A few days back I posted (here) on an article in the NYT that focused on recipients of welfare (usually Social Security, Medicaid, disability) who are dependent on the state but also seem without options. My post ended on a somber note: “the expansion of the safety net has been accompanied by changes in social norms and the displacement of private institutions. At one time, people…might have been confident that their extended families and congregations would never let them fall into abject poverty in the absence of public programs. But it is difficult to imagine that a significant reduction in entitlement spending would lead to a revivification of a world that has long passed.” As a result, reform in entitlement programs—which I see both as inevitable and desirable—will induce a lot of pain, and this should be a source of concern, particularly if it makes incremental reform impossible in a democratic system.
At Ace of Spades, one commentator linked to the post (with the tag: “Americans seem to have difficulty imagining a time when there was no pervasive government-run welfare state”).
“There was a time when the arm of the federal government did not reach far at all, and citizens had to rely on themselves, their friends, their families, and their communities for help and support. And you know what? It worked, mostly. … Misery and hardship is the lot of humanity on this earth. Yet our forbears managed to not only get by, but to build the greatest nation in the history of the world…and they did it without an overbearing, interfering, smothering nanny state monitoring their every breath.”
Of course, it is not difficult to imagine a time when there was no welfare state. That is, in fact, quite easy (no more difficult than imagining a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth). The difficulty comes in charting a course back to that original position. Moreover, I would not deny that there was a time pre-welfare when citizens relied on “themselves, their friends, their families and their communities for help and support.” One may be justified in longing for a return to these times (although these claims are often tinged with a bit of romanticism).
The key point of my original post is there have been significant changes in social institutions and norms in the postwar period. Arguably, much of this has been driven by policy decisions that have altered individual behavior and displaced private institutions. It was once a norm for extended, multi-generational families to live together and pool resources. It is no longer. Indeed, procreation outside of marriage will soon be the rule. Private pensions and savings once provided the primary sources of retirement income; now two of the three legs have disappeared for many, leaving them dependent on Social Security. Private institutions that once had a mission to provide others in times of need have in many cases been starved for resources (“Why tithe when I pay taxes?”) or coopted by the state, becoming quasi-private service delivery organizations that would wither on the vine without a flow of public funds. If one believes that political and social development is path dependent, one should not expect an instantaneous return to a previous branching point. Indeed, the path may prove arduous.
One could argue—and I think persuasively—that elements of the old order may reassert themselves in the future. But the future is a big place. Changes will not come quickly and not necessarily in ways that one may hope. Significant reforms in entitlements will impose a fair amount of pain in the interim. For some, the pain will be minimal (e.g., readjusting the timing of retirement, deleting costly items from the bucket list). But for others, it will be devastating (e.g., selling the family homestead for rent and food, foregoing medical procedures that could extend life or improve the quality of life).
The observation that there once was a time when welfare did not exist is a bit too easy. We can all imagine a world without welfare. Yet, it tells us nothing about whether a return to this original position is possible (or likely) and whether individuals will willingly accept the sacrifices it will entail.
The characters described in the NYT article referenced in the original post were working class or lower middle class individuals who were sympathetic to the Tea Party but were simultaneously fearful of how they could survive (in some cases, literally) without their existing entitlements. They were not Reagan’s mythic welfare queens, exploiting the system for a life of ill-gained luxury. One can only wonder whether their embrace of small government will prove all too thin once they understand the short-term consequences?
Ideally, reform would occur in a deliberate and reasoned manner. But if broad support for reform is difficult to create or maintain, an incremental path to reform will be politically impossible. Ultimately, fiscal crisis could open the door to changes that are far less compatible with liberty than one might hope. This too, is not difficult to imagine.