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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Church and State in Loving Embrace

Listen to (or read) the President's National Prayer Breakfast speech from February 3, 2011.

Notice that the church needs the government if it is to do its work of charity. Does that sound like Christ's vision for his bride and witness in the world?

My column on this speech explores the division between Evangelical left and right over the role of government in "a just and caring society." President Obama claims that the church and nonprofits are simply inadequate to the needs a round us. The government "must" be involved.

Of course, the president is looking at the capacities and willingness of non-governmental givers and providers in the context of a large-and-getting-larger government welfare system. We now have had generations of government that has been progressively crowding out private action by taxing away capacity to give and weakening people’s sense of their moral responsibility to care. It’s impressive that we give and care as much as we do! But any deficiency that we have privately in these is not an argument for more government action, but less.

The second problem I see in the president’s thesis is the equivalency with which he speaks of private and government caring activity, whether together or separately. When the American people’s charity is expressed through government, it is not received as charity but as entitlement. It follows from the nature of the relationship. As such, the effect is different. Charity ennobles and enables. Entitlements enslave and incapacitate. Charity tries to get you back on your own feet, functioning as an equal. Entitlements maintain you as a permanent client, dependent and politically supportive.

Read "Obama's Godly Government" (, February 16, 2011).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Texting and the Limits of Law

"There is a particular temperament that wants to address every problem with a law or regulation. But there are some evils that law as an instrument is poorly designed to fight. For that reason, criminalizing them causes more problems than it solves."

That is my thesis in "Don't Mess With Texting" (, Feb. 9, 2011). Studies have shown that laws against texting while driving actually increase accidents.

The column is about the nature of law, not about texting at all (though I go into details on how bone-headed the people are who do this). But I guess my argument was too subtle. And it seems that what I say about how the Long Island Rail Road handles people who talk loudly on their cell phones just distracts from my point, instead of illustrating it.

Here is an organization that, "attempts to accomplish with public education and social condemnation (shaming) what the law’s fat fingers are by nature too clumsy to do."

Where we have good citizens, we don't need good laws.

But while we're on the topic of texting while driving, here is a shocking video of what happens when people text while driving. (Teen girls and young women are twice as likely to t.w.d. than teen boys and young men, so the video depicts three silly young women.)

Here is a news report on teen reaction to the video.

None of us are safe on the roads while this remains socially acceptable. Perhaps we need to raise the driving age to the age I was when I got my license: 28!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Smoking and this Mortal Coil

Jerry Weinberger has a poetic account of his life growing up a smoker, "On Smoking a Cigar" (City Journal, Winter 2011).

"Smoking a cigar reminds one of finitude, and life not so reminded is not whole—is no life at all."

It is interesting how unhealthy, essentially suicidal behavior can be romanticized and glorified. But any of you who take a nail from time to time will surely enjoy this short essay by a very fine scholar of Francis Bacon and Benjamin Franklin.
Weinberger edited The Great Instauration and New Atlantis for Croft Classics, two short works by Francis Bacon.
He has also written:
Science, Faith and Politics: Francis Bacon and the Utopian Roots of the Modern Age (Cornell University Press, 1985).
“Politics and the Problem of Technology: An Essay on Heidegger and the Tradition of Political Philosophy” (American Political Science Review, March 1992).
“Technology and the Problem of Liberal Democracy” in The Problem of Technology in the Western Tradition, ed. Melzer, Weinberger, and Zinman (Cornell University Press, 1993).
Francis Bacon’s History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh: A New Edition and Interpretive Essay (Cornell University Press, 1996).
“Pious Princes and Red-Hot Lovers: The Politics of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” (The Journal of Politics, 2003).
Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought (The University Press of Kansas, 2005).

Friday, February 4, 2011

Save Our Souls. Repeal ObamaCare.

ObamaCare is back on the front burner. That's what happens when you pass an historic and revolutionary piece of social legislation by the barest majority and against strong popular opposition. People are not tired of the health care debate. They are tired of arrogant, liberal social engineers and wealth redistributors.

In "The Moral Dividend of Replacing ObamaCare" (, I argue that the 2010 health care reform will be a devastating blow not only to the nation's economy but also to our sense of personal responsibility (which is bad enough as it is).

I set up my closing argument with this reductio ad absurdum scenario.

Democratic lawmakers argue that healthcare is too important to leave to individual responsibility. Because some people cannot afford it, the right thing to do morally is to socialize the costs so that everyone has this basic good at public expense. But that claims a rationale for ever-greater government takeover of people’s private affairs that has no limiting principle. Food is important. So are clothes. People can’t get to work without a car. Why should some people have free access to these basic goods and with Cadillac-quality (literally, in the case of cars) while others go without them or get by with shoddy quality? When it comes to food, clothing, housing, and transportation, they will complain that we have a two-tier society. Ban the private car or give everyone a functional government-made, government-issued car. Why shouldn’t everyone live in worker housing? Let’s nationalize Nike and Tommy Hilfiger. Style for everyone!

I close by saying that, morally, this approach to government,

...leads to infantile dependency. People lose the inclination to provide for themselves as responsible, self-governing, adult people. “I have this need! Why does the government not provide for it! It’s important!” The government becomes a benevolent zookeeper, and the people are all nicely preserved. But, like the lions sunning themselves on the rocks behind the fence, no one resembles what a human being is supposed to be.

This column provoked a long string of comments in which people debate (I use a polite term) back and forth about the merits of ObamaCare. They also debate what I'm saying, and who is being rational and polite about it, and who is not. Someone calls me a "political hack" for joining God and mammon in the phrase "moral dividend." Sheesh! Another condemns me for, he says, callously just wishing someone with cancer or MS a boost in character. Someone comes to my defense, pointing out that I clearly state: "There are better ways of helping people in need." That's all I say because the substance of what should replace ObamaCare is not the subject of the column, and we only have 400-700 words to work with anyway. My defender also rebukes the fellow for rudeness and indifference to understanding the arguments of others. Unrepentant and undaunted, the curmudgeon gripes on.

It is interesting to see how many nasty and unreasonable leftists--both professing Christian and clearly non--spend their time tussling with conservative World readers on the commentary pages of the website. Are they unemployed? Are they employed by George Soros? That leftists would occupy themselves with this constant sparring in a conservative forum is one thing, but how ungracious the professedly Christian ones are is another.

*Save Our Souls: of course, I mean souls in the classical sense.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Where's Canada?

This video doesn't do what I expected it to do, viz. explain Canada to the Americans. There's nothing in here about the Canadian character, its flaws and virtues. It is a tribute to what a great friend Canada has been to the USA. But that is a valuable message for Canadians, an antidote to their reflexive but far from universal anti-Americanism (though it's mostly in eastern Canada, an Albertan recently told me). As a message to America, its value is simply in reminding Americans that Canada is there and more important to America than they think it is.

NBC broadcast this during the winter Olympics.