Daily Archives: May 25, 2009

Obama’s Bowl of Soup

With each passing day, I am becoming more and more uneasy about Obama’s moves in regards to his domestic agenda.  Heck, I’m concerned about his moves on darn near everything.  Seems to me that, not only are the wheels falling off the wagon, but Obama is setting the engine on fire (to paraphrase Hugh Hewitt).

Well, let me temper the rhetoric a tad: in regards to the economy, it will recover.  It has a way of doing that on it’s own.  Plus, lean economic times remind us about the real important things in life, so there is a silver lining to this proverbial cloud.

But, all this begs a few questions: will the economy recover as a result of Obama’s policies, or despite them?  Secondly, what will be the long term social ramifications of his march toward Europe?

The first question is important, but the second much more so.  Therefore,  let me tackle the second question in this post and leave the first for later.

Charles Murray captures my concern when he notes:

Put aside all the sophisticated ways of conceptualizing governmental functions and think of it in this simplistic way: Almost anything that government does in social policy can be characterized as taking some of the trouble out of things. Sometimes, taking the trouble out of things is a good idea. Having an effective police force takes some of the trouble out of walking home safely at night, and I’m glad it does.

The problem is this: Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality–it drains some of the life from them.

It’s inevitable. Families are not vital because the day-to-day tasks of raising children and being a good spouse are so much fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it’s so much fun to respond to our neighbors’ needs, but because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the community does them. Once that imperative has been met–family and community really do have the action–then an elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards, and punishments evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions.

When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.

If we knew that leaving these functions in the hands of families and communities led to legions of neglected children and neglected neighbors, and taking them away from families and communities led to happy children and happy neighbors, then it would be possible to say that the cost is worth it. But that’s not what happened when the U.S. welfare state expanded. We have seen growing legions of children raised in unimaginably awful circumstances, not because of material poverty but because of dysfunctional families, and the collapse of functioning neighborhoods into Hobbesian all-against-all free-fire zones.

Meanwhile, we have exacted costs that are seldom considered but are hugely important. Earlier, I said that the sources of deep satisfactions are the same for janitors as for CEOs, and I also said that people needed to do important things with their lives. When the government takes the trouble out of being a spouse and parent, it doesn’t affect the sources of deep satisfaction for the CEO. Rather, it makes life difficult for the janitor.

A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. Think of all the phrases we used to have for it: “He is a man who pulls his own weight.” “He’s a good provider.” If that same man lives under a system that says that the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away.

I am not describing some theoretical outcome. I am describing American neighborhoods where, once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn’t. I could give a half dozen other examples. Taking the trouble out of the stuff of life strips people–already has stripped people–of major ways in which human beings look back on their lives and say, “I made a difference.”

He goes on to give an illustration of this:

Drive through rural Sweden, as I did a few years ago. In every town was a beautiful Lutheran church, freshly painted, on meticulously tended grounds, all subsidized by the Swedish government. And the churches are empty. Including on Sundays. Scandinavia and Western Europe pride themselves on their “child-friendly” policies, providing generous child allowances, free day-care centers, and long maternity leaves. Those same countries have fertility rates far below replacement and plunging marriage rates. Those same countries are ones in which jobs are most carefully protected by government regulation and mandated benefits are most lavish. And they, with only a few exceptions, are countries where work is most often seen as a necessary evil, least often seen as a vocation, and where the proportions of people who say they love their jobs are the lowest.

What’s happening? Call it the Europe syndrome. Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase “a life well-lived” did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.

It was fascinating to hear it said to my face, but not surprising. It conformed to both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality. Let me emphasize “spreading.” I’m not talking about all Europeans, by any means. That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.

If that’s the purpose of life, then work is not a vocation, but something that interferes with the higher good of leisure. If that’s the purpose of life, why have a child, when children are so much trouble–and, after all, what good are they, really? If that’s the purpose of life, why spend it worrying about neighbors? If that’s the purpose of life, what could possibly be the attraction of a religion that says otherwise?

The same self-absorption in whiling away life as pleasantly as possible explains why Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. When life is a matter of whiling away the time, the concept of greatness is irritating and threatening. What explains Europe’s military impotence? I am surely simplifying, but this has to be part of it: If the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible, what can be worth dying for?  (emphasis mine)

He notes that this mentality is infiltrating the American mind, most heavily in the university and the “most fashionable” metro areas in American cities.

Notice this isn’t a concern with the economic ramifications of the European model.  It runs deeper than that.   These policies that Obama is after are not conducive to human happiness in the classic sense.  Sure, they do indeed produce some economic benefits, and there’s a lot to like about Europe, I hear.  Europeans, on the whole, aren’t weeping and gnashing their teeth about any shackles and chains.  They might be happy in the subjective feeling sense, but will the p0licies lead to a classic sense of happiness–a deep satisfaction with life?  No.  They will instead lead to a growing sense of entitlement, further dependence upon government, and a withering moral fabric.

Alan Wolfe puts it succinctly: “when government assumes moral  responsibility for others, people are less likely to do it themselves.”  The more one depends upon the government for basic needs in life, the less he depends upon family, civic institutions, and neighbors.

U of Va Sociology professor Bradford Wilcox, while talking about the social ramifications of nanny-state policies in Scandinavia, concurs:

The problem with this Scandinavian-style welfare dependency is that many Scandinavians, especially young adults who have grown up taking the welfare state for granted, are markedly less likely to attend to the social, material, and emotional needs of family and friends than earlier generations. As a consequence, social solidarity is down and social pathology—from drinking to crime—is up. In Wolfe’s words, “High tax rates in Scandinavia encourage governmental responsibility for others; they do not, however, necessarily inspire a personal sense of altruism and a feeling of moral unity toward others with whom one’s fate is always linked.” Not surprisingly, cheating on taxes is on the rise in Scandinavian countries, both because the social solidarity undergirding these societies is fraying and because men and women—especially high earners—are recoiling from paying the hefty taxes associated with keeping their nanny states afloat (sound familiar?).

While a certain very, very slim piece of the radical left will cheer this, it should give the overwhelming majority of Americans pause.  We should not be like Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of  soup.  He lacked foresight, and was duped as a result.

Think of it this way:  If I, as a teacher, provided everything for my students, what kind of student would that produce? Say that if a student didn’t bring a pencil, I provided him with one, free of charge or consequence. He forgets paper; I provide it. He forgets his book; I give him one. He fails to bring his notebook; no worries–I have another one for him. If he messes it up or loses it, I provide him with yet another. No folder– I got that covered too. He doesn’t bring his homework; I give him another copy, give him unlimited class time to complete it, and I give him the answers.

When asked why I do this, I respond, “I just can’t expect the kids to do all this themselves. They can’t be expected to bring pencil and paper to class, nor can they be expected to have their homework completed on time. Furthermore, every student has a right to homeworkcare. It is a basic service that I should provide.”

Homeworkcare free of consequence might be nice, but is it a right?

Plus, what habits of life would my policies instill in my students? Most likely, it would produce students dependent upon me for their basic needs, and it would produce massive entitlement. How demeaning would my practices be!

Also, after a while, how many students would actually bring paper, pencil, and homework to class themselves? My bet is: almost none. I would end up giving almost every student these basic things almost daily over and over again. After all, why go through the trouble of bringing a pencil when Mr. B is just going to give one anyway? This would be highly costly to me after a while.

Can you imagine the shocked looks I would get if I suddenly one day said, “Tommy, I have given you 8 pencils 8 straight days. I will not give you one today. Bring your own for once, or have your parents take you to Target and buy you a set.”

Teaching students thinking skills and providing for a safe and orderly learning environment is one (actually, two) thing(s); educational welfare is another.  I see big government policies in the same light.

Another illustration: one of my friends has a bit of a cleaning problem. He leaves disgusting dishes out by our couch for days, almost never does a load of dishes, leaves his underwear and socks in random places around the house and only picks them up after days. Rarely cleans anything. He plays video games and watches TV for hours on end. I used to clean up for him, taking his dishes to the sink, doing the dishes myself, picking up after him….but the problem only got worse.

The big government nanny state does the same thing–it does for others and communities what they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves, and hence it produces a citizenry who make messes and simply coasts along in life…not to mention it is demeaning, just as me continually cleaning up after my roommate would be demeaning to him–it would send the message that I think he can’t do it on his own.

There is a big difference between this and government providing services for folks who truly need a helping hand.  What I’m talking about is government expanding in size and influence way, way past this point.

There’s no doubt we are in economic dire straits in this country.  But that does not mean Obama’s policies are the best (or even a decent) solution to our problems.  We should not be blinded to Obama’s rhetoric of fear, trading long term social stability and flourishing for short term economic gain…and, you know, we might not even get that.

On that issue (whether or not Obama’s policies will bring us economic gain at all) stay tuned to tomorrow’s post.

See my other posts on politics

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