Next week, this blog will celebrate its 8th birthday. And despite some fitful periods where I failed to post on a daily basis, there has been several reoccurring questions that have occupied my attention during that time span — questions that need to be asked if the United States is to maintain its character as an outpost of individual liberty in a world rapidly moving toward a more statist model of governance.
Certainly the most fundamental question I have asked has been how big should government be in a modern, urbanized, industrial, diversified nation of 300 million people? The question resonates far more on the right than the left and, indeed, is at the heart of our current debates over the budget, taxes, entitlements, and even national defense and discretionary spending.
The problem for the right is that there is this superficial yearning for a “small” government as if the clock can be turned back, the entitlement society overturned, and the New Deal and Great Society repealed or drastically curtailed. I daresay that not only is this unrealistic, but the social upheaval caused by the attempt would be extremely dangerous.
The left’s problem is not only that they refuse to discuss how big government should be, they reject the entire premise of the question. There is a belief among many liberals that there should be no limits to the growth of government if it is done in service to achieving “social justice.” This is as dangerous to individual liberty as the right’s pie in the sky dreams of a Jeffersonian republic full of self-reliant yeoman farmers and honest tradesmen — updated to reflect certain 21st century realities, of course.
Mitt Romney has inadvertently gotten to the nub of the matter with his statement to campaign donors about “producers” and “takers.” Forget for a moment that the conservative narrative he posits has been exposed as just one more false talking point from the echo chamber. Wrapped up in the idea that there are some Americans living high off the fruits of other American’s labor is the very real notion that we are becoming a nation dependent on government at the expense of personal freedom.
Does dependency always result in a loss of individual liberty? If one accepts the idea that dependency closes off choices that an individual is capable of making — personal choices about life and lifestyle that the non-dependents have open to them — then one reaches the inescapable conclusion that indeed, depending on government for some or all of one’s sustenance, shelter, and peace of mind results in a loss of freedom of action. What other definition of liberty is there?
The argument over producers and takers only clouds this issue — especially since part of the reason for the increase in government dependency is the lousy economy, and a bigger part is an aging population who receive Social Security and Medicare benefits.
But that’s only half an answer. As Nichoilas Eberstadt points out in his new book A Nation of Takers, having a society of dependents eats away at the exceptional nature of the American people and destroys traditional notions of self reliance:
From the founding of our state up to the present—or rather, until quite recently—the United States and the citizens who peopled it were regarded, at home and abroad, as exceptional in a number of deep and important respects. One of these was their fierce and principled independence, which informed not only the design of the political experiment that is the U.S. Constitution but also the approach to everyday affairs. The proud self-reliance that struck Alexis de Tocqueville in his visit to the United States in the early 1830s extended to personal finances. The American “individualism” about which he wrote included social cooperation, and on a grand scale—the young nation was a hotbed of civic associations and voluntary organizations. American men and women viewed themselves as accountable for their own situation through their own achievements in an environment bursting with opportunity—a novel outlook at that time, markedly different from the prevailing Old World (or at least Continental) attitudes.
The corollaries of this American ethos (which might be described as a sort of optimistic Puritanism) were, on the one hand, an affinity for personal enterprise and industry, and on the other a horror of dependency and contempt for anything that smacked of a mendicant mentality. Although many Americans in earlier times were poor—before the twentieth century, practically everyone was living on income that would be considered penurious nowadays—even people in fairly desperate circumstances were known to refuse help or handouts as an affront to their dignity and independence. People who subsisted on public resources were known as “paupers,” and provision for them was a local undertaking. Neither beneficiaries nor recipients held the condition of pauperism in high regard.
Overcoming America’s historic cultural resistance to government entitlements has been a long and formidable endeavor. But as we know today, this resistance did not ultimately prove an insurmountable obstacle to the establishment of mass public entitlements and normalizing the entitlement lifestyle in modern America. The United States is now on the verge of a symbolic threshold: the point at which more than half of all American households receive, and accept, transfer benefits from the government. From cradle (strictly speaking, from before the cradle) to grave, a treasure chest of government-supplied benefits are there for the taking for every American citizen—and exercising one’s legal rights to these many blandishments is not part and parcel of the American way of life.
A realistic notion of self reliance today is a far cry from what many on the right might imagine. Demanding that the poor become “self reliant” is a fool’s dream. Those in poverty in New York city, for instance, can’t become hunter-gatherers, shooting squirrels in Central Park or picking berries at the Arboretum. Asking those receiving welfare benefits to work for them is perfectly acceptable, although its difficult for the functionally illiterate and those without marketable job skills to get a job anywhere in today’s work force. Welfare, food stamps, housing assistance, and other needs-based entitlements are going to be with us until far more fundamental reforms in education, training, and creating habitable cities are made.
Similarly, we are not going to get rid of Social Security or Medicare, although reforms of those two entitlements will have to be made before we bankrupt ourselves trying to maintain them. As far as those two programs are concerned, very soon we will have to deal with the “producer-taker” question because the number of young workers supporting a single senior citizen who receives Social Security and Medicare will shrink from about 3:1 today to near 2:1 by 2050. Long before then, our descendents will have a revolution on their hands and a genuine generational conflict.
But Romney’s comments about takers and makers speaks to fundamental questions about the size and scope of government. Government is limited in how big it can get by the amount in tax dollars it can collect. Trillion dollar deficits notwithstanding — a number even most liberals believe is unsustainable — if the producers produce less, or resist the notion of government increasing its share of their income, the growth of government will be curtailed — theoretically. In truth, running massive deficits while government grows has been the norm for the past decade and given the paralysis that has gripped Washington, it is not likely to change anytime soon.
The problem is that the people and the politicians that represent them refuse to make choices. We want it all and we don’t want to pay for it is the reality we face. We all want politicians to do something about the budget deficit and the national debt but we don’t want programs cut that benefit us, or our children, nor do we want taxes raised (except on someone else) to pay for them. Through imprudent acts and willful self denial, we have created a crisis that is, at once, both spiritual and worldly; we are incapable of governing our desires for more of what government can give us while being unable to make the connection between what government does for us and its cost.
In the end, it is impossible to answer the question how big should government be because we don’t want to ask.