David French writes of what he calls “Entitlement Derangement Syndrome,” which he thinks is motivating what we’re seeing in Wisconsin—namely, aggressive protesting over benefits and pensions, as if we had some kind of natural right to them. He likens the Wisconsin protesting to what went on in France last October when they wanted to raise the retirement age to 62.
I think this points to an unanticipated negative consequence of the welfare state: It corrupts people’s moral sensibilities. More specifically, it encourages people to ignore, violate, and even pretend does not exist a central, foundational moral premise of politics, namely that it is wrong to live at others’ expense.
Now of course that premise has to be properly qualified. Children may live at their parents’ expense; adults who have entered into marriages, partnerships, contracts, or other voluntary associations may live at each others’ expense; and sometimes people have to live at the expense of others’ charity.
But able-bodied adults should not live at the unwilling expense of others. And they certainly have no right to live at unwilling others’ expense. That is why forced labor and slavery are wrong. Forced labor and slavery are wrong not because they are costly or because they are inefficient; they are wrong even if they were inexpensive and efficient. They are wrong because it is wrong to live at unwilling others’ expense.
The welfare state clouds that moral intuition, which should be among our most deeply held. Indeed, the welfare state has not only clouded that intuition, it seems it has entirely inverted it. Thus we have people who believe they are entitled to live at others’ expense, even when those others are in debt, having great difficulty of paying their own way, and thus want to pay less.
It is demeaning for adults to live from the charity of others, even when the charity is voluntary. Even when offered with the best of intentions, it can weaken the recipients’ moral fiber and the power of their independent judgment, reducing them to “kept” status—which is why it is to be avoided except when absolutely necessary. But when the support is not charity and thus not voluntary, it is all the more morally suspect.
The fact that so many people, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, can behave and speak as if they nevertheless have a right to the fruits of others’ labors does not change the character of the reality. If they thought that their case warranted overriding the standard moral prohibition of living at others’ expense, then they should, and presumably would, make the case for why that is. But they make no such case. That suggests they don’t believe any such case has to be made. And that is the kind of moral confusion that I think the welfare state can foster.