October 26, 2010
The Curse of the Welfare State
It is Europe's autumn of discontent. All across the continent, people are taking to the streets to protest the austerity measures of their governments. The governments have to cut for a simple reason: They are broke. They no longer have the money to sponsor the kind of padded lifestyles to which their citizens have grown accustomed. This in turn makes the citizens angry -- so much so that they are willing to turn their countries upside-down in order to obtain benefits their governments simply cannot provide.
In France, where the deeply unpopular President Sarkozy is trying to raise the retirement age of 60, things have turned decidedly unpretty. Across the country, cars are getting burned, shop windows are getting smashed, garbage is left uncollected, roads are being blocked, and people are getting beaten up. Nearly one fourth of France's twelve thousand-plus gasoline stations are suffering shortages. Even secondary schools are being blocked and disrupted.
Across the border in Belgium, a rail workers' strike halted rail transport across the country. Only in the northern region of Flanders -- which is the less socialistic part of Belgium -- were some trains running intermittently last week. According to Agence France-Presse, "the strike triggered massive traffic jams on Belgian roads and also disrupted the services of the Eurostar train line which links London, Paris and Brussels."
Late last month, a strike in Spain shut down much of the country's industry and paralyzed transportation services. As many as 70 percent of Spain's workforce walked off their jobs. "The strike has been an undoubted success," gloated a union leader.
Greece now seems to be in a perpetual state of unrest and protest. Two weeks ago, protesters -- mostly government workers -- besieged and then occupied parts of the ancient Acropolis. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, rail workers and students marched on the Greek parliament. Even though it is bankrupt and dysfunctional, the Greek government still managed to rally the riot police to beat up on the state's hapless wards.
The Frenchmen's sense entitlement to Big Brother's dough is truly staggering. It apparently makes itself felt early in life, as evidenced by Laura Tanniou, a 22-year-old student, who probably spoke for many in her generation when she said, "We may be only students now, but we still want to make the most of our retirement." What she actually meant by the word "retirement" was state-provided retirement.
In the past, students used to dream about how they would become rich and make it big through their talents and efforts. But now, under the welfare state, they are fantasizing about how they will retire on generous government pensions. In light of the young lady's statement, the expression "forward-looking young people" gains an entirely new meaning.
While the youth of France is dreaming about easy retirement, some of their mature compatriots think that work may pose a danger to health. Véro Du Cheyron, 51-year-old social worker, said this to a reporter: "They say that people are living longer so they have to work longer, but they don't say anything about the health problems that come by doing that."
This is a strange claim, especially when coming from France, where people are not known to overextend themselves during their working years. By law, they enjoy a 35-hour working week, which they tackle, for the most part, at a less-than-breakneck pace. Their blasé attitude toward work is not surprising, given that more than half of Frenchmen work either directly for government or in government-related jobs. Yet there are people in France who think that adding two more years of this to a person's work-life could endanger their health.
What we see happening in France and across Europe are the devastating effects of the welfare state. We see a citizenry whose work ethic, morals, power of reason, and grasp on reality have been grievously damaged. They balk at hard work, yet they want to enjoy lives of plenty and ease. Their governments are bankrupt, but they still keep demanding benefits that are impossible to deliver. And while they refuse to engage in hard labor themselves, they see nothing wrong with living at someone else's expense.
The welfare state -- once the pride and glory of European democracies -- has become a curse. This sad situation should have not come as a surprise. The outcome was predictable, given what we know about human nature and the workings of government. More than two hundred years ago, John Adams warned of welfarism's pernicious effects:
Like a cancer; it eats faster and faster every hour. The revenue creates pensioners, and the pensioners urge for more revenue. The people grow less steady, spirited and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependents and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole of society.
Adams' words describe the disposition of the contemporary western welfare state almost to a T. One could only perhaps add "widespread amentia" to Adam's list of afflictions.
If they were clear-thinking, the Europeans would protest against the criminal waste and recklessness of their governments and demand that they shape up. They would call for the resignation and prosecution of those politicians responsible for their bankruptcy. They would insist that the fiscal house be put in order. But they never do that. On the contrary, they march and demand even more spending. Instead of demonstrating against those who brought on their fiscal ruin, they protest those who try to do something about it.
In one respect, America is still very different from Europe. It is the only Western country where people march against the bankrupting policies of their government. We have seen this in numerous Tea Party rallies across the land. It is encouraging to see this reaction, especially since such thinking is completely alien to most people in the rest of the developed world.
But even in America, welfarism has exerted its devastating effects. Even though many in this country are angry about our fiscal plight, they are unwilling to support the kind of measures necessary to bring about remedy. Anyone who looks at the budget and long-term spending trends will quickly realize that it is entitlements that account for the bulk of the federal fiscal burden. The much-talked-about national debt -- large though it is -- represents only a small portion of the government's overall obligations. To avoid the fiscal train wreck that lies ahead, drastic cuts will have to be made in entitlement programs. But this is precisely what the vast majority of the American people -- including those who are upset about our national bankruptcy -- refuse to accept.
We saw a striking demonstration of this last week when Carly Fiorina, a California Senate candidate, appeared on "Fox News Sunday." One of the themes of Fiorina's campaign has been reinstating financial sanity in Washington, D.C. -- so much so that she recently even issued a budget plan intended to bolster her fiscal hawk credentials. But when asked by the host to name a single entitlement benefit she would cut or reduce, she refused to answer. When pressed on the point, she accused her interlocutor of "asking a typical political question."
Some would say that Fiorina's evasiveness is indicative of a lack of political will to make the hard choices. But this is not the case. Fiorina's attitude is, in fact, reflective of a lack of popular will. Had she said that she would cut entitlements, her chances of getting elected would have effectively dropped to zero.
Nor is Fiorina's quandary peculiar to left-leaning California. As far as this writer is aware, no Tea Party candidate for federal office has publicly advocated deep cuts in entitlement programs. In fact, according to research by James Ostrowski, not one Tea Party-favored senatorial candidate is calling for significant reductions in even the over-bloated federal agencies. To say, as Fiorina did, that she plans to cut waste will simply not do. For one thing, the savings from what is officially termed waste would be too small to make any real difference. But the larger point is that most federal spending is a waste in the first place, not to mention the fact that it is also unconstitutional.
What the concerned Americans need to realize is that we cannot have it both ways: We cannot gripe about the size of the federal cake while munching on it all the while. Until we resolve this contradiction in our hearts and minds, we cannot be fiscally cured.