I prefer to call the “welfare state” the transfer state, because that characterization leaves open the question of whether a government which engages in large-scale transfers of money from one group to another actually increases human welfare. I am skeptical, mostly because the transfer state is always in danger of creating a polity dominated by faction. It can in fact sustain the war of all against all—the very phenomenon that the state is supposed to prevent.
Compassion, it seems to me, is better as a retail than as a wholesale virtue. No doubt there are exceptional individuals who are able to feel genuine compassion toward vast populations or categories of humans, but I think they are few. The more widely a person’s compassion is cast, the thinner it tends to be spread, until we begin to suspect that it is not genuine compassion at all, but a pose or an exhibition of virtue—in short, mere humbug, at best an aspiration, at worst a career move. How we think of individuals is necessarily different from how we think…
The Economist reports that in five nations net transfers (private plus public) go from the young to the old rather than the other way around. Some of these nations are deeply social democratic (Germany, Austria, Slovenia). Some are thought to be conservative (Hungary, Japan). But all have in common large social entitlements.
This trend shows show how welfare states can reverse the natural order of things, where the old give more to the young than the young can ever repay. Families exemplify this principle. Socially too, the intergenerational flow of resources is what creates civilization as each generation receives benefits from the previous one.
Now to be sure, not everything that is natural is good. But few people criticize the special solicitude parents feel for their children or the old feel for the young generally. And entitlements to the elderly cannot easily be justified by abstract appeal to the justice of redistribution. It is simply not the case that the elderly as class are poorer than the young.
The social consequences of this unnatural flow are deeply unfortunate.
My buddy Steve Teles—in my estimation, one of the country’s most creative thinkers—just sent me his latest on “The Scourge of Upward Redistribution.” Here’s the lead paragraph: America today faces two great challenges. First, the explosion in inequality threatens the public's belief in the justice of our economic system. Second, the slowdown in the formation of new businesses, a key metric of economic dynamism, endangers economic growth and employment. The solutions to these problems are usually in tension with one another — greater inequality is often the price of economic growth — and our politics has been divided according to this tension, with one side playing…
On my European excursions I’ve made it a habit of flipping through newspapers from Germany, Britain, and the good old U.S. of A. Lately and maybe belatedly, I’ve been struck by the sheer mendacity of politics on both sides of the pond. I don’t mean nasty little lies, fed by ambition (“I didn’t wipe my server; it’s the cleaning girl’s fault”), nor any of the stuff that earns you Pinocchios in the Washington Post. I mean deliberate falsehoods that are central to the operation of government—the “regime,” as Straussians are wont to say.
Dispensing first with the obvious, that Nancy Pelosi’s suggestion that 16-year-olds be allowed to vote is asinine, and second with the obligatory, that any malevolent impediments to grownups voting ought to be removed, we may proceed to the particular premises behind the House Democratic Leader’s brainstorm and what they disclose about the sorry state of American politics. Speaking to Generation Progress, Pelosi warmed the audience by emphasizing a plan to allow refinancing of student loans, then dived, or rather wandered, in: [T]here is a direct connection between legislation and the quality of life the people enjoy, and elections. To achieve what we…
Public spending seems as if it were attached to a ratchet because it moves in one direction only, which is to say upwards. Even if a downward movement is occasionally discernible, it is generally small, easily reversible, and the result of so ferocious a political struggle that it discourages further attempts of the same kind.
The expansion of the state and the services it provides, well or badly as the case may be, inevitably changes the relations between citizen and state. Among other effects, it corrodes the idea of privacy and even the very possibility of privacy: for the more the state does for citizens, the wider its locus standi to interfere in their lives. It becomes, in the wonderful phrase of the Marquis de Custine about Nicholas I in his great book, Russia in 1839, eagle and insect: eagle because it soars above society, taking its capacity for an overview as an entitlement to direct everything, and insect because it bores into the smallest crevices of what lies below, though perhaps nowadays vulture and termite might be a better zoological metaphor.
A report of the British charity Oxfam recently drew attention to the fact that Britain’s five richest families had more assets than the lowest 20 per cent of the population put together. It called upon the government to consider instituting a wealth tax to reduce the gap, by how much it did not say. Would the poorest fifth be much the better off, or at least happier, if 20, say, or 50, rather than five families now had more wealth than they?
So President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congressional leadership are going to end inequality? A half century after President Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to eliminate poverty, progressives aim higher. While cynics may think the real goal is changing the subject from Obamacare, most progressives actually have kept the faith. Eliminating inequality guarantees the moral high ground, especially with a supportive media who also desperately want to believe and who will faithfully transmit whatever theme their political allies send their way.