Saturday, October 9, 2010

Is government the best way?

I don't agree with everything Pat Buchanan says here, but it's still an interesting read:

What a changed country we have become in our expectations of ourselves. A less affluent America survived a Depression and world war without anything like the 99 weeks of unemployment insurance, welfare payments, earned income tax credits, food stamps, rent supplements, day care, school lunches and Medicaid we have today.

Public or private charity were thought necessary, but were almost always to be temporary until a breadwinner could find work or a family could get back on its feet. The expectation was that almost everyone, with hard work and by keeping the nose to the grindstone, could make his or her own way in this free society. No more.

What we have accepted today is a vast permanent underclass of scores of millions who cannot cope and must be carried by the rest of society – fed, clothed, housed, tutored, medicated at taxpayers' expense for their entire lives. We have a new division in America: those who pay a double fare, and those who forever ride free.

We Americans are not only not the people our parents were, we are not the people we were. FDR was right about what would happen to the country if we did not get off the narcotic of welfare.

Of course, a less affluent America could still build their own homes (as my grandfather did) without being forced to abide by laws and building codes and safety requirements put into place for huge home builders. And own these homes outright. And commute to work, to the grocery store, and to Church every Sunday without needing a car. And...well, the point is that the change to modern living has been expensive, and we're still all paying for it.

But, on the other hand, as I wrote on my other blog recently, there is something somewhat troubling about seeing people rely on entitlement programs as a needed part of their "incomes," rather than a temporary safety net. This is especially troubling when the entitlement is seen as something "free" which is coming from the "government" instead of as something which costs my neighbor something, and which is confiscated from him, diminishing his ability to pay for his own family's needs.

No Catholic would deny the need for sound, practical, regular, efficient ways of providing for the needs of the poor. But are government entitlement programs the best way? Is there, as Buchanan says, a danger that a person's own natural and laudable desire to work and to provide for his own and his loved ones' needs might be destroyed by such programs? Do the programs contribute to the destruction of marriage and the family--or are they merely necessary in a culture which sees both marriage and the family as disposable?

What do you think?


  1. Mr. Buchanan's argument seems to be that too many people in the United States are relying on various forms of government aid as a permanent support rather than as a temporary one. The alternative of supporting oneself and one's family by "hard work and by keeping the nose to the grindstone" is being neglected, he argues.

    I would certainly agree that making a living by working ought to be the norm and that it is a problem if millions of people are dependent on government aid rather than a steady paycheck. To criticize the practice of providing aid, whether in the form of foodstamps or Medicaid or the like, however, is, at best, to identify only one part of the problem and, at worst, to get the problem backwards.

    If millions of people are dependent on government aid, that probably means that most of them are unable to get ahead in the usual way--they cannot find jobs, their jobs do not pay enough or do not offer the benefits they need, and so on. No doubt some people abuse the system, no doubt some people are lazy or could improve their economic situations by reforming their behavior, but this is not true of everyone. Some people actually need help and if that help lasts far longer than we would like, I think that is the fault of system in which people cannot support themselves by private means.

    I would suggest that a properly Catholic response to persistent poverty is to emphasize creating jobs and raising wages rather than providing direct government aid. This seems more in line with the principle of subsidiarity and respecting the autonomy of the family as a social unit. To this extent, I am sympathetic to critics of government welfare. Reaching this goal will also mean government action, though, perhaps very aggressive government action: raising the minimum wage, perhaps, or making it easier for more workers to organize themselves into unions and collectively bargain for better wages and conditions.

    I think something along these lines would be a good response to welfare dependency. Simply taking aim at the government aid programs does not seem to me an adequate response.

    Those are my thoughts, for whatever they are worth. Sorry for the long post.

  2. It's to answer these questions that I'm reading up on the tradition of Distributism, which was inspired by the social encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII and Pius XI, and has continued following the social encyclicals up to the present day.

    As I understand it, Distributism proposes an alternative to government welfare and wage slavery: what if most people worked for themselves rather than for a corporation, producing goods or services and selling them and keeping the profit in their own hands.

    I'm not 100% sure it's the solution, but it's at least helped me break out of the bipolar ways of thinking most of our political and economic debate gets trapped in.

  3. John writes : "Sorry for the long post."

    To the contrary, I appreciate the length because it was excellent from start to finish.

  4. I should add, the one aspect not mentioned is stability. The primary problem is stability of the market.

    btw, have you ever noticed how those who advocate distributism never are actually working in that milieu, but for some corporation, or university or some such? Not unlike the libertarians who are never to be found except at some public university living off public tax dollars.

    I on the other hand have spent my entire life working in that milieu, and it's not a paradise, but damn long hard hours where John's post makes sense because even with those long hours, it's not 'profits' but survival that one is looking for.

  5. love the girls: Thank you. I am delighted to hear you liked the post.

    Regarding the philosophy of distributism that both Robert and love the girls mentioned, I know relatively little about it. Given what I do know about it, however, I can see its appeal: an economy in which most people can farm their own land or operate their own business does have advantages. I hesitate to endorse it, though, because I think it means sacrificing a lot of the economies of scale and more complex economic organizations that create a high material standard of living.

    Still, I am no economist, so I am willing to hear more about it from Robert or anyone else interested in the topic.

  6. Agreed: I haven't yet seen how distributism provides for the scale or complexity that has become integral to our current global economy.

    At the same time, I think it's unrealistic for us to pretend that such scale and complexity can be infinitely maintained by our present system. There is no place, so far as I can tell, for properly human goods in contemporary economics. Sooner or later, our system will crash. And if we aren't ready then we'll be caught in the rubble.

    A Catholic approach, distributist or not, puts the human person at the focus. It is the human good, not merely efficiency or the production of wealth, that should be the foundation of economic science and practice.

  7. Robert writes : "I think it's unrealistic for us to pretend that such scale and complexity can be infinitely maintained by our present system."

    That depends on which scale and complexity you're speaking of. Some scales and complexities exist resting on the backs of others, such as products which are sold at prices that cannot even absorb the cost of materials when produced at a living wage. And some complexities are grounded in a luxury of materialism where we think nothing of jetting off to Mexico City for a day this week to give a lecture on distributism as John Medaille just did.

    While other scales and complexities are more essential to life, such as CT scans and life saving antibiotics for bacterial meningitis that not a mother on earth would chose to do without when her child's life rests in the balance.

    Robert writes : "A Catholic approach . ."

    How do you take usury out of a market grounded on usury? How do you take materialism out a market grounded in materialism?

    Letting the market decide is a lost cause when even the heads of the green movement use disposable diapers. Albeit they probably have enough sense to use natural ones instead of those poisonous chem laden things sold in volume at the local grocery store.

    But on the other hand, only a complete fool would trust the government because their track record is horror laden beyond belief.

    In other words, I don't think there are any solutions which can be imposed, but that the solution is to wait for a "A Catholic approach" to evolve organically" just as the green movement is evolving organically, with unfortunate government impositions which only increase costs of construction harming those who can least afford those extra burdens.

    In the mean time, we need food stamps and other help because usury and materialism crush and winnow out those who are weak.

  8. Adding on. Pat Buchannan tells the story of how he and his siblings were able to go to the local Catholic school for less than the nominal fee then charged to families. Where as today, the local Catholic schools are virtually only accessible to families where the mother works and where contraception is the norm because Catholic grade school costs are thousands per child and Catholic high schools are at ten per child.

    Thus parents are given the choice of either home schooling, of looking to the government for assistance. True, those who send their children to private schools pay double, but for many, the only reasonable choice are those 'narcotic' government schools, where the choice is choosing the least harmful charter school, because the Catholic choice is simply unobtainable when every other bill is likewise coming down and something has to give.