You must suggest an alternative
We have seen how the politics of the administrative state has failed, and how its failure issued from its culture of compulsion that produced a vast government administrative state that has reduced all social relations to administrative rules, and reduced society to the state and its systems of domination. We have seen that the problem issues from the very nature of the powerful modern state. Humans are social animals that live by cooperation, but government is force. Humans are creatures that instinctively work to resolve their differences, but politics is a process of division that teaches people to sharpen their differences. Humans hate to be ruled by others, but the modern governmental and corporate systems treat social humans as mechanical gadgets: system is domination.
We have analyzed the modern condition, and seen how it could, how it should found itself in the relaxed, but robust civil society of neighbors. We have seen how the idea of civil society is almost 180 degrees opposed to the ideas of the educated elite that now dominates western society as its ruling class. We have designed the skeleton of a political defense in depth against power in the Greater Separation of Powers. We have shown how modern conservatism began with Burke’s revolt against the Homeric rapacity of the British pro-consul in British India and his philippic against the inhumanity of rationalism applied to human society.
James Bartholomew is the author of a book on the welfare state in Britain, The Welfare State We’re In. It is both a history and critique of the welfare state. But when he talked about his book to Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, he got a taste of her no-nonsense character. She announced, “You must suggest an alternative. If you say the welfare state is no good, you must suggest an alternative.”
I have agonised about this before in a previous entry on this website. I said to her that it would be a big job, requiring a lot of research and I doubted people would want to read my particular blueprint. She was having none of that, saying words to the effect: “If you can’t think of a good way of communicating it, then you must find a way of communicating it.”1
The chief bulwark of our current culture of compulsion is that nobody is seriously suggesting an alternative to the current administrative welfare state. Nobody has gone out and constructed a visionary alternative and got it into the minds of the American people. It is inconceivable to most people in modern society that it is possible to provide equitable and just provision of social needs without a large administrative welfare state. Until someone constructs a vision of what could be, then there cannot be a moral movement to declare the present system to be unjust and inhuman.
It is time to review the boundaries of the possible and discover whether an alternative is possible. What is needed is a new horizon, a skillful vision of society illuminated by the faith that all should contribute to the welfare of others, not just through taxes and by subordination to government officials, but by active daily involvement in a friendly cooperation between equal citizens towards shared goals of sociability. We must respond to the command of Margaret Thatcher and suggest an alternative to the culture of compulsion.
Let us then call this alternative the “culture of involvement,” a culture opposed to the culture of compulsion of the administrative state and its regulatory systems. The culture of involvement opposes the culture that takes power and social influence away from individuals and civic groups and isolates them all in the iron cage of Max Weber — as inmates of institutions or exotic pets of a clique of politicians and their cronies.
In this culture of involvement the trajectory of life will be different from today’s. What we now take for granted will be as unthinkable to us as the life of the peasant is to the modern city dweller. We must conjure up not just a vision but a realistic picture of the daily life in this better world, a daily life that people can measure against the present and say with confidence: this is the life I want for myself and my children.
The present trajectory of life that everyone accepts as normal goes something like this. We are born into a loving nuclear family in the care of our mothers. But soon enough we are socialized into professional child-care institutions, typically pre-school at three or four years. At six we enter a government kindergarten, and from seven to 18 we attend a progression of government schools as prescribed by law. Some children “drop out” of this process, but “we,” the articulate professional class, complete the K-12 process — kindergarten through 12th grade — fairly successfully. We then continue to college, often a government university, for another four years of education, with maybe another couple of years of graduate school. At some point we complete our education and join the job market.
Let us be clear about this and ponder its meaning: most children spend much of their waking lives, from pre-school to adulthood, in some kind of a government child-custodial facility, and this incarceration seems to modern parents the most natural thing in the world.
The end of schooling marks the most important transition in our lives as we change from students to workers, from children or adolescents to adults. For the professional classes, this transition occurs in the mid twenties. For children that “dropped out” of the education process work begins much sooner, but typically in the mid teens.
All along the way to this transition the government has prescribed detailed rules governing the life of children. Children must attend school, typically from age seven to 16. Children below a certain age may not work. Children in their early teens may work, but their working hours are limited. Children are not responsible and cannot make financial commitments. The minimum wages and working conditions for children are prescribed by government.
Once we have abandoned or completed schooling we enter the job market. All aspects of the workplace are tightly controlled by the government, including procedures for hiring and firing, wage rates, benefits, contributory and non-contributory pensions. Workers cannot work unless registered with the government, and both worker and employer must pay substantial taxes to the government as a condition of employment. The government advertises its power in the workplace with mandatory notices that employers must display for all workers to see.
If a worker is injured on the job the government is involved through its worker compensation and its worker safety laws. If an employee is discharged from employment then the worker is entitled to unemployment compensation paid for through employer taxes but controlled and disbursed by the government.
If an employee is disabled and unable to work then the employee is entitled to a pension from the government.
Although workers pay taxes to the government through their employer every time they are paid by their employer, they are also required to file a detailed declaration of income to the government every year. This report to the government amounts to a complete account of all pecuniary transactions made by the taxpayer during the year; a balance is struck between taxes paid and taxes owed during the year. From this balance a final tax payment is made to the government or a refund is claimed from the government.
Finally, when a worker reaches a certain age, currently 62, he or she is entitled to a pension from the government paid for by employment taxes of employers and of other workers. All persons aged 65 or older are entitled to enroll in a health care program administered by the government and paid for by employer and worker taxes. Even here compulsion plays its part. You cannot collect your Social Security pension benefits unless you enroll in the government’s Medicare health care plan.
The trajectory of life in the culture of compulsion may seem a little bland, but it is not the whole story, for the characters in the story include those that “drop out” of the standard government-approved-and-regulated life trajectory. We are not just talking about failing to complete high school or college, but any failure to thrive. Lose your job? Get government unemployment. Get pregnant without a husband? Sign up for welfare. Get injured on the job? Get a check from workers’ comp.
And there the story is not so bland. That is Charles Murray’s message in Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010. In today’s White America life is pretty good for the upper 20 percent. They have careers, they marry well, stay married, and have children. These are the people that live in communities like Belmont in Massachusetts, a wealthy suburb of Boston. But the lowest 30 percent live places like in Fishtown, a neighborhood of Philadelphia. In Fishtown the women do not marry and the men do not work. The schools are lousy and the civil society of churches and associations has withered away.
Life in Fishtown is a contrast between dependence and cunning. Citizens become experts in plucking the low-hanging fruit of the welfare state: they may claim cash assistance, particularly single mothers of pre-school-age children. They may claim health-care assistance through a joint program of the federal government and state governments designed to give the poor access to health care and health care professionals access to compensation for providing health care to the poor. They may claim housing assistance and they may claim food assistance both directly and for their children at school. This activity requires not mere passivity, but a cunning eye for the main chance, and the ability to dress yourself in the clothes of helplessness. Meanwhile, Fishtown residents learn how to earn money “off the books” to supplement their welfare or disability payments with additional income in ways that do not get reported to the government. In fact, however, government does not inquire too diligently into the income and resources of its dependents; the culture of compulsion only applies to those that live in the visible and legible economy. The Fishtown folks know when to be visible and when to be invisible.
There is a simple way to understand our Belmont-Fishtown society and the government’s culture of compulsion. It is to think of government as developed above in Chapter Two. Government is everywhere an armed minority that commands a monopoly of force over a territory. Its sole interest is the continuation of its power. To do this it must extract resources from the population; it must sequester a portion of the wealth created by the people to fund itself and reward its supporters. From the point of view of the government the amount of wealth that it sequesters and the amount that it rewards its supporters is governed by the Laffer Curve. A government that taxes nothing and gives its supporters no rewards is not long for this earth. But a government that appropriates all wealth for its needs and the reward of its supporters will quickly exhaust the ability of a people to support it, and can only survive with terror, as Mao and Zhou learned in their red base in 1930s China. A wise government chooses the sweet spot that maximizes its revenue or its power. In the early 21st century it is clear that the ruling class of the administrative welfare state has got itself in too deep. Its programs are overwhelming the resources of the economy yet it fails to respond by aligning its promises to its means.
So let us imagine an alternative, the culture of involvement of a people devoted to the project of social cooperation, social animals involved and engaged in the social reality of life as human beings rather than mechanical cogs in a governmental administrative system or cunning freeloaders gaming the system.
When a people determines to have limited government it means that it has embarked upon a quest to limit the extent to which government can appropriate wealth to fund itself and reward its supporters. Such a people has necessarily grown beyond the view of a “people of the marginalized self” that seeks to attach itself to a powerful leader. It has become a “people of the responsible self” that accepts the culture of individualism, that it is the individual citizen’s responsibility to find out how to contribute to society. Such a people rejects the government’s Laffer Curve. It seeks not the sweet spot for government power but the sweet spot for the citizen. A wise citizen chooses the sweet spot that maximizes the social engagement of the citizen.
The responsible citizen understands perfectly the need for government as a force to defend against enemies foreign and domestic and to administer the laws. But the citizen maintains against the apologist of power that, beyond defense and adjudication of disputes, the need for force is and should be minimal. The citizen always asks the obvious question when a new program is proposed: Are things really so bad that force is the only solution? For the citizen never forgets that government is force, and if the need for force is minimal, then the need for government, the social agent of force, is limited. The result is limited government.
What would the trajectory of life be like in a society that rejected the usual politics of the armed minority — choosing the sweet spot that maximized its power — and chose instead the sweet spot for citizens as its principle of government? Let us imagine.
There would not be, of course, “the trajectory of life.” Absent the culture of compulsion people in different subcultures and different walks of life would live different trajectories. In the culture of involvement there would be no single trajectory enforced by government compulsion and the will of the armed minority, but there would be a unifying theme, for humans are nothing if not social animals, and like to be like others even as we strive to be different. But let us, with the limited imagination vouchsafed to mortals, conjure up four different life trajectories that might characterize a culture of involvement: the poor, the conservative, the creative, and the elitist. We have not chosen these four paths by accident; they coincide with the idea of a society divided into people of the subordinate self, people of the responsible self, people of the creative self, and the people of the ruling class.
Born into a poor family in the culture of involvement, a child will experience the disorganization common to those who struggle to make it in the city. Yet its mother will cunningly, through conversation with her friends, seek out opportunities for her child. Perhaps she has a stable enough relationship that she can afford not to work, or perhaps she finds an informal occupation that allows her to share child-minding. When her child is ready for school she will find a small neighborhood school recommended by her friends and will scrape up the fees. If she is widowed or abandoned then the school will likely provide financial aid as happens in the Third World. At eleven, the child will start to blend education and work. Perhaps the child will go to work with mother; perhaps the child will work at the mall. Perhaps the child will commence an apprenticeship. By the late teens the child will become effectively emancipated and begin to move towards sexual relationship. Upon becoming pregnant, the young adult will move in with his/her partner and get married some time before the child is born. Life will be hard for a few years, for neither husband or wife has acquired highly marketable skills in the workplace, but they work hard and it pays off in better jobs and higher wages. It sure helps that they belong to a fraternal association that offers them basic health insurance and neo-natal services. Eventually the couple will earn a competence and look forward to buying a house. Perhaps they will start a little family business. It all seems possible when jobs are plentiful because payroll taxes and payments for government benefit programs are minimal. With growing income, the couple realize that they can afford more education for their children than they got, and as they reach retirement age they realize that they can sell the business and convert it into a tidy income. In fact it looks like they’ll have a nice little inheritance to share among their three children. Thus the life trajectory of the poor in the culture of involvement.
Born into a conservative family in the culture of involvement a child enters a world of structure and faith. It grows up in community, the world of its parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles and the larger church family. Life outside the home begins with school at the church, and then church-sponsored schooling, kindergarten through college. Perhaps the child’s parents and their friends try home-schooling. But life isn’t all schooling, for the conservative teenager is active in sports, youth groups and service until it is time to go to college, where a practical degree, business or nursing, seems appropriate for a life aligned with Christian values. Courtship and marriage at the end of college lead to an adult life of work and child-raising. Socialized by a youth of responsibility and service, conservative adults easily take up work responsibility and church and community service opportunities. Living modestly they earnestly acquire the income needed to tithe at church and the savings to fund their children’s education. Of course most of their four children have traveled to other countries, sponsored by their church on student exchanges, so it’s not surprising that they adapt well to college. Still, it’s a worry that two of their children have grown away from the church and chosen a life of business adventure rather than community service. By the time they reach retirement they find themselves respected community leaders and prosperous enough to consider post-retirement traveling.
Children of creative families in the culture of involvement benefit all their lives from their parents’ extensive network of influence. In business or artistically creative families they are constantly exposed to a rich variety of professions, occupations, and socially competitive events. Parents send their children to all kinds of schools: scholarly, creative, college-prep, network central, homeschooling. Of course, their children often spend a year or more away in a foreign country, guests of a professional or artistic connection, getting immersed in another culture. It all pays off with extracurriculars, internships, leadership positions in high school and a selective college to follow. Life as a twentysomething may involve extended graduate school or creative and entrepreneurial startups. A “merger marriage” comes in the thirties in a like-to-like partnership with another hot-house flower and yields two designer children. By mid life our creatives are making their mark, in business, media, or the academy, and considering a diversification into philanthropy. In mature years, our creatives are high net-worth community leaders, sought out and venerated. But it’s an eternal ache that one of the children never seemed to get his act together and committed suicide.
Children of elite families in the culture of involvment are raised by nannies, for their parents live lives in the public square and cannot waste time on domesticity. But elite children go to the toniest schools and get to sample the competitive social events that their parents consume on their royal progress. In their teenaged years elite children are lonely, with parents at the summit of their power lives, and may stage embarrassing bids for attention, despite the rewards of attending elite schools. But there are the advantages of second-to-none connections, and prestigious intern opportunities before attendance at elite universities anxious to oblige the children of powerful people with patronage to distribute. Then it’s on to advanced degrees, high-status opportunities in investment banking, and perhaps a career in politics or the more prestigious institutions in the not-for-profit sector. Marrying in the early thirties, elite adults determine to spend more time on their children than their driven parents, but still it’s nice to have the paid help and the parental cottages where you can entertain and mix with the right kind of people. But life seems to trend, as the years go by, to the maintenance of the famous parents’ reputation and memory. Nevertheless, opportunities for community service are constant — even a bit too much of a good thing.
The model lives presented above to symbolize the possibility of a culture of involvement to replace the culture of compulsion are intended to make a point. The rich won’t find life much different in the culture of involvement, but the poor will. This is not as scandalous as it might seem. In the culture of compulsion, most of the compelling is done by the politically powerful and the politically well-connected. Most of the being-bossed-around happens to the lower orders. So you would expect that a change in the culture would have the most dramatic difference to the lives of people who are presently most enmeshed in the government’s compulsory safety net and held back by the “poverty trap” of near 100% marginal taxes on people trying to graduate out of welfare benefits and today’s high taxes on labor, whether “withheld” from paychecks or extracted from employers.
But is this panorama of life in the glorious future of the culture of involvement even remotely possible? Can the poor do without government education and government health care? Can the middle class survive without a full menu of government benefits or without government managing their retirement income and final health care? Let us take a look. We would need to look at the Third World, where government has not yet reached the limit of its capabilities, to see how people live without benefit of the administrative state. Indeed, in the Third World the people must typically suffer the universal corruption and looting of the ruling class without any compensation from the government benefits that have been legislated in the developed world.
1James Bartholomew blog, http://www.thewelfarestatewerein.com/archives/2006/05/much_to_my_surp.php
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Humanity's Big Problem: Freebooters and Freeloaders
The modern welfare state encourages freeloaders.
The Bonds of Faith
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A Critique of Social Mechanics
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The Paradox of Individualism
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From Multitude to Civil Society
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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
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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
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Liberals and the Welfare State
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From Freeloaders to Free Givers
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The Real Meaning of Society
Broadening the horizon of cooperation in the last best hope of man on earth.
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