Paul Krugman (NYT) turns to the article that we have been discussing on Pileus (here and here) and Monty addressed in an insightful post on Ace of Spades. Krugman has never really acknowledged the reality of a looming entitlement crisis (indeed, it often appears that there can be no program large enough, no deficit large enough, no marginal rate high enough). So instead, he turns to the irony of the situation: those in the red states have a higher dependency on the social safety net than those in the blue states, yet they gravitate toward small government rhetoric and the GOP. The question is: why?
Unsurprisingly, the focus turns to a few well-worn explanations. One might argue (following Thomas Frank) that the plutocrats, who promise Jesus and deliver tax cuts for the rich, simply manipulate the red state rubes. Alternatively, one might argue (following Suzanne Mettler) that people would love the state if they only understood all the good things it does for them (e.g., many Social Security and Medicare recipients deny that they have used government programs).
Yet, the NYT article that has been the subject of conversation does not provide much support for either of these theses. Social issues rarely find much of an expression in the vignettes and those interviewed seem quite aware that they are using government programs. Their discomfort comes from the fact that they are ideologically opposed to these programs despite the fact that they see no options outside of the safety net. They are, to quote the title of one of my favorite James Buchanan essays, “afraid to be free.” Perhaps it is with good reason, as suggested earlier, given the erosion of civil society institutions and norms of self-help and communal responsibility.
Krugman rightly chastises Mitt Romney for his lack of frankness when addressing the issue of entitlements (e.g., Romney attacks Obama for failing to embrace entitlement reform and then, without a pause, attacks him for slashing Medicare). But I think he fundamentally misunderstands the broader situation:
The message I take from all this is that pundits who describe America as a fundamentally conservative country are wrong. Yes, voters sent some severe conservatives to Washington. But those voters would be both shocked and angry if such politicians actually imposed their small-government agenda.
Perhaps, does this sad state of affairs speak to their conservatism? I am skeptical.
Let me draw a quick example: all of us have known people with severe substance abuse problems. In some cases, it was simply a product of choice; in other cases, they had sought refuge in intoxicants following some significant crisis. They clearly understand the evils of dependency and they are painfully aware of the ways in which their addictions undermine their ability to live a flourishing life. At the same time, after years or decades of abuse, they find the idea of going into rehab unbearable. Some rightly anticipate that the act of regaining sobriety could imperil their very lives. At the very least, it would disrupt their social relationships and daily activities. Given the damage already done, they may wonder whether the benefits of sobriety would be higher than the costs.
Does this mean that they should be avid supporters of universal intoxication? Not to my mind. It means that are in a tragic and untenable situation, often with the assistance of myriad enablers.
A few readers might object to drawing parallels between welfare and addiction. But recall that even the father of the modern welfare state, Franklin Roosevelt, saw the connection when he noted in his 1935 SOTU address that “continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole our relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”
A few years ago, a good friend was dying. Decades of alcohol abuse and heavy smoking had taken their toll. After a stroke, the doctors told me that their immediate concern was not the effects of the stroke but the severity of the withdrawal symptoms. Soon thereafter he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Our last meeting occurred in a bar, where he sat with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in another. Filled with cancer, he took a draw on his cigarette, smiled, and said: “These damn things killed me.”
Of course, this was not a new revelation for my friend. He was brilliant, witty, and had made comparable comments in the past when the future was still unclear. Nonetheless, the pain of withdrawal would have been far too great for him to take the steps that would have extended his life. One might have assuaged his concerns by explaining that the chemical effects of the drugs he consumed had a positive impact on the pleasure centers of his brain. One might have encouraged him to simply celebrate addiction.
He never would have bought it.