Government welfare and moral excellence

The great demographer Nicholas Eberstadt recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the dramatic explosion in the receipt of government welfare. His concluding paragraphs:

The prospect of careening along an unsustainable economic road is deeply disturbing. But another possibility is even more frightening — namely, that the present course may in fact be sustainable for far longer than most people today might imagine.

The U.S. is a very wealthy society. If it so chooses, it has vast resources to squander. And internationally, the dollar is still the world’s reserve currency; there remains great scope for financial abuse of that privilege.

Such devices might well postpone the day of fiscal judgment: not so the day of reckoning for American character, which may be sacrificed long before the credibility of the U.S. economy. Some would argue that it is an asset already wasting away before our very eyes.

In a time of uncertainty, people understandably seek for security. Increasingly, it is sought by reliance on government munificence. That quest for security however, can easily become a repudiation of responsibility.

Professor Scott Fitzgibbon has written: “An excellent person recognizes more things as morally binding than ordinary people might do, but a debased person, it appears, will acknowledge fewer.” In other words, moral excellence relies in part on the willingness to discharge duties.

What does this have to do with government welfare programs? The risk of such programs is that they rob people of motivation and even opportunity to carry out moral duties such as self-providence, care of family members, service to the poor and needy, etc.

At an extreme, government may even try to provide not only tangible goods but such intangibles as “dignity.”  Doing so threatens basic civility, because it is then seen to be owed to a person not because of common humanity but because of membership in government-recognized groupings.

At the Republican National Convention, a debt clock was prominently displayed to show the amount of debt the United States incurred during the time of the convention. We don’t yet have a measure of the character deficit we are beginning to incur, but we ought to take action to reduce it without delay.