The U.S. After the Welfare State

The U.S. After the Welfare State

T RY TO IMAGINE A WORLD WITHOUT THE WELFARE STATE. It's a mental exercise akin to what Soviet intellectuals tried in the mid-1980s. Socialism had produced a grasping economy, an angry and even revolutionary citizenry, and total isolation from most of the developed world. Soviet intelligentsia recognized that the socialist state had failed. Yet there seemed to be a million objections to why it could not be dismantled, and why a leap into freedom should be delayed indefinitely.

Let's look at one facet of the Soviet state: the choice of residence. Under central planning, people could not change their residences without the permission of the Soviet state. It took months and years for this permission to be granted. Requests were frequently denied on grounds of insufficient housing, economic need or fear of demographic dislocation. The bureaucracy which approved a permanent move from one place to another had to be courted and bribed.

Getting government out of the moving permit business, and letting people live where they wanted to, seemed like a radical measure to many in the Soviet Union. Who could possibly favor such a thing but an anarchist? The very idea raised innumerable problems.

Wouldn't the freedom to move produce housing shortages and surpluses? Wouldn't everyone want to cluster in the most desirable places, leaving large portions of towns and cities abandoned? Wouldn't whole factories be left empty as families packed up and moved to more attractive environs? Wouldn't the owners charge absurd prices, taking advantage of the rush to move where one wanted to? How can the state plan if people can move anywhere they want? Wouldn't granting this right throw society into chaos?

We in America take the right to move for granted. But after 70 years of central planning, to many Soviets it did not seem obvious that society could survive so long as people could change residences without permission. Indeed, it is difficult to escape the central-planning mentality. We know from experience that the freedom to move does not produce chaos. But that's because that freedom hasn’t been taken away from us.

Mention overhauling the welfare state in the United States, and you will meet similar objections. Just as the Soviet people had been accustomed to looking to the state as producer and provider of all goods and services, many in our country see the government as the only entity capable of handling our social problems.

What will happen to people who cannot work? How Will young children of single mothers be cared for? How will the unskilled receive training? Won't Great Depression-style poverty return? Won't private agencies be too poor to provide for everyone?

The questions are endless. Many people assume that needy people will not be cared for if the role of government is diminished in the provision of welfare. To overcome this mentality, we need the same faith it took to leap from communism to capitalism. We need faith that the American people are up to the task.

The Problem We Face

Most commonly, people argue that if more responsibility to care for the poor is given to private individuals and organizations, some needy people will fall through the cracks. And they are right. But many are falling through our social safety net now. There is no perfect system.

Welfare socialism has failed to attain perfect security for all people. There will always be older people, children, the poor and disabled who will need our help. The issue is not how to create a perfect world without poverty, but how we can create a system that is most adept at finding those who need our help, meeting those needs and, when possible, helping those people to a life of independence. Whatever imperfections such a transformation in the system would produce, it must be compared to the present system which has been an abysmal failure. Since the beginning of the Great Society, billions of dollars have been extracted from the American people to solve poverty and its attendant social ills. Yet illegitimacy, teen pregnancy, gang activities, drug use and crime are all worse. We have often subsidized the very problems we have tried to solve. The only way out of this mess is to return much of the responsibility for dealing with these problems back to its proper place: the private sector.

One of the tragedies of our thirty-year old experiment in social engineering is the loss of practical knowledge of how we can effectively help poor people improve their lot. Under socialism in the Soviet Union, entrepreneurial abilities and technological know-how were also suppressed. So private skills and abilities aimed at helping the poor have been in our country. Methods techniques and know-how - in business and charity - require an atmosphere of freedom and experimentation to thrive. An effective system of welfare will allow that natural climate of freedom to use human creativity to the fittest advantage.

Obviously we have always had private charities - even ones unsubsidized by state funds - but their missions have been drastically altered by the presence of government welfare. For example, if a church soup kitchen requires people to do some work for their meal they may find themselves with few takers as potential clients go to the no-strings-attached, state subsidized soup kitchen down the street. In effect bad charity drives out good charity.

An effective welfare system will allow those closest to the individuals in need to be the resources of first resort. Spheres of responsibility would emanate from the person to his family members, to neighbors, to religious institutions, to towns and cities, and then to states. The federal government would only be involved when lower orders cannot do the job. Churches' members would become directly involved in the lives of the poor people in their own communities. These committed local people and groups will work to encourage the weak to become stronger, the dependent as independent.

Lessons From the Past

For their endeavors, the best advice may come from those who were involved in charity work before the welfare state was assembled. We need to recapture this lost knowledge of how to help the poor. Mary Conyngton's 1909 book, How to Help, was a standard reference manual for years. She offers a number of principles for those involved in charity work, whether professional or amateur.

One of her qualifications for such work is “a sympathetic imagination, which will permit the worker to share the point of view of those he is endeavoring to help.” “Whoever goes among the poor with a preconceived idea of what is the cause of their trouble and what should be its cure,” she tells us, “is liable to meet many disappointments.” Conyngton also makes a plea against one-size-fits all policies for the poor. Her vision recognizes the uniqueness of each individual and his or her particular strengths, weaknesses, resources and situations. “The poor,” she writes, “obstinately refuse to form one class, all amenable to the same treatment.” Then as now, they come from every nationality. Their standards of life and behavior differ widely among them. The solution to each situation must be specifically tailored to the individual need, she suggests.

Conyngton also emphasizes the need for a “sense of proportion.” The goal need not be perfection but the “highest practicable good attainable in each case,” and that requires having a long-term vision, and not offering the first and easiest remedy. Conyngton warns that “many people are inclined to look upon public help as a right and to apply for it without hesitation, while they would regard themselves as losing caste if they appealed to private aid.”

Her book is a standing rebuke to the modem welfare state, which emphasizes materialist solutions to misdiagnosed problems, administered by people who cannot account for the heterogeneity of those in need. Public aid, she said can be as bad or worse than no aid at all. Even private aid must be specifically tailored to put people back on the path toward independence, and must never subsidize failure.

A Local Approach

The beauty of local efforts to help the needy is that they humanize welfare. They allow for one person to help another using his creative faculties. They make the individual receiving aid realize that he must work to live up to the expectations of those helping him. Local solutions allow for a flexibility that is simply not possible at the federal level.

Authentic charity cannot be centrally planned any more than an economy can be. But the spontaneous efforts of private individuals, houses of worship and charities will work, however imperfectly. Whatever its flaws, a system based on greater private charity will allow caregivers to learn from their own mistakes.

Technology has flourished in our country because people have been free to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. We can expect the same progress in the provision of welfare if we allow it a climate of freedom as well. The most urgent priority is for the central government to step aside so that the lower orders of society can take charge. Just as the Russian planners were amazed when eliminating moving permits did not make society collapse, we will all be impressed at the outpouring of true compassion for those in need. What we need most of all is faith that all people of good will can collectively do a better job than distant bureaucrats who have administered the welfare state for decades. If Soviet planners can take a leap of faith into freedom, so can we.