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Wards and Warders

On February 11,  The New York Times ran a long, front-page story titled "Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It." It was — and I say this in full cognizance of the fierce competition there is in this arena — one of the most mendacious stories I have ever read in the Times. Even the title had a dollop of mendacity about it.  The burden of the story was to show that many (most? all?) people who criticize big government and the welfare state are hypocrites because so many of them are recipients, in one way or another, of government largess.

There followed one of those interminable  journalistic litanies, full of down-home anecdotes about the real-life stories of Ki, the jeweler, who is highly critical of big government but nevertheless collects a government subsidy worth several thousand dollars, and Barbara, who lives on Social Security and needs Medicare to “pay for an operation.”

Ah, yes, “pay for an operation.”  Cue the violins. Distribute the Kleenex. The lady needed an operation and these anti-government beasts would deny her medical care.

But wait.  What’s wrong with this picture? The Jesuits in my high school were full of tips for good intellectual hygiene. Item: “never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.”  Good advice, at least the last bit about making distinctions.  What has the Times failed to distinguish?  As several commentators noted when the story appeared, neither Medicare nor Social Security are government subsidies in the sense that (e.g.) food stamps or Ki’s “earned income tax credit” (i.e., dole) is.  Look at your pay check: note the debits.  You’re paying for Social Security and Medicare. Maybe you’re not paying enough. Maybe you’re collecting on some of the benefits too early. Maybe, just maybe, they are misconceived programs whose stated goal of providing a “safety net” and caring for the needy could be accomplished at vastly less expense and with vastly greater efficiency by authorities that are more local than the federal government.

The phrase “safety net” brings me back to the title of the Times article and its soupçon of mendacity.  “Even Critics of Safety Net . . .”  But where are these critics of the safety net? Do you know anyone who thinks people should be allowed to starve in the streets or go without medical care? It was Dr. Johnson, not Lyndon Johnson, who observed that “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization." The question, which the Times skirts, is who or what should provide the safety net.

Like most conservatives, I am not against government. It’s just that I believe we should begin with the most local authority, which is self-government.  You don't have to be Immanuel Kant to appreciate the virtues of autonomy, i.e., giving the law, the nomos, to yourself. That is the best aspect of the Enlightenment tradition, to form a polity that encourages self-government, self-reliance, autonomy.  When that fails, as, given the imperfection and limitation of human nature, it surely will fail, we move outward, first to family, then to local communities, then the individual states. The federal government, that unwieldy leviathan, should be the last resort.  Few of us command an aircraft carrier. We sometimes are in need of an aircraft carrier.  That is a moment when the federal government comes in handy.  The same can be said of the interstate highway system and other, but not many other, enterprises. Bill Buckley, writing in 1959, put it with his customary eloquence:

What then is the indicated course of action? It is to maintain and wherever possible enhance the freedom of the individual to acquire property and dispose of that property in ways that he decides on. To deal with unemployment by eliminating monopoly unionism, featherbedding, and inflexibilities in the labor market, and be prepared, where residual unemployment persists, to cope with it locally, placing the political and humanitarian responsibility on the lowest feasible political unit. . . .

Which brings me to the really terrifying thing about that story in the Times.  Ki Gulbranson, the jeweler, is supposed to be a hypocrite because he rails against big government even as he accepts government (i.e., taxpayer) largess.  But is that hypocritical? Or is it, on the contrary, an illustration of the problem Mr. Gulbranson highlighted with his support of the Tea Party  and criticism of ever-increasing government subsidies?  More and more of the middle class, as the Times points out, are now recipients of government largess.  The Times  concludes that this means we should make our peace with big government.  My conclusion is the opposite.  The fact that more and more of the middle class is on the dole is grounds for grave concern. Mr. Gulbranson, like millions of Americans, has looked around him and seen leviathan. Hence his support of the Tea Party and candidates who have pledged to reduce the size and the intrusiveness of government.  Let me quote again from that 1959 article by  Bill Buckley (available, by the way, in Athwart History):

 Is that a program? Call it a No-Program, if you will, but adopt it for your very own. I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.

The most memorable thing about that article in the Times was an animated graphic that showed, as Tyler Durden put it at the weblog ZeroHedge, “America’s Metamorphosis to a Welfare State” from 1969 to 2009  (h/t Instapundit), which we'll explore at the top of the next page.