Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Entitlements Around Our Necks

The interesting historical confluence of muscular Obama progressivism, the continuing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, and the European welfare state insolvency has led to serious questions about the feasibility of the American welfare state.

So in my column this week, I examine the relative merits of private charity and government entitlement, or what Tocqueville calls "legal charity."

Some comments on last week's column, "Obama's Godly Government," actually condemned private charity as an evil, and extolled entitlements as superior in both efficiency and humanity.

Said one, "Its the stability of funding from entitlements that allows a recipient to plan ahead, set goals and work his/her way back to independence. Charity is inconsistent, random and in a subtle manner demands an obligation."

Said another, "Charity ennobles the giver and obligates the recipient. The former is noble while the latter is common. This is the core dynamic of feudalism. Entitlements make possible the orderly transfer of substance to the next generation, whether through inheritance, social contract, or special grant. ... The welfare state has been an essential ingredient in moral and material betterment since the passing of the ancien régime."

Here I let Tocqueville take the ball:


In my column last week, I asserted, "Charity ennobles and enables. Entitlements enslave and incapacitate." I was echoing Alexis de Tocqueville who, in his “Memoir on Pauperism” (a must-read), argues that legal charity, what we call public welfare or entitlements, “depraves men even more than it impoverishes them.” Private charity involves people in one another’s lives who ordinarily would occupy separate worlds, the giver actively affirming the receiver’s humanity, and the receiver inspired with hope and gratitude. By contrast, attempts by the government to duplicate this relationship inspire resentment in the rich and envy in the poor, while leaving them still rich and poor

Here I take up the ball myself.
Entitlements are attractive because of their apparent stability as a system of relief in contrast to the comparative unpredictability of private giving. But that is also their danger. As they are institutionalized and made permanent, they incline people to rely on them just as permanently. The widespread cultural habit of people voluntarily helping people in need—carrying them through a period of unemployment, taking care of them in their old age, providing pro bono medical care—unites us with ties of obligation and mutual affection. But the omniprovisional state destroys even natural human ties. Families evaporate. Communities disintegrate. It infantilizes, and even dehumanizes. The brick wall of economic unsustainability that we are beginning to experience is merely adding material constraints on the entitlement way of helping each other to the tragic moral constraints that have been obvious for some time.

Michael Goodwin points to the entitlement attitude behind the public sector union revolt in Wisconsin and other states in this Fox News article which is adapted from something in The New York Post.

The Wisconsin showdown between a determined Republican governor and spoiled public unions is shaping up as a crucial test of state and municipal solvency. But the financial stakes represent only part of the much larger conflict engulfing America. The real war is over the entitlement culture itself. And while government spending is the most visible part, the ultimate issues are the character and fate of our nation.
The most powerful moral refutation of the entitlement regime I have read recently is Charles Murray's AEI address in 2009, "The Europe Syndrome." That should be in your must-read pile.


admiyo said...

Very weak argument. I'm neither agreeing with you nor disagreeing with you. All you are doing is parroting both the left and right's position.

Charity good Entitlements Bad and vice versa are both strawmen arguments. The reality is far more subtle on both sides.

Some would consider Public Education and Entitlement. I would argu that it is an essential aspect of a free sociaety, and that private parochal schools are dangerous. However, I'd argue also that just giving people money with no obligation to track or improve is dangerous as well. There has to be some more gernealizable rule than this case-by-case basis. I suspect it is something along the lines of this: services provide by the state should focus on those aspects that establish sufficient structure to prevent the collapse of the state while not restricting its dynamic nature and allow it to grow and evolve. Churches and religion are an essential aspect of people's growth, but they must be counter balanced by something that provides a secular view point. This is not just for the sake of the participant, but for both the Religious and Secular organizations that benefit from the cross pollination of ideas.

David C. Innes said...

Admiyo, thank you for taking the time, and I apologize for taking so long in approving the comment.

Weak argument, eh? The greatest strength of the column is in the reference to Tocqueville. Get the little book, and consider what he says.

As for your own claims, I find much in what you say that is vague (as well as misspelled; you need to tighten up on that--no offense; just some advice): "essence of a free society," "dangerous," "structure," "dynamic," "grow," "evolve," "counterbalance," and even "religious" vs "secular."

I suggest that you get hold of a copy of Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey's "History of Political Philosophy" and work you way through it, especially the chapters on Hobbes and Locke. Anything by Harvey Mansfield will also help. Check my Mansfield tab at the side for further references there.

Khan said...

Dr. Innes,

One your quotes from a dissenter at World states that charity subtly creates obligations. I wonder, do you believe that obligation is a bad thing? Another comment proposes that it is a step towards feudalism. What is the ideal degree of interplay between individualism and obligation to community?


I'm interested in why you think public schools are a necessary part of a free society...

David C. Innes said...

DK, the person who made the remark at Worldmag, "Scroopmoth," is perpetually grumpy and has nothing nice to say at any time. The feudalism remark is bizarre. Any relationship not based on entitlements is feudal. She(?) appears to hate the obligations of love, and thus the Christian faith at its core. She is miserable.

If public schools were actually educating people, Admiyo would have a stronger argument.