Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

They Said It:

A growing body of empirical evidence points to increasing dependency on state largess.  The evidence documents as well a number of perverse and disturbing changes that this entitlement state is imposing on society . . . .

According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half (49%) of Americans today live in homes receiving one or more government transfer benefits.  That percentage is up almost 20 points from the early 1980s. And contrary to what the Obama White House team suggested during the election campaign, this leap is not due to the aging of the population.  In fact, only about one-tenth of the increase is due to upticks in old-age pensions and health-care programs for seniors.

Instead, the country has seen a long-term expansion in public reliance on “means-tested” programs — that is, benefits intended for the poor, such as Medicaid and food stamps.  At this writing, about 35% of Americans (well over 100 million people) are accepting money, goods or services from “means-tested” government programs.  This percentage is twice as high as in the early 1980s.  Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans on entitlement programs are taking “means-tested” benefits.  Only a third of all Americans receiving government entitlement transfers are seniors on Social Security and Medicare.

Nicholas Eberstadt, “Yes, Mr. President, We Are a Nation of Takers,” The Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2013.

 

THE WELFARE STATE AND ITS DISCONTENTS.

For a variety of reasons, our vaunted political class has, over the last few weeks, been rather frantically discussing the condition of poverty and its ongoing relevance and prevalence in the United States, which is still the richest nation the world has even known.  Part of this, of course, is the usual political debate over the need for and effectiveness of various social welfare programs in the face of a chronic budgetary shortfall.  Another, quite large part of it is the Obama administration’s current strategy of attempting to draw attention away from the Obamacare debacle by focusing on something a little less disastrous and more thoroughly poll-tested, namely the notion that “income inequality” is the greatest political problem of the current epoch.  And finally, at least some of the discussion is prompted by the anniversary celebration – or lamentation, depending on one’s political predilections – of history’s greatest and most coordinated government effort to end the condition once and for all.  Last week, the Washington Post discussed this last bit it as follows:

The ambitious “Great Society” agenda begun half a century ago continues to touch nearly every aspect of American life.  But the deep philosophical divide it created has come to define the nation’s harsh politics, especially in the Obama era.

On the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty, Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a battle over whether its 40 government programs have succeeded in lifting people from privation or worsened the situation by trapping the poor in dependency.

Many of today’s fiercest political debates can be traced to the aspirations of the Great Society, the domestic programs it spawned during the 1960s, and the doubts it raised about the role and reach of Washington.

Like most of our political class’s present arguments, the clash over poverty is interesting but not particularly illuminating.  The issues, questions, problems, and solutions made manifest by this debate are archetypical of a broader discussion of poverty and government that has preoccupied Western man for centuries.  At the same time, the actual terms of the debate are limited at best and largely cut off from that historical reality, due principally to the fact that the members of our collective policy-making caste routinely confront each and every concern they face as if it they were the first ever to encounter such woes.

If you have paid any attention at all to the debates over the budget over the last several weeks, you have our deepest sympathies.  More to the point, you may have noticed that the disputes over every, tiny bit of said budget are not only like the dispute over every other tiny bit of the budget, but that they appear always and forever to have sounded that way.

Take, for example, the battle over long-term unemployment benefits, a topic that we have discussed to death in these pages.  On the one side, you have mostly Democrats and their assorted supporters in the mainstream press insisting on two points:  first, that the failure to extend long-term benefits for the TWELFTH time since the Great Recession began is economically outrageous; and second, that it is also morally outrageous, constituting a cruel and nasty bit of political pushback on the part of cold-hearted Republicans who are bound and determined to punish someone – anyone! – for the fact that they are not in control of all of the levers of power.  Typical of this genre is the following, penned by the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and a particularly nasty and self-satisfied little man, Eugene Robinson:

Shame on Republicans for blocking the resumption of long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans.  And shame on Democrats for letting them.

The GOP cannot be allowed to cast this as a bloodless policy debate about “incentives” that allegedly encourage sloth.  Putting that spin on the issue is disingenuous, insulting and inaccurate: As Republicans well know, individuals receiving unemployment checks are legally required to look for work.

[W]hile Congress inches forward, probably toward some kind of extension, lives are falling apart.  All day, every day, Democrats ought to be making a loud and righteous noise over this disgraceful state of affairs.

Yes, yes.  Shame on Republicans.  They are evil.  Anyone who would cut benefits – or rather, refuse to extend them for the 12th time – is unquestionably wicked and should be ashamed to show his face anywhere among civilized people.

Of course, it’s not just unemployment benefits, for the fact is that any attempt by Republicans to rein in runaway or wasteful spending on any social welfare program will be met with the same language.  Food stamps.  Head Start.  And on and on.  Corrine Brown, a Democratic Congresswoman from Florida, made headlines last July when she castigated her GOP counterparts on the floor of the House thusly: “Mitt Romney was right,” she bawled, “You all do not care about the 47 percent.  Shame on you!”  Likewise, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes insisted that any opposition to food stamp expansion and waste could only be motivated by moral depravity.  To wit:

And no one in Washington, particularly on the Republican side, seems to be at all concerned about the continued economic misery of millions of our fellow citizens.  So it seems to me that the very least, the absolute least, a decent wealthy society can do amidst an unprecedented period of economic stagnation and vastly unequal prospects for our people, is to just make sure our fellow citizens don’t go hungry.  What a shameful spectacle to watch Republicans prove their ideological bona fides at these people’s expense.

On the other side of the aisle, the arguments about social welfare are more composed, saner, less morally righteous, and based largely on economic principles.  But they are nonetheless similar in their categorical rejection of dissent.  Rand Paul, the Senator from Kentucky and presumed presidential candidate, has been out front for the GOP on the question of unemployment.  And it goes without saying that his opinion of the proposed extension of long-term benefits differs significantly from those who spend their days “shaming” him and his fellow partisans.  Two weeks ago, he took to the pages of USA Today to make his case:

There’s a lot of talk about helping those down on their luck, but there’s a big divide on the best approach.  Our view is that America needs a growth agenda based on reducing the burden of government.  The unemployed need a strong job market, not endless handouts that create dependency.

Critics have said it is “insulting” and “ridiculous” to warn that there may be some adverse consequences to extending unemployment insurance beyond the typical 26 weeks – even if the debate is about doing so for the 12th time in the last five years.

We should be having a debate about whether extending long-term unemployment benefits has consequences for the unemployed, the employed, and America’s economy.

In 1990, economists Bruce Meyer and Lawrence Katz released a research paper emphasizing two important points regarding unemployment benefits.  First, unemployment levels begin to drop around the time benefits are likely to lapse, suggesting a greater incentive for individuals to participate in the labor force when benefits are about to end.  Secondly, they point out that unemployment benefits do impact worker’s willingness to start new jobs, thus prolonging the duration of unemployment.

More recently, a 2013 study by four economists from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, “Because unemployment benefit extensions represent an implicit tax on market work, they subsidize unemployment and discourage labor supply.”

Furthermore, a number of studies reflect the opinion of Harvard economist Raj Chetty, who found that extending unemployment benefits has costs, including extending the duration of unemployment by reducing incentives for workers to find jobs or diminishing the intensity to join the workforce.

And, of course, this perfect symmetry obtains in the debates over other social programs.  Waste, fraud, and abuse are rampant.  Head Start is a costly waste that has been shown over and over again to produce precious few results at an exorbitant cost.  Welfare programs create dependency, which leads to depravity, which, in turn, leads to greater need for service, greater dependency, and greater depravity, the very definition of a vicious circle.  Kevin Williamson, writing for National Review, put it as follows in a long and fascinating piece on Appalachia, a.k.a. “The Big White Ghetto”:

[I]t turns out that the local economy runs on black-market soda the way Baghdad ran on contraband crude during the days of sanctions.

It works like this: Once a month, the debit-card accounts of those receiving what we still call food stamps are credited with a few hundred dollars — about $500 for a family of four, on average — which are immediately converted into a unit of exchange, in this case cases of soda.  On the day when accounts are credited, local establishments accepting EBT cards — and all across the Big White Ghetto, “We Accept Food Stamps” is the new E pluribus unum – are swamped with locals using their public benefits to buy cases and cases — reports put the number at 30 to 40 cases for some buyers — of soda.  Those cases of soda then either go on to another retailer, who buys them at 50 cents on the dollar, in effect laundering those $500 in monthly benefits into $250 in cash — a considerably worse rate than your typical organized-crime money launderer offers — or else they go into the local black-market economy, where they can be used as currency in such ventures as the dealing of unauthorized prescription painkillers — by “pillbillies,” as they are known at the sympathetic establishments in Florida that do so much business with Kentucky and West Virginia that the relevant interstate bus service is nicknamed the “OxyContin Express.”  A woman who is intimately familiar with the local drug economy suggests that the exchange rate between sexual favors and cases of pop — some dealers will accept either — is about 1:1, meaning that the value of a woman in the local prescription-drug economy is about $12.99 at Walmart prices.

Last year, 18 big-city mayors, Mike Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel among them, sent the federal government a letter asking that soda be removed from the list of items eligible to be used for EBT purchases.  Mayor Bloomberg delivered his standard sermon about obesity, nutrition, and the multiplex horrors of sugary drinks.  But none of those mayors gets what’s really going on with sugar water and food stamps.  Take soda off the list and there will be another fungible commodity to take its place.  It’s possible that a great many cans of soda used as currency go a long time without ever being cracked — in a town this small, those selling soda to EBT users and those buying it back at half price are bound to be some of the same people, the soda merely changing hands ceremonially to mark the real exchange of value, pillbilly wampum . . .

This is about “the draw.”

“The draw,” the monthly welfare checks that supplement dependents’ earnings in the black-market Pepsi economy, is poison.  It’s a potent enough poison to catch the attention even of such people as those who write for the New York Times.  Nicholas Kristof, visiting nearby Jackson, Ky., last year, was shocked by parents who were taking their children out of literacy classes because the possibility of improved academic performance would threaten $700-a-month Social Security disability benefits, which increasingly are paid out for nebulous afflictions such as loosely defined learning disorders.  “This is painful for a liberal to admit,” Kristof wrote, “but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.” . . .

In effect, welfare has made Appalachia into a big and sparsely populated housing project — too backward to thrive, but just comfortable enough to keep the underclass in place.

The two sides of the debate, then, are rather clearly defined.  On the one side, you have those who insist that government programs are critical; that they help people; that they keep people from starving or losing their homes; that to cut them would be to cause immeasurable harm to an incalculable number of people.

And on the other side, you have those who insist that government programs breed dependency; that they are wasteful; that they damage the long-term prospects for the country; that they damage long-term prospects for individuals; that they, in short, are causing immeasurable harm to an incalculable number of people in and of themselves.

The problem is that they’re both right.

The bigger problem is that they’ve both always been right, but no one – or at least no one in our political class – seems to have even the vaguest idea that this is the case or what to do about it.

It is, we’ll gladly concede, rather simplistic to suggest that Republicans care only about the effects of social welfare policy on dependency and broader economic variables, just as it’s simplistic to suggest that the Democrats do not.  Still, there are broad lines of division here, which leaves the serious questions unanswered.

At the top of this piece, we noted that this month is the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty.”  How one feels about the War on Poverty and whether it is, in fact, being “won” depends a great deal on how one feels about government in general.  The author of that piece, Karen Tumulty, argues that Democrats are unhappy about the war because they still see work to be done, while Republicans are unhappy because they think that the problems the war was meant to solve have, in fact, been exacerbated.  As best we can tell, Tumulty is wrong on both counts.

In fact, the Democrats think that the War on Poverty has been an incredible success.  They merely believe, as President Obama has put it, that “there is more work to be done.”  They have won the battles thus far fought, but the war itself isn’t over.  Nowhere in this country do children starve to death.  Nowhere in this country do children not have access to primary and secondary education.  Nowhere in this country do the elderly die of treatable conditions simply because they can’t afford health care.  These conditions have largely been alleviated in contemporary America.  And they have been alleviated because of the efforts of government.  But all of this is only the beginning of what government can achieve if only it is allowed to operate to its full capacity.

Republicans, by contrast, tend to think of the War on Poverty more diversely or, if you prefer, more bewilderedly.  Some – like, for example Charles Krauthammer and erstwhile George W. Bush speechwriters Michael Gerson, and Peter Wehner – tend to see the Great Society as a success.  Again, nowhere in this country do children starve to death, etc., and government has been responsible for making this possible.  To these Republicans, the challenge going forward comes in trying to figure out a way to balance the benefits of government with its drawbacks.

Other Republicans – those whom we might categorize as conservatives – insist that their government-loving fellow partisans are nuts and that government since the 1960s has exacerbated both dependency and the conditions that contribute to poverty.  Which is to say that while poverty may be a more comfortable condition these days than it once was, it is also a more permanent condition.

To these folks, government intervention has been particularly damaging to the aspirations of minorities, who are trapped by programs that may have made it easier for them to live lives not wrecked by destitution, but have nonetheless consigned them to permanent underclass status, in large part by providing perverse incentives.  Moreover, given the record of economic growth and the market’s ability to raise millions out of poverty on its own, the “poor” in this country would likely be better off – both than they were in 1964 and than they are today – had the government not messed things up in the first place.

Obviously, there are problems with each of these approaches.  Ironically, the last one, the one to which we most closely subscribe ourselves, is probably the easiest to discredit.  It is quite possible that everything contained in this argument against government intervention – and belatedly against the Great Society and the War on Poverty – is accurate.  It is likely, in our estimation, that government made the problems of poverty worse.  It is also likely that a freer and less regulated economy would have improved the lot of the lower classes far more over the last half-century than has government aid.  Lastly, it is documented and verifiable that government aid fosters dependency and exacerbated the behaviors associated with long-term poverty.

But none of this really matters, since it’s based on a hypothetical.  Could things have been better?  Sure?  Can we prove it?  Nope.  Can we go about rebuilding the world as it existed before 1964, if we decided to give it a shot?  Again, nope.

The problems with this conservative approach to the welfare state are, we’re afraid, well worn.  Indeed, most of them have been obvious for nearly two centuries, since Tocqueville published his “Memoir on Pauperism.”  That short tract, which we have cited before in these pages, is perhaps the best exposition of the faults of the welfare state we have encountered.  And as such, it is also serves as a guide for the imprudence inherent in the false hope that a pre-welfare state might be achieved in this country, now some eighty years into said welfare state’s existence.

For starters, Tocqueville identifies the unique circumstances that permit and even exacerbate the condition of pauperism – or poverty, if you prefer – in those nations that would seem on the surface to be least disposed to the condition, which is to say countries possessing great wealth.  The Left in this country has long insisted, when proposing this, that, or the other government scheme, that it is simply unconscionable that there would be people without health care, or cars, or access to the internet, or . . . well . . . you name it, in the richest nation in the world.

Tocqueville, by contrast, explains that the existence of the “poor” among the rich is not only to be expected, but is actually to be more expected and expected with greater prevalence as aggregate wealth increases.  Definitions change, he argues.  “Wants” quickly evolve to “needs,” and what once constituted great luxury eventually becomes a sign of precisely the opposite.  Specifically, Tocqueville writes:

Man is born with needs, and he creates needs for himself.  The first class belongs to his physical constitution, the second to habit and education.  I have shown that at the outset men had scarcely anything but natural needs, seeking only to live; but in proportion as life’s pleasures have become more numerous, they have become habits.  These in turn have finally become almost as necessary as life itself. . . .

The more prosperous a society is, the more diversified and more durable become the enjoyments of the greatest number, the more they simulate true necessity through habit and imitation.  Civilised man is therefore infinitely more exposed to the vicissitudes of destiny than savage man.  What happens to the second only from time to time and in particular circumstances, occurs regularly to the first.  Along with the range of his pleasures he has expanded the range of his needs and leaves himself more open to the hazard of fortune.  Thus the English poor appear almost rich to the French poor; and the latter are so regarded by the Spanish poor.  What the Englishman lacks has never been possessed by the Frenchman.  And so it goes as one descends the social scale.  Among very civilised peoples, the lack of a multitude of things causes poverty; in the savage state, poverty consists only in not finding something to eat.

The progress of civilisation not only exposes men to many new misfortunes: it even brings society to alleviate miseries which are not even thought about in less civilised societies.  In a country where the majority is ill-clothed, ill-housed, ill-fed, who thinks of giving clean clothes, healthy food, comfortable quarters to the poor?  The majority of the English, having all these things, regard their absence as a frightful misfortune; society believes itself bound to come to the aid of those who lack them, and cures evils which are not even recognised elsewhere.  In England, the average standard of living a man can hope for in the course of his life is higher than in any other country of the world.  This greatly facilitates the extension of pauperism in that kingdom.

What this tells us, then, is that no matter how prosperous a country or people might be, there will always be, among them, some who are “impoverished.”  Moreover, these men and women will be impoverished both in relative terms and, potentially, in real terms as well, depending on the vicissitudes of the market and of economic conditions.  Therefore, relying on private economy alone to cure the ills of poverty will always fail, not because it doesn’t raise the living standards of all men, but because it will nevertheless leave some men exposed and will still foster a class that is, in comparative terms, deprived.

As a remedy to this, Tocqueville notes, civilized nations have long had charity, which is to say the donation of goods and services to those who are unable, for whatever reason, to provide them for themselves.  In a modern, wealthy country, charity comes in two varieties; private, which has existed since at least the Middle Ages, and public, which began with the British poor laws that were first enacted under Queen Elizabeth, some four hundred years ago.

Tocqueville argues quite persuasively that private charity is far superior to public charity, largely because it is limited, temporary, and totally voluntary on the parts of both the giver and the receiver.  Because of this, private charity achieves its ends without producing all of the negative characteristics associated with public charity (more on which in a moment).

The catch is that despite its vast superiority to public charity, private charity is inadequate to meet the needs of a modern, wealthy society, as Tocqueville lamentingly concedes:

I recognize that individual charity almost always produces useful results.  It devotes itself to the greatest miseries, it seeks out misfortune without publicity, and it silently and spontaneously repairs the damage.  It can be observed wherever there are unfortunates to be helped.  It grows with suffering.  And yet, it cannot be unthinkingly relied on because a thousand accidents can delay or halt its operation.  One cannot be sure of finding it, and it is not aroused by every cry of pain.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the conservative reaction to the welfare state, though, is one that Tocqueville doesn’t discuss openly in this “Memoir,” but only hints at.  If you extrapolate from his more famous work, Democracy in America, you see how difficult it would be for public charity to be eliminated or even scaled back and replaced by the private charity that once predominated.

Private charity exists explicitly and exclusively because of the institutions of civil society, those entities that fill the gap between the individual and the state, serving both as a buffer between the two and as an enlightening influence on the people.  America, as Tocqueville noted, was once rich in these institutions and was therefore unique in the world.  Specifically, he wrote:

The political associations that exist in the United States are only a single feature in the midst of the immense assemblage of associations in that country.  Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.  They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.  The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.  If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.  Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association. . . .

Unfortunately, in American today the state tends to see these institutions as its enemy, as bodies that illegitimately sap its authority.  Over time, therefore, the state has had a tendency to push back against these institutions and to fight anything that stands between it and the people.  Russell Kirk described the phenomenon as follows:

All history, and modern history especially, in some sense is the account of the decline of community and the ruin consequent upon that loss.  In the process, the triumph of the modern state has been the most powerful factor.   “The single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.”  There is every reason to regard the state in history as, to use a phrase that Gierke applied to Rousseau’s doctrine of the General Will, “a process of permanent revolution.”  Hostile toward every institution which acts as a check upon its power, the nation-state has been engaged, ever since the decline of the medieval order, in stripping away one by one the functions and prerogatives of true community – aristocracy, church, guild, family, and local association.  What the state seeks is a tableland upon which a multitude of individuals, solitary though herded together, labor anonymously for the state’s maintenance.  Universal military conscription and the “mobile labor force” and the concentration-camp are only the most recent developments of this system.  The “pulverizing and macadamizing tendency of modern history” that Maitland discerned has been brought to pass by “the momentous conflicts of jurisdiction between the political state and the social associations lying intermediate to it and the individual.”  The same process may be traced in the history of Greece and Rome; and what came of this, in the long run, was social ennui and political death.  All those gifts of variety, contrast, competition, communal pride, and sympathetic association that characterize man at his manliest are menaced by the ascendancy of the omnicompetent state of modern times, resolved for its own security to level the ramparts of traditional community.

In the context of contemporary politics, what this means is that even if one could somehow manage to strangle the welfare state and convince the nation to accept an alternative, no alternative exists.  Those institutions that once provided the alternative are no longer as powerful or as capable as they once were.  And the state continues at all times to continue to crush the institutions of civil society.  It is no coincidence, as we have noted in these pages before, that the Obama administration, as part of its plan to extend the welfare states’ reach into the realm of healthcare, has openly and aggressively courted the destruction of civil society.  The attack on the freedom of conscience of religious institutions is about a great deal more than contraception and the purported “war on women.”  More than anything, it is about destroying what is left of those institutions – religious in nature – that stand between the state and the individual.

In the end, as Tocqueville predicted in his “Memoir,” once the state gets involved in providing charity, it remains involved, and its involvement can hardly be curtailed easily.  “Circumstances, as in America,” he wrote, “can prevent the seed [of dependency] from developing rapidly, but they cannot destroy it, and if the present generation escapes its influence, it will devour the well-being of generations to come.”

And that, in turn, brings us back to the other two approaches to the welfare state, the Democratic and the “centrist” Republican approaches respectively.  This is probably not entirely fair, but the interests of time and space, we think we can treat these two as largely identical.  After all, in accepting the state as arbiter of public well-being, the centrists also accept the state as the final authority in determining the means best to enhance that well-being, just as the liberals have.  They only want a little bit less of it.  Or as Philip Klein recently noted, the centrist Republicans “make arguments that are very difficult to distinguish philosophically from liberalism . . . Evidently, what philosophically separates them from liberals is a belief that the welfare state should be less centralized and technocratic.”

We won’t dwell long on the liberal-Left view of the welfare state, largely because it tends to discredit itself.  Indeed, for the most part, the Left accepts the Right’s critique of the welfare state, ignoring those bits that are inconvenient and insisting that that which can’t be ignored is irrelevant.  Welfare encourages, even compels its clients to become dependent on the state, you say?  Well, so what?  The state can and should provide for those who need help; that’s its entire purpose.  And in a country with so much surplus wealth, state intervention should never, ever be a matter of money.  There is plenty of money, if only the state has the guts to go and take it.

Recall, if you will, the Obama campaign’s digital ad featuring the imaginary “Julia.”  During every stage of her life, the Julia character requires assistance from the state.  And the state readily complies.  Not only did Team Obama not see a problem with this notion of the state-citizen relationship, neither did its target audience, which has been conditioned to see dependency not as destructive, but as entirely normal and constructive.

Most damaging of all is the fact that if taken to its logical conclusion, the liberal-Left’s embrace of the welfare state openly accepts and welcomes that which the conservative critique of same derides as unspeakably horrific.  As we have argued, the Obama economic vision is astonishingly analogous to the final-stage welfare state.  It relies heavily on the contributions of favored constituencies who are allowed, even encouraged, to prosper and who, in return, gladly pay the necessary tribute to satisfy the state and to provide for those less fortunate.

In Obama’s world, Big Government cooperates – some might say “colludes” – with big business, i.e. big banks, big technology, etc.  And in return for government’s “cooperation,” big business agrees to give back.  The masses are largely cut off from wealth creation and any from aspirations of becoming part of the new gentry.  At the same time, however, they are taken care of through the largess of the state.  Big Government rubs Big Business’s back.  Big Business rubs back by filling Big Government’s coffers.  And the “little people” are kept fat and happy in their dependency.

The problem with all of this is that this particular condition, which the Left views as ideal, is itself analogous to the historical condition of serfdom, which, as you may recall, is the precise destination to which conservatives have been warning the welfare state will lead since 1944.  In a recent essay, Joel Kotkin, the Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, explained how this all works in practice:

[I]nstead of a land of opportunity, California has become increasingly feudal.  According to recent census estimates, the state suffers some of the highest levels of inequality in the country.  By some estimates, the state’s level of inequality compares with that of such global models as the Dominican Republic, Gambia, and the Republic of the Congo.

At the same time, the Golden State now suffers the highest level of poverty in the country—23.5 percent compared to 16 percent nationally—worse than long-term hard luck cases like Mississippi.  It is also now home to roughly one-third of the nation’s welfare recipients, almost three times its proportion of the nation’s population.

Like medieval serfs, increasing numbers of Californians are downwardly mobile, and doing worse than their parents. . . .

California produces more new billionaires than any place this side of oligarchic Russia or crony capitalist China.  By some estimates the Golden State is home to one out of every nine of the world’s billionaires.  In 2011 the state was home to 90 billionaires, 20 more than second place New York and more than twice as many as booming Texas. . . .

Silicon Valley’s wealth reflects the fortunes of a handful of companies that dominate an information economy that itself is increasingly oligopolistic.   In contrast to the traditionally conservative or libertarian ethos of the entrepreneurial class, the oligarchy is increasingly allied with the nominally populist Democratic Party and its regulatory agenda.  Along with the public sector, Hollywood, and their media claque, they present California as “the spiritual inspiration” for modern “progressives” across the country.

Through their embrace of and financial support for the state’s regulatory regime, the oligarchs have made job creation in non tech-businesses—manufacturing, energy, agriculture—increasingly difficult . . . .

If current trends continue, the fastest growing class will be the permanently property-less.  This group includes welfare recipients and other government dependents but also the far more numerous working poor.  In the past, the working poor had reasonable aspirations for a better life, epitomized by property ownership or better prospects for their children.  Now, with increasingly little prospect of advancement, California’s serfs depend on the Clerisy to produce benefits making their permanent impoverishment less gruesome.

This, sadly, is the New Left’s ideal.  It is the welfare state in all its glory.  It is also, as Hayek might have said, the crisis of our civilization.  It is a condition that can only end badly.

We are left then with no satisfactory answer to questions posed by the contemporary welfare state, which as we noted at the top of this piece, is at the heart of most of our political discourse today, covering all subjects from budgets to health care to income inequality.  On the one hand, maintenance of the status quo with respect to the welfare state will lead, in time, to serfdom, to a new and ugly feudalism in which the state and its favored clients prosper while the masses are assuaged by baubles and trinkets.

On the other hand, the present, conservative argument against the status quo is itself inadequate for a variety of reasons, perhaps the most significant of which is that there is no real, viable alternative.  As Gertrude Himmelfarb writes in her introduction to the “Memoir on Pauperism”:

This is the final paradox of Tocqueville’s argument.  Private charity may seem weaker than public charity because it provides no sustained and certain help for the poor.  In one sense, however, this is its strength, for it is precisely its temporary and voluntary character that enables it to alleviate many miseries without breeding others.  But it is also a problem, for the private charity that was sufficient in the Middle Ages may be insufficient in the present industrial age.  This is the question that now confronts society.  If public charity is unsatisfactory and private charity inadequate, how can this new kind of pauperism be averted so that the working classes do not ‘curse the prosperity that they produce?’

Conservatives make all of the right arguments and sound all of the proper themes, but yet they can offer no real alternative to the present condition.  And the reason for this is because no viable alternative exists.  Even Tocqueville himself could not rectify this paradox and so, in Himmelfarb’s words, “At this critical point, the essay abruptly ends. . . .”

We have some thoughts on what might be done to make a more viable alternative possible.  Those thoughts aren’t particularly relevant in this context except that we believe that we are not alone in thinking thusly.  Indeed, we know we’re not alone, since Himmelfarb also suggests that the key to a serf-free America may involve an all-out effort to fight the state’s encroachment on civil society and to strengthen civil society’s the heretofore weakened institutions.

What that tells us – and what you should take away from all of this – is that the ugly and pitiless political fights of the last four-plus years are more likely to be the rule going forward than the exception.  All federal public policy, not just welfare, entitlement, and budget policy, will form the battleground for the fight for the soul of the post-welfare state.  Cultural issues, which are so often derided by libertarians and other purported supporters of liberty, will remain front-and-center in the political debate, as their ultimate disposition will affect the future viability of civil society.

When people like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declare that “extreme conservatives who are right-to life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay. . . have no place in the state of New York” he is not merely waxing idiotic on guns and abortion, he is waging war against the civil society, against the right of the institutions of civil society to maintain a place in the public sphere.  And when the Little Sisters of the Poor fight in court for the right not to be compelled to provide birth control and abortifacients through their health care coverage, they are fighting back.

Contra the superficial and dimwitted media, the acrimony of the last four years has nothing to do with race and everything to do with the future of the country, its civil society, and its massive and growing welfare state.

All of which is to say that the acrimony will remain, long after Barack Obama is gone.

 

Copyright 2014. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.