August 9, 2008
The Politics of the Social Safety NetBy Christopher Chantrill
I participated recently in a voter roundtable on Social Safety Nets at KPLU, a local Puget Sound NPR affiliate. Reporter Paula Wissel played us some audio clips from presidential speeches on Social Security, Medicare, and welfare, and then we got to talk about our feelings.
As you'd expect, there was an unspoken assumption that "safety net" and "government program" are just about one and the same thing. President Hoover was presented recommending good old American self-reliance in the depths of the Great Depression. President Roosevelt was presented upbraiding Republicans who said they were all in favor of social programs, but just not this program. President Reagan was presented railing against welfare queens, and we heard President Bush vainly trying to persuade Americans that Social Security was unfair.
You can imagine that it was difficult to introduce the radical conservative idea that government programs like Social Security actually fray the social fabric, leading to holes in the social safety net. Conservatives believe that when people don't have to rely on their families, their churches, their neighbors, and their own mutual-aid associations, they let their social ties fall into neglect. When ties of obligation are neglected, conservatives believe, we get exactly today's heedless, selfish society in which the vulnerable slide into pathology and social deprivation and children grow up in torment.
Of course, traditional social institutions aren't perfect. Indeed, one of the reasons why our liberal friends so enthusiastically encourage the growth of government programs is that they want to free people from the tyranny of traditional social frameworks. When liberals rail against racism, sexism, and classism, they are reminding us that the traditional social safety net was oppressive and exclusionary, narrow in its trust, rigid in its structure.
It is the glory of our liberal friends that they oppose these social evils and fight for equality, for simple human dignity, and for a creative approach to life.
But sometimes our liberal friends get carried away. It is one thing to help a neighbor or a family member in need. It is another thing to build a vast government system of welfare that makes the working poor look like chumps. It is wonderful to celebrate invention and creativity, but another thing to insist that the collapse of the traditional family is merely a matter of "diverse life-styles."
That is why conservatives champion a moderate balance between the extreme social tyranny of traditional society and the extreme social anarchy of the liberal welfare state. That's why Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus wrote To Empower People: From State to Civil Society back in 1977.
The problem with the modern era, they wrote, is its "historically unprecedented dichotomy between public and private life." On the one hand there are the "megastructures," big government, big business, and various educational and professional bureaucracies. On the other hand there is the private life of the individual.
The megastructures are typically alienating, that is, they are not helpful in providing meaning and identity for individual existence. Meaning, fulfillment, and personal identity are to be realized in the private sphere.
Left to his own devices, the individual becomes "uncertain and anxious." But there is a way to alleviate the alienation of the megastructures and the anxiety of individuality. It is through membership in the "mediating structures" between individual and megastructure. They represent the individual in dealings with the megastructures and provide meaning and identity in face-to-face social networks. By mediating structures, Berger and Neuhaus mean "neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary association."
This is not new, of course. Edmund Burke said it first in the modern era:
But the mediating structures are the same institutions that were, in the old days, the agents of oppression. When liberals hear talk of empowering families they fear the return of the patriarchy. When they read about faith-based initiatives they fear a return to superstition and bigotry. That is why they want to bypass these institutions with their government-to-individual safety net.
Let's admit that liberals have a point. But let us insist that liberals are wrong.
If we empower families and churches we do not immediately bring back the patriarchy or burning at the stake. But if we reduce them to impotence by replacing them with a government safety net we do not create a happy world of liberated individuals. We create a pathological underclass just like the one we have today.
Conservatives are the moderates here. We want to strike a balance between two extremes. We want a society mid way between the pre-industrial world with its rigid hierarchies and the opposite extreme of the alienated individual abandoned in a wilderness of big government programs.
We say: let's create a civil society in which ordinary people get to create a people-friendly safety net through people-sized institutions in which anyone can lend a hand.
One day, we recklessly dream, maybe the folks at NPR will understand what we are talking about.