The welfare state, in its present form, is based on the false choice between laissez-faire individualism and social assistance and deliberately obscures the real choice between a free and benevolent association and a compulsory government dependency.
It’s all very well to decide what would be possible for the poor and the middle class in a world after liberalism and the welfare state. Anyone can do that. The question is, would the poor and the middle class want that possibility? Perhaps they would want to continue in the soft totalitarianism of the welfare state as Herbert Marcuse sneeringly predicted in the 1960s. In the early 2010s, low-income Americans were advertising, through their actions, their preference for a life of government benefits in preference to a life of work. Given that a single mother of two in Pennsylvania in 2010 can could get annual benefits worth $46,000 or so, why would she attempt to work?1 Similarly middle-class Americans were demonstrating that they preferred a life checking the boxes of the middle-class entitlements over robust responsibility, going along with free schooling and subsidized college education and highly taxed employment and government-specified retirement benefits rather than insisting upon alternatives. If they wanted something different they could have sought it out. What would it take for welfare recipients to change their minds about work? And what would it take for the middle class to lose their attachment to middle-class entitlements? The answer is pretty simple. The government would have to run out of money. Only then would people start looking around for something different. In 2012, for instance, the voters voted for President Obama to maintain the status quo. Why not? The Republican nominee did not offer a compelling reason for change, a compelling reason to risk a change in the trajectory of big government. So the voters chose their benefits.
We have seen that there are two different ways in which humans look for something different, when they respond to an existential need to change their conditions of existence. Either they go a-freebooting, striking out into the unknown, as warrior bands have done since time immemorial, following their aggressive instincts. Or they invent a religion, in order to cut down on the freebooting and the freeloading as they have done since time immemorial, following their natural cooperative instincts.
We have spun in Chapter Five the cords that bind a community of social humans: gathering people into a community, establishing rules of behavior, an ability to sacrifice, burying enmities, directing the moral sense with cultural memes. We could bind everyone into community by force, of course, but force is expensive, so humans long ago developed religion as an effective way to socialize each human into the right thinking, the right feeling, and the right acting for the good of the social group by other means. Religion even developed cunning tricks, like the concepts of divine justice and reincarnation, to persuade people that, while evildoers don’t necessarily get their deserts in this world, they will certainly get the attention of God in the next world or get relegated to a lower caste in the next life. And, of course, a religious community also identifies potentially trustworthy people, the kind of people demonstrating in their actions their willingness to pay the cost of belonging to a human community.
In the last two thousand years the fundamental social problem has been the challenge of moving to the city and learning how to operate in an urban society. We saw this as a process of moving from the tribal self of the hunter-gatherer or the servile self of the agricultural peasant to a new kind of membership in the city as one of the People of the Responsible Self.
In their initial responses to the new “ultimate conditions” of existence in the city, humans thought that salvation was obtained by withdrawing from the world, a strategy that Rodney Stark has called “upper-class asceticism.” Perhaps that worked well for princelings like Gautama Siddhartha as it now works for tenured university professors in the modern era. But in the Protestant Reformation the rising bourgeoisie determined that “salvation is not to be found in any kind of withdrawal from the world but in the midst of worldly activities.”2 In the words of revivalist preacher Barton Stone, Protestant revivalism woke people up from “the sleep of ages” to the idea that they could become responsible beings called to a life of purpose.
You can see this narrative at work in George Eliot’s first full-length novel, Adam Bede, published in 1859 but set in 1799. Its protagonists are shining examples of responsible virtue, of what Max Weber would come to call the “Protestant ethic.” Seeking salvation in responsible worldly lives of work and mindfulness are the rising carpenter Adam Bede and the incandescent Methodist lay preacher, Dinah Morris. But protagonists need antagonists, and so Eliot creates the heedless Arthur Donnithorne, the local squire’s son, and the foolish Hetty Sorrel to illuminate the worthiness of Bede and Morris. At every moment in the novel Adam and Dinah are thinking about how to live and act rightly, and how to follow through on their virtuous intentions. Needless to say, the heedless Arthur and Hetty do not heed anything but their shallow and selfish impulses. Because Adam Bede is a novel, divine justice gets to operate in this world, so Adam and Dinah live happily ever after, while Hetty Sorrel is transported beyond the seas for killing the baby she bore out of the seed of heedless Arthur Donnithorne.
At every great moral or social crisis in American history, according to William G. McLoughlin, Americans meet the challenge with a Great Awakening, a spiritual revival that sets the stage – spiritually, politically, and culturally – for a great age of reform. The great revival of the mid 18th century got people riled up for the American Revolution, and the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century prepared the ground for the battle against slavery. As we have seen in Chapter Five, the modern world is a ferment of religious movements trying to conjure up and enact new symbolic forms and acts to relate themselves to the ultimate conditions of their existence. There are movements that appeal to the educated elite and attempt to compensate for the Death of God. There are movements that appeal to the rising middle class, living out Max Weber’s notion of the modern Puritan seeking a life that finds meaning in work as a calling. There are movements that appeal to the urban poor, that encourage a united front to the challenges of life on the margin.
All moral movements find their energy in the eternal war between good vs. evil. They must do, for every moral movement seeks to find the meaning of life here on Earth, and the meaningful life is necessarily the good life, and life that is not informed by the true meaning of life is necessarily evil. Having satisfied itself to the meaning of life and the definition of the good life a moral movement then divides up the world into “us” and “them.” “We” are the good people working to relate our lives to the ultimate conditions of existence; we can be trusted to act rightly and can be given the benefit of the doubt. Within the community of “us” there is no need for force and compulsion, for trustworthy people can be trusted to do the right thing. But “they” are the evil people that cannot be trusted. Against “them” there is probably a need for armed defense, and “they” are likely only to respond to force and compulsion.
We have seen that this is not just the way of modern humans but of historical and ancient humans. Thus all bands of hunter-gatherers thought of the group of the kindred as “us” and the neighboring group as a dangerous “them.” All villages of agriculturalists thought of the village as “us” and the village over the hill as “them.” It is a striking achievement of the nation state to have extended the notion of “us” to all people that dwell within the sacred borders of the nation state and speak “our” language. People in other lands that speak other languages are not to be trusted.
Now, it is the vision of our modern ruling class of the educated elite that it is called by the ultimate conditions of existence to gather the nations into supranational federations. That is the goal of the leaders of the European Union: “ever closer union.” And beyond that, the modern ruling class would like the whole world to live under one world federation: if not the United Nations, then some other global federation. Theirs is a moral movement to unite all humankind into one “we.” This vision prompts the modern ruling class to imagine a different kind of “us” versus “them.” “We” are the people working for ever closer union; “they” are the people opposed to our vision. Within the nation states the ruling class pursues a slightly different division between “us” and “them,” where “we” are the educated ruling class and its traditionally marginalized clients, the over-under ruling coalition, and “they” are the rich, the corporations, the Christian fundamentalists, the gun owners, and the rednecks.
It is the argument of this book that the moral movement of the modern ruling class has failed, and is heading to red ruin, because of a fatal flaw. This flaw is the failure of the ruling class to lead the clients of the administrative welfare state towards the life of the “responsible self.” Every cohort of humans that migrated to the city has embraced the notion of the “responsible self” in order to thrive in the city and adapt its conditions of life to the conditions of the city, and, up to now, each cohort had to work out the means of adaptation on its own. But the modern ruling class decided in the 19th century to award itself a power of attorney to act on behalf of the lower orders, and since then has rarely encouraged the clients of the welfare state to take up the life of the responsible self; instead it has encouraged in its clients the notion of the “marginalized self,” the victimized self separated by injustice from the enjoyments of its fair share of the wealth of the city.
The ruling class justifies its leadership on the grounds of “inequality,” a revised version of the exploitation argument made by the Educated Youth of the 19th century. It presumes that the poverty and “inequality” suffered by the poor in the city is due to injustice, social and political impediments, institutional barriers to the welfare of the poor. Where this “inequality” can be found to obtain, and it usually can, then it follows that the ruling class should act to remove those barriers.
If the marginalized folk in the city were truly barred from the opportunity to thrive in the city then the program of the ruling class would be the right one. It would be necessary to protect the inner-city poor from unscrupulous employers and landlords, from redlining banks and racist rednecks. And it goes without saying that a whole menu of social benefits would be necessary to preserve the poor from indigence. But we have seen in Chapter Twelve that in the Third World the poor manage to thrive without social benefits, and even manage to find the money to get their children into illegal private schools so that they can acquire the basic skills needed to thrive in the city. Even in South Chicago, down the street from President Obama’s liberal enclave of Hyde Park, the urban poor exhibit extraordinary skills in their struggle to thrive. On this argument the disabilities of the poor issue less from social injustice and more from cultural disability, an unwillingness or inability to present to the landlords and employers in a way calculated to inspire trust. Liberal economist Robert William Fogel attempted in The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism to to convert his liberal friends away from the program of material inequality towards an appreciation of the poor suffering from a “maldistribution of spiritual resources”,3 i.e. character.
But how does a person develop the kind of character that will help to make up their deficiencies in “spiritual resources,” and help them present themselves to landlords and employers in the right way, and enable them to thrive in the city? The answer is religion. It was Methodism that taught Adam Bede and Dinah Morris how to live the life of responsible self. It is Pentecostalism that teaches the Latin-American poor to abandon the culture of machismo for responsible work in a calling. It is house churches that teach the deracinated urban women of China how to make sense of their conditions of existence and rebuild community out of the rubble of Maoist communism.
1Gary Alexander, “Welfare’s Failure and the Solution,” slideshow, American Enterprise Institute. Accessed 2/11/2013: http://www.aei.org/files/2012/07/11-alexander-presentation_10063532278.pdf
2Ibid., p. 368.
3Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 235.
Government and the Technology of Power
If you scratch a social reformer, you will likely discover a plan for more government.
Business, Slavery, and Trust
Business is all about trust and relationship.
Humanity's Big Problem: Freebooters and Freeloaders
The modern welfare state encourages freeloaders.
The Bonds of Faith
No society known to anthropology or history lacked religion.
A Critique of Social Mechanics
The problem with human society reduced to system.
The Paradox of Individualism
Is individualism the gospel of selfishness or something else?
From Multitude to Civil Society
The larger the government, the smaller the society.
The Answer is Civil Society
In between the separated powers.
The Greater Separation of Powers
If you want to limit power then you must limit power.
Conservatism Three by Three
Conservatism, political, economics, and cultural.
The Culture of Involvement
Imagining lives without the welfare state
The Poor Without the Welfare State
Can the poor thrive without the welfare state?
The Middle Class Without The Welfare State
How would the middle class live without all those middle-class entitlements?
From Freeloaders to Free Givers
The path to the future lies through moral movements.
The Real Meaning of Society
Broadening the horizon of cooperation in the last best hope of man on earth.
When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of agesthey seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990
In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society
We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
E. G. West, Education and the State
Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures
The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since
1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and
philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West
Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its
characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then,
once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities
But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie
that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all.
In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness...
But to make a man act [he must have]
the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove
or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
When we received Christ, Phil added, all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh
The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital