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.