Like the poor, the debate over what to do about poverty we will always have with us. Recently, unsustainable federal budget deficits have reawakened the controversy because it now seems clear that (since payments to individuals make up two-thirds of the federal budget) entitlement reform has to be considered.
The caricature of those who insist that cuts in entitlement programs must be made is that they are cold and unfeeling, looking out only for their own interests and not the least concerned by the less fortunate living around them. Perhaps there are some who fit this profile, but very likely not many.
So, what motivates the concern with expanding government welfare programs? There is, of course, an element of economy. These programs come with a fiscal cost and, as a nation, it is increasingly clear we cannot meet this cost without potentially economy-crippling tax hikes. But there are other, more important (though not as obvious), costs to the welfare state. They are measured not in financial capital but in social capital.
Alexis de Tocqueville was prescient when he warned of:
an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure [citizens’] gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits. (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 663)
His concern was that a culture of self-reliance, personal initiative and local government he admired in early 19th-century America would be lost if the national government were to take on itself this power.
A hidden cost of government welfare is dependence on the state’s largesse, which replaces self-providence or self-reliance.
As the brilliant commentator Mark Steyn explains in his new book, the architect of Britain’s welfare state promised to end “want.” Ironically, that seems to have occurred: “Want has been all but abolished. Today, fewer and fewer Britons want to work, want to marry, want to raise children, want to lead a life of any purpose or dignity.”
Conservatives are right to point out the hidden costs of government welfare to taxpayers and must continue to point out the more significant costs, and amplify their warnings, of its moral and cultural costs.
Perhaps we will be spared intermittent riots. Aldous Huxley, too, was prescient in suggesting future instability might be tamped down through a mix of drugs, electronic media and satiation in pornography. But the deficit in social capital caused by government dependency will mount, and any fair observer will have to admit we have sustained a real loss as Tocqueville’s warning has become increasingly descriptive.