A widely-repeated one-sentence analysis of the 2012 election is that it represented the triumph of “free stuff over freedom.” I think that’s not quite accurate. Actual dependency on free stuff – the difficulty of “running against Santa Claus,” as Rush Limbaugh put it on the radio Wednesday – is a problem, but not the full scope of the problem. It’s really a battle of irresponsibility vs. freedom.
There are different ways to be irresponsible. It’s not just the willful, childish refusal to attend to duties and take responsibility for the consequences of actions. Irresponsibility can be a product of ignorance, too, or more precisely the inability to fully comprehend the consequences of actions. This incomprehension is deliberately cultivated by those who profit from irresponsible behavior.
The sort of dependency rising from the early versions of the welfare state are bad enough, but the spread of dependency into the middle class is much worse, from both economic and political standpoints. It is possible to fairly and efficiently manage a true “safety net” for the unfortunate, and Americans very strongly wish to do so. The work requirements for welfare gutted by President Obama are an example of how to do it right. Valuable assistance can be extended to those in need while minimizing the corrosive effects of long-term dependence upon handouts. Private charities are much better at this than government agencies, but with effort – and ideally with a good deal of decentralization – government agencies can do it.
But middle-class dependency is entirely corrosive. It comes at the expense of vital ambition, and given the scale of the goodies that must be tossed from Santa’s bag to satiate the vast middle class, it inevitably leads to the degradation of property rights. You have to take a hell of a lot away from some people to give lollipops to so many others. It also becomes necessary for the government to control so much of the economy that free-market competition is dangerously reduced.
Middle-class dependency is based on two core assumptions:
1. I deserve this stuff, and
2. Nobody really has to suffer to pay for it.
Part 1 is the “free stuff vs. freedom” conflict, but part 2 is vital as well, and it’s the essence of class warfare, American style. It’s the widespread belief that idle millionaires are sitting on piles of cash that they’ll never really miss when it gets taxed away. It’s also the conviction that broad-based taxes on the upper middle class – particularly small-business owners and comfortably compensated professionals – are spread thin enough to make their extraction largely painless. Why, most of that money gets siphoned off before those lovely white-collar paychecks are even cashed! (Most people who are not business owners, or self-employed, have no idea what those people actually go through when they fill out their tax returns.)
A good portion of the middle-class “free stuff” crowd, including quite a few of the working poor, would be much less receptive to Big Government if they appreciated that its financing is not a painless skimming of loot from bulging treasure vaults. Persuasive and educational efforts by prominent conservatives can help; it’s something Mitt Romney should have done more often during his campaign, because he’s good at it.
Another enormous help would be the elimination of automatic payroll deductions for taxes, whatever form the tax code might take. It would be good if everyone shared the knowledge currently hoarded by those who cut the paychecks, from the true scale of deductions to the invisible “contributions” employers are compelled to make. A healthy economy is one in which virtually anyone in the middle class could start a small business, so all of them should understand what it’s like to run one.
A proper understanding of the government debt menace would also dispel the illusion that Santa’s bag is bottomless, and no one has to work very hard to fill it. This might, unfortunately, require some real, tangible consequences from wild deficit spending to hit the public, such as painful government budget cuts following the increased cost of financing our titanic debt after the coming credit downgrades. Too many people think public debt is phantasmal – red numbers floating on a spreadsheet somewhere, a shallow hole the central government can fill by just printing some more dollar bills. Even with our national debt on its astonishing track to literally double during the Administration of a single President, most people still think Washington can never really “run out of money.” President Obama is about to demonstrate they are wrong; conservatives must make certain they understand the lesson.
As long as the middle class thinks government benefits magically appear from nowhere, they are receptive to the argument that only greed or callous insensitivity could lead anyone to propose spending cuts for popular programs – or even unpopular ones the public can be persuaded to view as a moral obligation, like ObamaCare. That’s the front line in the battle of “free stuff versus freedom”: the irresponsible belief, so indispensable to socialism, that freedom is scary, while all that comforting “stuff” is free.