Soft Despotism and the Entitlement State

All to often conservatives evaluate the welfare state in strictly economic terms. The argument is made countless times that all of these government programs are a good idea, but if taken too far they become unaffordable. The other argument is that if we use the right policies to grow the economy, we could then afford such programs. The left rightly counters this argument with the assertion that the question is about basic human values and the public good, not mere economic calculation. As the human costs of the welfare state approach to realizing the public good become obvious, more conservatives are criticizing the approach on the grounds of those costs and its failure to promote the public good. In doing so, they are picking up an argument over a century and a half old.  Back in the 1830’s French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of a threat known as “soft despotism”, which he saw modern democracies as particularly vulnerable to. He visited America at the time looking for an antidote to this threat in America’s linking of religion and liberty and its tendency to form associations to deal with social ills, rather than depend on government bureaucracies like the Europeans did.  A recent article by William Voegeli in the National Review examines the human costs of the European style welfare state:

Finally, as a result of the 2012 elections, more than two-thirds of the members of each house of California’s state legislature will be Democrats. Thus, the high wall erected in 1978 by Proposition 13, which requires a supermajority to raise taxes, can now be breached without a single Republican vote. California, home to one-eighth of the U.S. population, is the birthplace of the national tax revolt, triggered by the passage of that ballot proposition almost 35 years ago. If Americans in general continue to become more like Californians, and if Californians are becoming more like Swedes in their desire for activist government and their willingness to pay for it, then 2012 will be remembered as the beginning of the national tax capitulation.

Such a development argues that we are becoming Swedenized in a deeper sense: not just adopting social-democratic policies but acquiring a sociological character that will leave us resembling present-day Europe more than the America Tocqueville discovered, in which families, communities, and churches turned individualism from a social solvent into a social adhesive. In a 2009 lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a resident scholar, Charles Murray made the connection between governance and sociology this way: “Almost anything that government does in social policy can be characterized as taking some of the trouble out of things.” The problem, according to Murray, is that “every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality — it drains some of the life from them.”

In I Am the Change, an analysis of President Obama’s political philosophy, Claremont McKenna government professor Charles Kesler says the “First Law of Big Government” is that “the more power we give government, the more rights it will give us.” The “rights” in that bargain are really wants, such as the “right” to “rest, recreation, and adventure” promised by one New Deal board, or the “right” to “enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits,” one of dozens enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Kesler’s formulation speaks to Americans’ inner Jeffersonianism, challenging them to covetously consolidate those genuine inalienable rights with which they have been endowed by their Creator. Tell a modern European, however, that in exchange for permitting the government to superintend citizens’ lives in ever greater detail it will bestow still more social-welfare rights, and the reaction will not be “Who do you think you are?” but “Where do I sign, and how soon do I get my benefits?”

The case against Swedenization, then, is that it threatens a soft and insidious despotism. Unlike the totalitarianism of the USSR, where the evil flowed from the top down, engulfing every aspect of society, the danger posed by social democracy is of social, political, and economic debilitations’ compounding one another. Progressivism began as, and remains, “an alliance of experts and victims,” according to Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard. It gains strength as the experts assert their expertise more confidently and the victims accept their helplessness more compliantly. The kind of robust mediating structures Tocqueville thought essential to the success of democracy in America will not prevail against that alliance. If the experts determine that employer-provided health insurance must include contraception, the objections of religious organizations opposed to some or all forms of contraception are immaterial. The possibility that the republic’s free citizens could initiate financial or employment arrangements to secure contraceptives, rather than relying completely on government directives to their employers, is also ruled out of order.

De Tocqueville studied the American experiment in ordered liberty in order to find a cure for a disease that he saw as infecting Europe.  In other words, it was not just American democracy that could not prevail against the subtle threat of soft despotism, but democracy period.  He saw this problem over a century and a half ago, but some are starting to finally recognize it as well:

It is also possible that Swedenization won’t work indefinitely, even in Sweden. Europeans’ admirable willingness to pay for the government programs they demand will be inundated by a demographic tide that leaves fewer and fewer workers supporting more and more retirees. Leftist politicians and writers treat this shift as an exogenous variable, an unfortunate contingency that has befallen the welfare state but reveals nothing essential about it. Megan McArdle and Ramesh Ponnuru have argued persuasively, however, that both social science and common sense suggest the welfare state is complicit in its own fiscal peril. Before the welfare state, I relied on my children to take care of me in my dotage, and you relied on yours to take care of you. After it, we rely on all our children to take care of all of us. The welfare state thus creates strong incentives for individuals to have fewer children of their own and rely instead on aggregated financial support from everyone’s children, thereby putting social-security systems under intolerable strain. Ponnuru cites two recent studies showing that the generosity of Europe’s welfare systems explains about half of the difference between the continent’s fertility rates, insufficient in every country to prevent the population from shrinking, and America’s, which remains above the level needed for population growth.

There is another sense in which Swedenization undermines itself. “The Scandinavian welfare states, which express so well a sense of obligation to distant strangers, are beginning to make it more difficult to express a sense of obligation to those with whom one shares family ties,” the Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe has written. Most consequentially, those high, widely applied taxes make raising children in single-income families financially daunting. Even deeply reluctant couples can afford no choice other than entrusting their small children to the subsidized day-care center so that both parents can set off each morning to earn heavily taxed salaries.

“The irony of this development,” Wolfe writes, “may be that as intimate ties weaken, so will distant ones, thus undermining the very moral strengths the welfare state has shown.” The consummation of the liberal project was suggested when Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, lamented our regrettable inclination to “distinguish between our own children and other people’s children.” When all children and dependent seniors are “my” children and “my” parents, however, none of them are mine. The effort to socialize our affections and obligations ends up attenuating them. Social democracy thus compounds democracy’s most ominous tendency, namely that, in Tocqueville’s famous phrase, it “constantly leads [each man] back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.”

The 20th Century marked a struggle with the obvious tyranny of totalitarianism, but the defining struggle of the 21st Century may well turn out to be one against the subtle threat of soft despotism.

One thought on “Soft Despotism and the Entitlement State

  1. Incisive analysis. Big Government , bureaucratic, demanding, and unaffordable, will be the death of the American dream.

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