One thing we can admire about Conservatives is their consistency. They have not let up on their criticism of the Nanny State, the Takers versus the Makers, since Obama took office. Although the taker-maker argument lines up with the GOP love affair with small government, I never remember hearing this piece of bogus wisdom during Bush’s reign, despite the fact that the safety net was pretty much exactly the same as it is today. It is true that the recession, still with us since 2009, is ratcheting up the need and therefore the demand for safety net services. One example is the greatly increased reliance on food stamps.
I think we have to be very careful to avoid giving what sounds like a perfectly logical argument too much power. The theory goes that when you allow the government to take care of the poor, old, disabled, and sick, when the government provides a safety net to prevent people in a society from “bottoming out”, the very system that saves people will turn them into permanent government dependants. We can all agree that there may be some truth to this. We all know people who we believe are abusing the system. We all know families whose economic position has not changed in generations and who seem to be content with government support, even though we know such support comes with lots of red tape, a loss of privacy, and negative judgment from the rest of society. It is also clear that government support does not usually provide a very comfortable or upscale lifestyle.
You must have read some Dickens. Charles Dickens wrote about London at a time when the poor, sick, and disabled, had little, if any assistance. Churches sometimes helped but were so moralistic and judgmental that most of the poor steered clear. Rich ladies often assisted the poor with their charitable activities, but they also invaded the privacy of those they assisted and many avoided them to keep a bit of autonomy. Children of poor parents often lived in the streets, begged, stole, were used by unscrupulous people, were ill-clothed, ill-fed, ill-treated and unhealthy. Their lives and the lives of their parents were harsh and short. And their misery had a great effect on the whole of London. Their misery created health hazards, made the streets dirty and dangerous, and made some compassionate Londoners sad. In these ways even the wealthy were affected by the poverty at the lowest economic levels of the city.
Wealthy people can enjoy their wealth more when there is less misery and crime among the poorest members of a society. The wealthy, and our governments which are usually, however democratic, run by the wealthy, have slowly learned that propping up those at the bottom made life more bearable and hygienic for everyone. It would be wrong to assume that government programs for the less fortunate are a totally altruistic endeavor. I don’t think that the movement to get rid of these programs is founded on an effort to save unfortunates from themselves, as proponents suggest. Once again, selfish interests are probably at the bottom of this movement which has come out of Conservative America, this movement whose goals are to help us become more self-sufficient and thereby to make us proud of our productivity and ingenuity. At this juncture it looks more like the wealthy are tired of paying taxes that they feel are being used to subsidize the sloth of people who have learned how to avoid working for a living. If we were not so divided, we could take a really good look at this whole issue of the nanny state and we could probably find a lot of savings and we could find some ways to make sure that aid got to the truly needy. We could launch a committee to conduct an in-depth study of the social safety net. We could answer all the nagging questions like:
· Should we do away with the “so-called” nanny state?
· Should we do away with all of it, or some of it?
· What will America be like if we do?
· Does the safety net encourage malingering and suppress initiative?
· What about the children?
· What about those who are not inspired by adversity?
· Can we come up with better ways to sort those who are truly needy from those
who know how to scam the system?
· What are the advantages and disadvantage of privatizing?
· Will privatizing be used to phase out the safety net?
· What will we do if we, the people, can no longer afford safety net programs?
· Do we have to cut back on compassion?
· Do we have to give up on the goal of lifting everyone up?
I must add that there is a liberal version of the nanny state which shows rich folks and corporations who have become dependent on favorable government tax rates, tax loopholes and subsidies that the wealthy would very much like to keep. If we study the bottom for signs of dependency, we must also study whether those at the top are addicted to the same kind of aid as those at the bottom.
(There is yet another version of the nanny state which says that government is passing too many laws that curtail our everyday freedoms, such as laws about drinking, wearing seat belts, smoking, eating and sugary drinks, etc. These are the laws that fall in the category of “big brother” laws. I don’t think these kinds of laws can be attributed to any one political party. Some may result from our reliance on health insurance, but these nit-picky laws are presided over by government. This is not the definition of “nanny state” that I am discussing here, but is a possible topic for another time.)