Thursday, May 31, 2012

On the Rhetoric of Dependency


It is a key element of conservative faith that those who receive government subsidies are "dependent on government." They complain of a debilitating "culture of dependency" that they say is produced by government programs from welfare to Medicare to Social Security to student loans. I will discuss three problems with this, all interrelated in a net of conservative bad thinking. The first concerns the hypocrisy of conservative complaints about unfairness of programs for the poor while accepting subsidies for the wealthy and big business. Next, I will argue that public programs do not disempower people but empower and elevate them. Lastly, I will argue that the real problem is not dependence on government, but that we are dependent on corporations and their wealthy chiefs for jobs, production, and prosperity, which dependence allows them to control our politics through the extortion of capital flight. 
First, to the conservative way of thinking welfare is inherently immoral and unfair, not because it takes money from the public treasury, but because it gives it to those who are perceived to be undeserving. This is not just an argument that taxes take money from some people and give it to others: no matter how much they whine about taxes and welfare, most conservatives are fine in practice with massive transfers of public money, as long as those transfers are to favored constituencies: large corporations, military contractors, private prisons, religious charitable groups, and private charter schools. This hypocrisy is explained away by distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving, that is, between those who work hard and those who don’t. The hard-working, thrifty, and talented, will, if they receive public money, put it to good use by creating jobs or protecting the country. The shiftless, dissolute, lazy bums will simply waste whatever welfare they receive -- and they will become even more wasteful as they grow dependent on welfare. To this way of thinking, government programs punish success and reward failure, and they create a cycle of dependency to boot. 
However, the idea that businesses that devour massive benefits from the public trough are merely being rewarded for success is almost self-refuting: it never occurs to most conservatives that the more subsidies, tax cuts, and government contracts a business gets, the more successful it will be, simply because of those subsidies, tax cuts, and contracts, and not because it “deserves” it. This is a failure to recognize massive corruption and a redistribution of money upwards in society to the already-rich, who least need the help. Furthermore, the idea that the poor waste public money is mostly bunk: while there are always a few cases of "welfare fraud," there is minor waste and cheating in any system, no matter how corruption-free. On the whole, people use public programs the way they are supposed to: when times are tough, they go on food stamps for a while to get through; or they use student aid to go to college and become productive members of society; or when they retire they draw their earned Social Security and Medicare benefits, to which they've long contributed from their paychecks. We long ago put time limits on public assistance and turned welfare into workfare, mitigating any disincentives that might exist. Conservatives have always overestimated welfare fraud with scare propaganda about "welfare queens." The distinction between deserving and undeserving groups in America has always had strong racist undertones, in addition to pretending to be a principle of high morality rather than a justification for greed and rapaciousness.
Second, conservative claims that welfare debilitates people by inducing them to laziness depends on a cognitive trick that excludes the largest government transfers programs we have. Most “big government” programs are middle-class welfare programs: mainly Social Security and Medicare, which are huge budget items, but also free primary and secondary schooling, college aid, subsidies and tax credits for home owners, and the like. But somehow when most people think of “welfare” they think only of aid to the impoverished, not of middle -class welfare. All of these programs, however, are non-market ways of distributing resources; all of them are administrative, government ways of distributing resources. With so many subsides and tax benefits and dispersals of money at all levels of society, from the richest corporations to the poorest homeless people, you can’t just single out aid to the poor for accusations of “dependency.” We are all, in fact, interdependent, and society needs government, not markets alone, to guide the distribution of resources so that the economy fulfills its purpose: improve the well-being of all. 

Public programs that aim to improve people’s well-being do not disempower people, they empower them. By providing people with material, economic support, such programs allow people to have full bellies, live under solid roofs, support their children, go to college to pursue their dreams, and retire comfortably and securely. The modern welfare state supports people's welfare or well-being, from cradle to grave, and we should be proud of that. One need only compare Western Europe to America, where stronger welfare states have helped to create people who are healthier, happier, live longer, have fewer anxieties and addictions, have stronger families, and commit fewer crimes, including fewer murders. Welfare programs like public health care, education, disaster insurance, unemployment insurance, pensions, and the like are a grand public statement by society and all its members that the well-being of each individual, your well-being, is a primary social concern, and that society will put its collective effort into securing the well-being of everyone. This is not disempowering but empowering, and it makes those who have it in greater measure not only more equal and more happy, but more free, for it enables them to fulfill their life-plans. Public programs that draw on the resources of all to support the well-being of all are a material realization of an ethic of interconnectedness that I believe is growing in the world -- the understanding that all things are linked together and interdependent.  As such, government is not about dependency, it is about healthy independency.
Lastly, there is a kind of dependency on large, unaccountable institutions that does exist in modern societies, one that is debilitating and real for the whole social body. Because we allow for the private capitalist ownership of productive enterprises, rather than, say, democratizing corporations, we make ourselves dependent on the malefactors of great wealth and the businesses they control for jobs, incomes, and benefits like health care and retirement -- the means by which you keep yourself alive, housed, clothed, and fed. That’s the real dependency: that your boss can take away your means of life at any time by firing you, and can exert undue influence over you by threat of firing, or demotion, or pay cut. In fact, we are dependent on private enterprises for basic production of goods and services, for the economic health of our towns and cities and nations, and indeed, for the economic advance of the entire globe. This sort of dependency on private enterprises for subsistence and prosperity was once a matter of great concern to American political thinkers: Jefferson worried that dependence on wage-labor made good republican citizenship impossible, because people’s political choices would be distorted by dependence on private wealth for income, and this worry fueled his vision of agrarian republicanism, in which each citizen would be an independent private landowner. Among the founders, Madison, John Adams, and even Hamilton shared his concerns, if not his unrealistic solution, as did later American thinkers, including Henry David Thoreau, John Dewey, and even the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 
Today, dependence on big, multinational corporations for our economic well-being twists our supposedly democratic political process into an oligarchy in all but name, where the rich have nearly all the decision-making power. This is not only because of the distorting effects of massive wealth on political elections, it is because we must give in to corporate demands in order to sustain our personal incomes and our overall economy. We must surrender to their demands for new tax-funded stadiums for our cities, for publicly provided industrial zones, for ever-greater tax cuts, or businesses threaten to pull up stakes and move elsewhere where there is a better “business climate,” either another city, another state, or another country. This vile practice, capital flight, is essential to stop to if we are to preserve democracy or have any good government at all. The reforms needed to end it include democratizing the corporation, publicly funding elections, and re-regulating the economy. Capital flight is essentially a form of extortion in which business use the fact that we are economically dependent on them to gain free benefits from our public treasuries. It is the form of dependency that is most debilitating to society, not the public programs that support the well-being of everyday people. 

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