Thank goodness for Europe. They show us what lies ahead. First it was Greece, showing us the end point of an over-generous government. When a polity accepts the notion that public spending fosters a healthy economy, the conclusion is inevitable. As Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have said, “the trouble with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money.”
Now we have Britain showing us another dark side to the welfare state. The spasms of violence that erupted around London and elsewhere last week were frightening precisely because there is no proximate cause. These were not race riots, anti-immigration riots, or political protests of any sort. Instead they appeared to be a cheerful, even celebratory, exercise in nihilism, elevated on the wings of Facebook and other social networks.
Just listen to one of the partiers: “yah, it’s all good fun…it’s all the politicians’ fault, innit?…we’re just taking it back from the rich people.” The “rich people” in question being hapless shopkeepers trying to make of go of it in difficult times, particularly those who had the bad luck to have chosen to sell something like mobile phones or youth fashion.
Because these feral teens would select a shop to hit (bookstores largely passed by), summon their tribal peers with 21st century jungle drums, and strike their target with savage spontaneity. And gleefully walk out with stolen property.
This is what happens when a benign government absolves people of the need for personal responsibility. Many of the rioters had never held a job, and had little prospect – or inclination – of holding one any time soon. Why be a sap and work a 40-hour week when the public purse will provide the necessaries? Britain has an entire underclass for whom life on the dole has displaced the need to prepare for and live a productive life.
This is terribly corrosive for society. It goes beyond the swarms of aimless, futureless youth and what they do with their lives. It strikes also to the heart of community, and the social networks – the human kind – that provide us with norms and accepted limits. And it’s not just among the youth: Peggy Noonan, who as usual has a spot-on commentary on this, cites a woman who was called by a neighbor who told her that her child was among those running amok, and she berated the caller for waking her at 2 a.m.!
When government shoulders the burdens that should be carried by individuals – even if it is with all the best intentions – government vanquishes community. Is it a coincidence that those countries that have most completely adopted the idea that social justice is the purpose of government also have the lowest church attendance, the lowest levels of private charity, the lowest levels of private community organizations?
The pathology is present in this country as well, although so far the aimless and uncaring have not taken over the streets. There have been numerous cases of “flash mob” attacks – rather like group muggings co-ordinated on Twitter. It has gotten so bad in Philadelphia that the mayor has established a curfew to maintain the safety of its neighborhoods. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the powerful, politically incorrect rant of Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter – a black man calling out the manifold failures of responsibility in the black community among its youth and adults alike – it’s well worth a look.)
This is another reason why people should be highly skeptical of the liberal notion of a generous government. Massive programs of social welfare do more than corrupt and distort economic incentives. The problem goes deeper – it frays the ties of responsibility that people have for themselves and for their fellows, upon which a healthy and productive society depends.
Central to those linkages is the family. It is within the family that children learn limits, self-restraint, charity, and discipline. Liberal policies have been harmful here as well, with public aid for unwed mothers and other “support” programs relieving both the social and economic sting of out-of-wedlock or single parenthood. Today some 20 million children live in one-parent families.
I don’t fault liberal politicians and their partisans for wanting to use the power of the state to ameliorate the circumstances of those who are struggling. On the surface level, it is the compassionate thing to do, and their accusations that conservatives who oppose such spending are simply callous and uncaring have an equally superficial plausibility.
But the conservative approach is the one more alert to the deeper consequences of government support. First, there is no limit to the demands for public assistance, so programs launched with limited aims soon become unlimited in both scope and expenditure. Second, the recipients often show little gratitude for the solicitude that comes their way – indeed, the government’s own marketing emphasizes that these payments are a “right,” and who would be grateful for what is rightfully theirs? Third, government support subsidizes behavior that is uneconomic or worse, and by subsidizing it incentivizes more of it. Finally, as we have seen in London and Philadelphia, a culture arises that depends on the government rather than individuals and their communities for societal norms of personal and public behavior. And government is inadequate to the task.