Exchanging Liberty for a Pittance
The president's priorities during the December fiscal cliff debate were clear: expand government assistance to the welfare class at the expense of those who are actually working and succeeding. Obama has a vision of America as a socialist economy in which the masses trade in their freedom for a pittance. If the 2012 election was any indication, that arrangement seems to be gaining in popularity.
The real motive behind Obama's expansion of government, however, is not concern for the poor, but rather an insatiable lust for power. As Milovan Djilas put it, "[p]ower is an end in itself and the essence of contemporary Communism" (The New Class, 1957, p. 22). Djilas was the best-known dissident in communist Yugoslavia, for which he was sentenced to a total of fifteen years in prison (serving nine before his release). He understood that Marxist leaders govern not in the interest of the people, but instead in their own interest. Tito's many palaces boasted of legendary opulence, and they were off limits to all but a few.
When I lived in communist Yugoslavia, I saw firsthand what Djilas describes in The New Class. I saw sumptuous suburban enclaves where only the ruling communist elite were permitted to enter. For the elite there were special stores overflowing with luxuries, including imported goods of every kind. For the masses, there were gray apartment blocks and state stores with empty shelves. While the communist rulers traveled in black limousines, hidden from view by dark glass and drawn curtains, the masses rode to work jammed into airless trams and buses. I remember it well, because I rode with them.
Is America headed in the same direction? In our own country, Obama continues to seize control of health care, financial services, education, energy, and every other sector of the economy even as he demands higher revenues and the right to redistribute them. He does so by dividing rich and poor and by pretending that he is acting in the interests of the poor. Marshal Josip Broz Tito did the same in Yugoslavia, just as Lenin did in Russia, Mao did in China, Kim Il Sung did in North Korea, Fidel Castro did in Cuba, Hugo Chávez did in Venezuela, and every other Marxist dictator has done without exception. All of these leftists concentrated power in the state, rewarded themselves and their associates with regal powers and privileges, and stripped the masses of their freedom and economic opportunity.
Obama is overreaching in the same way, and if he is not blocked by voters in 2014, he will transform America into a socialist state. By his own admission, radical "transformation" has always been his goal.
Marxist revolutions have always sought to concentrate power in the state by inciting the masses to envy the rich. From start to finish, Obama's re-election playbook was classic Marxism: convince the less affluent that they have been exploited by the rich and promise them everything in return for their votes.
A corollary of this "victim of the rich" scenario is the idea that the masses are incapable of caring for themselves, and, sadly, a majority of Americans are beginning to believe it. As recent polling reveals, Americans are losing faith in capitalism at the very point when faith in free markets is most badly needed. And clearly, Obama and his comrades on the left are doing all they can to encourage this loss of faith. Every time a citizen of this country gives up on capitalism, it is one more vote for the Democratic Party.
After decades in which the welfare rolls were gradually reduced, the last four years have seen an expansion of everything from child care benefits to food stamps to earned income credits. By loosening eligibility standards for dozens of benefit programs, Obama has lured an additional five million Americans into dependency.
Between 2008 and 2012, the labor participation rate has fallen from 66.2% to 63.7%, and it continues to fall. Since 2008, 3.8 million Americans have left the workforce. In addition, 7.9% (or 12 million) are unemployed and 17% (or 26 million) underemployed, both figures above where they stood when Obama took office. Nearly all of these 30 million individuals are receiving government assistance. And in addition to those unemployed, underemployed, or out of the workforce, an increasing number of low-wage-working Americans now qualify for assistance even though they are working full-time. The left's goal has always been to create a patronage system with a majority dependent on government.
Relentlessly pursuing this goal, this administration has added millions to the welfare rolls, and it has increased benefits for those already on the rolls. Food programs including CSFP (Commodity Supplemental Food Program), TEFAP (Emergency Food Assistance Program), SFSP (Summer Food Assistance Program), and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are just a few of the thousands of federal and state programs offering assistance to persons earning up to 185% of the poverty level (130% for SNAP, higher or lower for other programs). While some programs involve work requirements, those requirements are often waived due to "special circumstances." The Government Dependence Index published by the Heritage Foundation shows a 61% increase in dependence since 2001, much of this occurring since Obama took office.
Food assistance may seem a laudable goal, but combined with panoply of other programs, it serves as a disincentive to work. It would seem ironic that liberals wholeheartedly support housing choice vouchers (Section 8), which have the effect of perpetuating poverty, while vigorously opposing school choice vouchers, which lift young people out of poverty. But, of course, it is not ironic at all; it is entirely consistent with the left's goal of fostering dependency.
Under Section 8, a complex formula determines the assistance amount based on "adjusted" income, assets, location, and other factors. Nearly every assistance program, in fact, involves a complex formula so as to instill the idea that government has it in its power to decide one's fate. In return, government insists on loyalty.
As Lenin put it, communist morality consists of "compact united discipline" (qtd. in C. L. Sulzberger's "V.I. Lenin," New York Times, July 13, 1956). For the left, the masses are merely disciplined followers who are willing to trade their liberties for a pittance. Obama has spent four years distributing pittances to the poor in return for their votes. That tidy arrangement has always been at the heart of Marxist theory and practice. And so far, it seems to be working in America as well.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).