it certainly exacerbates societal problems by incentivizing socially destructive behaviors. Only by removing societies from the control of the state will it be possible to create truly culturally sustainable caring communities, where members are free to live in the society they choose, and engage in the pursuit of happiness.

February 7, 2007