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The Mirage of Welfare State Freedom

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Government dependency was one of the hottest issues in this year’s presidential race. Unfortunately, neither major-party candidate focused on the perils of “freedoms” that rely on government handouts. Instead, “welfare state freedom” has become the coin of the political realm.

Lyndon Johnson declared in 1964, “For the first time in world history we have the abundance and the ability to free every man from hopeless want and to free every person to find fulfillment in the works of his mind or the labor of his hands.” In 1965, he declared that the goal of his Great Society programs was “to give the individual identity and self-esteem — not to impose upon him any oppressive paternalism.” The Great Society maximized individual identity by multiplying dependence on government and political control over the private sector.

Anyone who does not have certain possessions is assumed not to be free — and in need of political rescue. Johnson, justifying a vast expansion of government social programs, declared in 1965, “Negroes are trapped — as many whites are trapped — in inherited, gateless poverty…. Public and private poverty combine to cripple their capacities.” Vice President Hubert Humphrey defined a poor person as “the man who for reasons beyond his control cannot help himself.” This perspective on poverty and self-help mocks all of American history. It implies that any person who earns less than $11,170 a year (the official poverty line cutoff for a single person) is incapable of any discipline or resolution.

Once freedom is equated with a certain material standard of living, confiscation becomes the path to liberation. Thus, the more avidly a politician raises taxes, the greater his apparent love for liberty. In the name of providing welfare state freedom, the politician acquires a pretext to destroy the basis of private citizens’ independence. Welfare state freedom becomes a license for politicians, rather than a declaration of rights of citizens.

The costs

While advocates of welfare state freedom insist that government must intervene so that each person “can be all that he can be,” government-aid programs are notorious for rewarding people for making the least of themselves. Franklin Roosevelt warned in 1935 that “continued dependence on relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.” Bill Clinton declared in 1996, “For decades now, welfare has too often been a trap, consigning generation after generation to a cycle of dependency. The children of welfare are more likely to drop out of school, to run afoul of the law, to become teen parents, to raise their own children on welfare.” A rising tide no longer lifts all boats when the government rewards people for scuttling their own ships.

How does the federal government liberate handout recipients? By giving many people more money than they could earn by working. Government welfare spending is now vastly higher than it was in 1964. As a result, low-income Americans’ work efforts have plummeted. A 1995 Heritage Foundation study reported, “In 1960, among the lowest income quintile of population, nearly two-thirds of households were headed by persons who worked. By 1991 this figure had fallen to around one-third, and only 11 percent were headed by persons who worked full-time throughout the year.” A 1998 report by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation found that “for the first time in the twentieth century most adults in many inner-city neighborhoods are not working in a typical week.”

Faith in welfare state freedom depends on a political myopia that focuses on only one side of the ledger of government action. It measures freedom according to how much government does for people, and totally disregards what government does to people. Government provides freedom for the welfare recipient by imposing tax servitude on the worker. In an age of unprecedented prosperity, government tax policies have turned the average citizen’s life into a financial struggle and ensured that he will very likely become a ward of the state in his last decades.

Government handouts, rather than being the key to welfare state freedom, are merely a rebate on political serfdom. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimated in 1994 that males born between 1980 and 1992 will have to surrender more than half of their lifetime earnings to tax collectors. The average male born in 1952 will be forced to pay $171,000 more in taxes than he receives from the government, and the average male born in 1967 will pay at least $200,000 more than he receives, according to OMB. And those estimates are based on the cheery assumption that the Social Security system will not crash and burn.

What are the hidden costs of welfare state freedom? Economist Edgar Browning, writing in 1993, examined the marginal cost of redistribution — defined as “the ratio of the aggregate loss to the top four quintiles of households to the aggregate gain to the bottom quintile of households.” Browning estimated that the “marginal cost” to the most affluent 80 percent of households of increasing the income of the poorest 20 percent of households was $7.82 for each $1 increase in cash income over the course of the lifetimes of both low-income and more-affluent citizens. The marginal costs of redistribution are much larger than people might presume because of reduced incentives to work, both among the taxpayers and the recipients. Browning also noted that “marginal tax rates must be increased very sharply relative to the amount of income that is redistributed.” Confiscatory redistribution destroys almost eight times as much “freedom” as it creates.

State control

Once the notion of welfare state freedom is accepted as the preeminent freedom, it becomes a wish list justifying endless political forays deeper and deeper into people’s lives. Princeton professor Amy Gutmann, in her 1982 book, Liberal Equality, declared, “Liberal egalitarians want to say that freedom of choice is not very meaningful without a right to those goods necessary to life itself.” Gutmann’s elaboration of “necessary goods” reveals that government would be obliged to control almost everything: “Supplying the poorest with more primary goods will be insufficient if their sense of self-worth or their very desire to pursue their conceptions of the good is undercut by self-doubt.” By this standard, freedom is violated when people suffer self-doubt, and the government is obliged to forcibly intervene to guarantee that all people think well of themselves.

Political scientist Alan Wolfe, a self-described “welfare liberal,” asserted that “people need a modicum of security and income maintenance, underwritten by government, in order to fulfill the ideal of negative liberty, which is self-sufficiency.” Government dependency is the new, improved form of self-reliance: dependency on government doesn’t count because government is a better friend to you than you are to yourself. But the more dependent people become on government, the more susceptible they are to political and bureaucratic abuse.

Welfare state freedom requires that politicians and bureaucrats decree who will be subjugated to meet other people’s needs. Every increase in government handouts requires a corresponding decrease in people’s right to retain their own paychecks. It requires a general political confiscation and redistribution of opportunity. But after private opportunity is confiscated and run through the wringer of the state, it is no longer opportunity, but merely the privilege to live off others’ labor without their consent.

Welfare state freedom supposedly results from government’s taking away what a person owns so that it can give him back what it thinks he deserves. The welfare state is either a way to force people to finance their own benefits via political-bureaucratic bagmen, or it is a way to force some people to labor for other people’s benefit. In the first case, government sacrifices the person’s freedom to the fraud that government must tax him to subsidize him; in the second, government sacrifices one person’s freedom in order to “liberate” someone else — often someone who chooses not to work.

Throughout history, politicians have used other people’s property to buy themselves power. That is the primary achievement of the welfare state. The danger of government handouts to freedom was clear to some political writers hundreds of years ago. The French writer Étienne de la Boétie, in his 1577 Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, noted of ancient Rome, “Tyrants would distribute largess, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine … and then everybody would shamelessly cry, ‘Long live the King!’ The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them.”

Welfare state freedom is based on making everyone responsible for everyone else’s mistakes, and allowing politicians and bureaucrats to decree how great a burden each citizen must bear. Most important, welfare state freedom forces citizens to carry a government swollen by endless false political promises, swollen by taking on tasks for which it has no competence, swollen by its own arrogance and eternal meddling.

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.