Sowell of Responsibility

Among the many disturbing signs of our times are conservatives and libertarians of high intelligence and high principles who are advocating government programs that relieve people of the necessity of working to provide their own livelihoods.

Generations ago, both religious people and socialists were agreed on the proposition that “he who does not work, neither shall he eat.” Both would come to the aid of those unable to work. But the idea that people who simply choose not to work should be supported by money taken from those who are working was rejected across the ideological spectrum.

How we got to the present situation is a long story, but the painful fact is that we are here now. Among the leading minds of our times, including Charles Murray today and the late and great Milton Friedman earlier, there have been proposals for ways of subsidizing the poor without the suffocating distortions of the government’s welfare state bureaucracy.

Professor Friedman’s plan for a negative income tax to help the poor has already been put into practice. But, contrary to his intention to have this replace the welfare state bureaucracy, it has been simply tacked on to all the many other government programs, instead of replacing them.

It is not inevitable that the same thing will happen to Charles Murray’s plan, but I would bet the rent money that there would be the same end result.

Just what specific problem is so dire as to cause some conservatives and libertarians to propose that the government come to the rescue by giving every adult money to live on without working?

Poverty? “Poverty” today means whatever government statisticians in Washington say it means — no more and no less. Most Americans living below the official poverty line today have central air-conditioning, cable television for multiple TV sets, own at least one motor vehicle, and have many other amenities that most of the human race never had for most of its existence.

Most Americans did not have central air-conditioning or cable television as recently as the 1980s. A scholar who spent years studying Latin America has called the poverty line in America the upper middle class in Mexico.

Low-income neighborhoods suffer far more from social degeneration, including high rates of crime and violence, than from material deprivation.

Welfare state guarantees of not having to work, however the particular policies are applied, are not a solution. Relieving people of personal responsibility for their own lives, however it is done, is a major part of the problem.

Before there can be a welfare state in a democratic country, there must first be a welfare state vision that becomes sufficiently pervasive to allow a welfare state to be created. That vision, in which people are “entitled” to what others have produced, is at the heart of the social degeneration that can be traced back to the 1960s.

Teenage pregnancies, venereal diseases, dependency on government and murder rates were all going down during the much disdained 1950s. All reversed and shot up as the welfare state, and the social vision behind the welfare state, took over in the 1960s.

That vision featured non-judgmental rewards and non-judgmental leniency toward counterproductive behavior, whether crime or irresponsible sex and its consequences. But relieving people from the responsibilities and challenges of life is doing them no favor. Nor is it a favor to society at large.

American society has become more polarized under the welfare state vision. Nor is it hard to see why. If we are all “entitled” to benefits, just by being present, why are some entitled to so little while others have so much?

In an entitlement context, all sorts of “gaps” and “disparities” automatically become “inequities,” and a reason for lashing out at others, instead of improving yourself. Only in a society in which rewards are based on contributions is there any reasonable reply to the question as to why Bill Gates has so much and others so little.

The track record of divorcing personal rewards from personal contributions hardly justifies more of the same, even when it is in a more sophisticated form. Sophisticated social disaster is still disaster — and we already have too much of that.

Too many social problems are conceived of in terms of what “we” can do for “them.” After decades of massive expansions of the welfare state, the answer seems to range from “not very much” to “making matters worse.”

Undaunted, people in a number of countries are coming up with new proposals that are variations on the theme of government-provided income — which amounts to relieving people from personal responsibility.

Yet even some conservatives and libertarians are coming up with proposals for more “efficient” versions of the welfare state — namely direct cash grants for life to virtually all adults, instead of the current hodgepodge of overlapping bureaucratic programs.

Charles Murray recognizes that “some people will idle away their lives” under his proposal. “But that is already a problem,” he says, and therefore is no valid objection to replacing the current welfare state with a less costly alternative.

Everyone recognizes that there are some people unable to provide for their own survival — infants and the severely disabled, among others. But providing for such people is wholly different from a blanket guarantee for everybody that they need not lift a finger to feed, clothe or shelter themselves.

The financial cost of providing such a guarantee, though huge, is not the worst of the problems. The history of what has actually happened in times and places where people were relieved from the challenge of survival by windfall gains is not encouraging.

 In both England and the United States, the massive expansion of the welfare state since the 1960s has been accompanied by a vast expansion in the amount of crime, violence, drug addiction, fatherless children and other signs of social degeneration.

Maybe that was just coincidence. But there have been too many coincidences in too many very different times and places where people were relieved from the challenge of survival by windfall gains of one sort or another.

In 16th and 17th century Spain — its “golden age” — the windfall gain was gold and silver looted by the ton from Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere. This enabled Spain to survive without having to develop the skills, the sciences or the work ethic of other countries in Western Europe.

Spain could buy what it wanted from other nations with all the gold and silver taken from its colonies. As a Spaniard of that era proudly put it, “Everyone serves Spain and Spain serves no one.”

What this meant in practical terms was that other countries developed the skills, the knowledge, the self-discipline and other forms of human capital that Spain did not have to develop, since it could receive the tangible products of this human capital from other countries.

But once the windfall gains from its colonies were gone, Spain became, and remained, one of the poorest countries in Western Europe. Worse, the disdainful attitudes toward productive work that developed during the centuries of Spain’s “golden age” became a negative legacy to future generations, in both Spain itself and in its overseas offshoot societies in Latin America.

In Saudi Arabia today, the great windfall gain is its vast petroleum reserve. This has spawned both a fabulously wealthy ruling elite and a heavily subsidized general population in which many have become disdainful of work. The net result has been a work force in which foreigners literally outnumber Saudis.

Some welfare states’ windfall gains have enabled a large segment of their own citizens to live in subsidized idleness while many jobs stigmatized as “menial” are taken over by foreigners. Often these initially poor foreigners rise up the economic scale, while the subsidized domestic poor fail to rise.

Do we really want more of that?

British historian Arnold Toynbee proposed the “challenge and response” thesis that human beings advance when there are challenges they must meet. The welfare state removes challenges — and has produced many social retrogressions.

Those with the welfare state vision often want to remove challenges even from games by getting rid of winning and losing. That is consistent with their overall assumptions about life. But it seems very inconsistent for conservatives and libertarians to support plans whose net effect would be to reduce the inherent challenges of life for still more people.

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