Monday, December 6, 2010

Welfare Politics and a Game of Debt Chicken

Julius Cæsar, welfare politician.
     Yesterday, The New York Times reported on the growing possibility of default by various political entities across the land: “Not just small towns or dying Rust Belt cities, but also large states like Illinois and California are increasingly at risk.” Further, these polities could soon be asking for federal assistance: “[T]he imbalances are so large in some places that the federal government will probably have to step in at some point….” One imagines a game of Debt Chicken, in which federal and state officials see who will lose their nerve first. Federal assistance could conceivably come with strings attached, such as requiring states to curtail the spending that is currently bankrupting them. In the end, the effectiveness of such limits is likely to be limited, given (a) the strong commitment to spending exhibited by the very states facing default and (b) the electoral votes controlled by those states. For all the change in November, an even more fundamental shift is needed. The country desperately needs to re-new the American tradition of self-reliance.

     Ralph Waldo Emerson was nothing like a conservative. And yet, when he wrote of self-reliance, he sketched a stereotypically sour right-wing sensibility: “Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations.”  Today, Emerson sounds like Ebenezer Scrooge. But where Dickens urged charity as a moral obligation, the Left today claims that the very obligations Emerson denied (paying for “education at college of fools” or “alms to sots”) should enjoy the force of law. The government will take part of your income and distribute it to other people. The ostensible justification for this plan is a hardened sense of moral obligation beyond that of the (generally) Christian do-gooders of Emerson’s time. Ironically, this obligation is now firmly a part of (typically) anti-Christian Leftist ideology. How did this come about? By interest-group politics.

     Interest groups go back at least to the Roman Republic. Populares, like Julius Cæsar, waived the flag for the poor and unemployed. Optimates resisted welfare efforts like Cæsar’s increase to the corn dole. The optimates said Cæsar was just buying votes, and besides, how could the Republic pay for it all? This debate should sound familiar.

     Nowadays, like Cæsar, the Left waives the flag for the poor on supposedly moral grounds. In fact, government spending always creates power for the government officials who administer that spending. By privileging certain groups—like state employees’ unions—a modern popularis buys himself a political army that will march to the polls on Election Day. So there are powerful incentives for welfare politicians to increase spending. Unfortunately, such a scheme cannot go on forever because eventually everyone will be on the dole and no one will be left to tax. At some point, a majority of voters simply must choose self-reliance over dependency.

     How that can happen is unclear. The country must break the grip of the modern populares and uproot the sense of entitlement among their constituents. If we fail to do so we may very well face an economic and political catastrophe. And after that, if we are not very lucky, a new Cæsar.

1 comment:

  1. That is an interesting parallel. But I think the plebians in Rome had a stronger case than current welfare beneficiaries. A lot of them had fought in the armies that created the wealth that the senators acquired. And the wealth was a very tangible sort of wealth being formed of actual treasure and land.

    Nowadays with mechanisation and televisions, bread and circuses can be provided much more cheaply. And a lot of the supposed wealth that is being talked about is just numbers on a computer. Transferring wealth away from the rich to the poor might be much more straight forward.