I highly recommend reading Daniel Hannan’s book The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America. The fluency and adeptness at which he analyzes government and makes international comparisons is well worth it. I’ve learned a great deal so far. There will be more to come in that regard in future blog posts.
Hannan can also turn some nice paragraphs on domestic issues like welfare (emphasis mine):
It is a stock phrase of virtually every European politician, regardless of party, that “a society is judged by how it treats the worst off.” Plainly, then, there must be something selfish — and possibly racist — about a people who keep voting for a system that treats the most needy so pitilessly.
It rarely occurs to critics that there might be better ways to measure the efficacy of welfare state than by size of its budget. Indeed, in a truly successful social security system, budgets ought to fall over time as former recipients are lifted into better and more productive lives.
This, of course, was the original rationale for welfare. But it has been almost entirely forgotten in Europe, where dependency has become structural. Benefits that were intended to have a one-time, transformative effect have instead become permanent, as recipients arrange their affairs around qualifying for subventions. Millions have become trapped in the squalor of disincentives and low expectations. In Britain, which is by no means as badly off as many EU members, the annual welfare budget, including the lump sum payments that, as in the United States, are called “tax credits,” comes to more than $200 billion a year. Yet this huge contribution has little impact on either poverty or inequality.
These are good points. As we keep chugging ahead with ballooning government deficits “that can’t be cut because they’re someone’s entitlement,” nobody seems concerned with why many of these entitlements have grown so large. Why these programs that were intended to ‘get people back on their feet’ don’t quite seem to do that. Why they become permanent fixtures and grow.
Then Hannan goes onto to analyze why the 1996 welfare reform in the U.S. was successful. He gives several reasons, but one of the most important was localism in the administration of welfare. Ultimately, the reform pushed welfare administration from a centralized federal level, to a local, in some cases, sub-state level, which has many benefits. This is probably one of the best:
…localism under-girds the notion of responsibility: our responsibility to support ourselves if we can, and our responsibility to those around us–not an abstract category of the “the underprivileged,” but the visible neighbors–who, for whatever reason, cannot support themselves. No longer is this obligation discharged when we have paid our taxes. Localism, in short, makes us better citizens.
I thought this passage was powerful for a couple reasons.
First, there’s the suggestion that we ought to be responsible for our own affairs, if we can. We seem to have a low standard of this these days.
Second, Hannan points out that we tend to act a bit more compassionate for those around us when we haven’t simply done our part by paying taxes.
In the past, families, friends and neighbors would watch out for each other. If you needed a place to stay while you got back on your feet, you could count on a family member to provide that for you. And, you’d probably make yourself useful around the house so that family member would know you appreciated their help.
Or maybe your neighbors would invite you to share some meals. And you’d do the same when they needed it.
Not that this doesn’t happen now. But, there seems to be no shortage for the attitude that it’s okay to let these responsibilities slip “because we paid or taxes.”
I’ll cut you some slack if you disagree. But, I’d just ask that you watch for it. It’s not always readily apparent. Furthermore, think about what you’ve done to help a family member, friend or neighbor and why.