Responsibility makes grown-ups
is the theme of Theodore Dalrymple‘s article, The Frivolity of Evil, where he writes about his experiences counseling welfare clients:
These words were a complete confession of guilt. I have had hundreds of conversations with men who have abandoned their children in this fashion, and they all know perfectly well what the consequences are for the mother and, more important, for the children. They all know that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me so themselves. And yet they do it over and over again, to such an extent that I should guess that nearly a quarter of British children are now brought up this way.
The result is a rising tide of neglect, cruelty, sadism, and joyous malignity that staggers and appalls me. I am more horrified after 14 years than the day I started.
Where does this evil come from? There is obviously something flawed in the heart of man that he should wish to behave in this depraved fashion—the legacy of original sin, to speak metaphorically. But if, not so long ago, such conduct was much less widespread than it is now (in a time of much lesser prosperity, be it remembered by those who think that poverty explains everything), then something more is needed to explain it.
A necessary, though not sufficient, condition is the welfare state, which makes it possible, and sometimes advantageous, to behave like this. Just as the IMF is the bank of last resort, encouraging commercial banks to make unwise loans to countries that they know the IMF will bail out, so the state is the parent of last resort—or, more often than not, of first resort. The state, guided by the apparently generous and humane philosophy that no child, whatever its origins, should suffer deprivation, gives assistance to any child, or rather the mother of any child, once it has come into being. In matters of public housing, it is actually advantageous for a mother to put herself at a disadvantage, to be a single mother, without support from the fathers of the children and dependent on the state for income. She is then a priority; she won’t pay local taxes, rent, or utility bills.
As for the men, the state absolves them of all responsibility for their children. The state is now father to the child. The biological father is therefore free to use whatever income he has as pocket money, for entertainment and little treats. He is thereby reduced to the status of a child, though a spoiled child with the physical capabilities of a man: petulant, demanding, querulous, self-centered, and violent if he doesn’t get his own way. The violence escalates and becomes a habit. A spoiled brat becomes an evil tyrant.
But if the welfare state is a necessary condition for the spread of evil, it is not sufficient. After all, the British welfare state is neither the most extensive nor the most generous in the world, and yet our rates of social pathology—public drunkenness, drug-taking, teenage pregnancy, venereal disease, hooliganism, criminality—are the highest in the world. Something more was necessary to produce this result.
Here we enter the realm of culture and ideas. For it is necessary not only to believe that it is economically feasible to behave in the irresponsible and egotistical fashion that I have described, but also to believe that it is morally permissible to do so. And this idea has been peddled by the intellectual elite in Britain for many years, more assiduously than anywhere else, to the extent that it is now taken for granted. There has been a long march not only through the institutions but through the minds of the young. When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as “nonjudgmental.” For them, the highest form of morality is amorality.
There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left in precisely those areas where it does not apply. Thus people have a right to bring forth children any way they like, and the children, of course, have the right not to be deprived of anything, at least anything material. How men and women associate and have children is merely a matter of consumer choice, of no more moral consequence than the choice between dark and milk chocolate, and the state must not discriminate among different forms of association and child rearing, even if such non-discrimination has the same effect as British and French neutrality during the Spanish Civil War.
The consequences to the children and to society do not enter into the matter: for in any case it is the function of the state to ameliorate by redistributive taxation the material effects of individual irresponsibility, and to ameliorate the emotional, educational, and spiritual effects by an army of social workers, psychologists, educators, counselors, and the like, who have themselves come to form a powerful vested interest of dependence on the government.
New Sisyphus brings up the same theme, quoting Robert E. Rector:
In fact, each of the central tenets of modern welfare is misleading and deeply flawed. Together they become a recipe for a disastrous system of aid which harms rather than helps, aggressively crushing the hopes and future of an increasing number of young Americans.
It is useful to examine each of these cardinal liberal tenets individually. The first is that raising incomes is crucial to the well-being and success of children. The common liberal corollary to this premise is that poverty “causes” such problems as crime, school failure, low cognitive ability, illegitimacy, low work ethic and skills, and drug use. Hence, reducing poverty through greater welfare spending will reduce most social problems. History refutes this belief. In 1950, nearly a third of the U.S. population was poor (twice the current rate). In the 1920s, roughly half of the population was poor by today’s standard. If the theory that “poverty” causes social problems were true, we should have had far more social problems in those earlier periods then we do today. But crime and most other social problems have increased rather than fallen since these earlier periods.”
to explain a central thesis, i.e., that lack of objective world responsibility allows nations to engage in cheap anti-American rhetoric and policies:
It was this key point—the creation of a dependence culture which gave rise to social pathology and ingrained values which were destined to fail in the culture at large—that formed the centerpiece of the debate. Rather than lift people’s lives by lifting their income, the fact of welfare worked against the values so central to middle class success in the United States. This fact of dependence created a social class with interests and values set against the mainstream, thus dooming generation after generation to poverty
New Sisyphus brings the question to the international scene:
What if, as in the individual sphere, dependence on the benevolence of the United States Government bred, in the international sphere, the same kind of pathologies seen in the welfare context? What if, rather than aiding the countries affected by American military dominance, we were harming them?
. . .If dependence theory holds in international relations, we have innocently caused such rampant anti-Americanism by trying to help. By taking over the tough issues of national security, defense strategy and multi-lateral relations, we have relieved numerous E.U. countries of their core responsibilities. In so doing, as with the welfare recipient of old, we removed the real-world check that forced those nations to deal with cold, hard reality in a grown-up serious manner. We have, as Victor Davis Hanson has so ably argued, created in the E.U. a permanent set of nations as sneering adolescent, constantly mocking and cursing “Dad” for doing what must be done since, at the end of the day, the adolescent is free to preen and pose and say anything that strikes his fancy, for he has no real responsibilities. Saying you’re for Kyoto, against landmines and, of course, against the War in Iraq is a lot easier if you’re not responsible for the world’s economy, defending South Korea or the number one target for terrorist groups seeking WMD.
New Sisyphus proposes International Welfare Reform,
It seemed counter-intuitive to many people in the early 90’s that by cutting off income support you could make people richer. And I suppose it seems similarly counter-intuitive that by stepping away from zones of responsibility the U.S. could increase its national security and standing in the world. But, as history teaches us, men are fundamentally rational; get the incentives right and the outcome is almost always what you’d expect. And right now it’s time for the E.U. to grow up.
Another organization that needs some Welfare Reform is the UN. The USA should cut off funding and support of this club of petty villains and corrupt bureaucrats. The UN is accountable only to itself, and knows that we’re here to do the actual work, take the blame, and provide the funding, too. Today New Sisyphus states,
Right now the U.S. has the worst of all possible worlds: absolute responsibility without absolute power. The situation is untenable and calls for inventive, creative diplomacy.
The time is ripe.