Take government benefits? Sure, why not?

(“76 Contributor) A few weeks ago, I came across a challenging post on a conservative blog asking whether conservatives should ever use welfare programs. The author explained that he and his wife were expecting a child and that because their finances were tight, they were seriously, if compunctiously, considering the option of taking government money through a program called WIC, which hands out food stamps for families with young children. The author pointed out that as a conservative he had never thought of using a government program but that “now, with a child on the way, the idea of a little help sounds attractive.” Feeling guilty about the prospect of betraying his principles, the author countered that “if it would help and if [he didn’t] intend to continue on welfare after [he got] a full-time job, where’s the harm?” But was that a valid point? Hence the concluding question: “Should conservatives ever use government safety net programs and if so, under what circumstances?”

Many, if not most, of the responses and comments elicited by the author’s dilemma concurred that as long as taking government money did not turn into a habit, it was quite reasonable to sign up for it. The point was also made that provided people, including conservatives, contribute more in taxes than they take out in benefits, there is nothing morally wrong with recouping some of that money even if it comes back through welfare.

The discussion on the blog brought to my mind the same kind of conservative hand-wringing over government assistance which an article called “Even Critics of Safety Net Programs Increasingly Depend on it” described at great length in the New York Times on February 11, 2012. Citing Census Bureau data, the article stressed that the share of American households that received government benefits had gone up from 37.7 percent in 1998 to 44.5 percent in 2006 and 48.5 percent in 2010. The main thrust of the story, though, was the fact that the government safety net had expanded so much in recent years that it undergirded the middle class, including those described in the piece as “the fiercest advocates for spending cuts.” In other words, conservatives.

Irrespective of the merits of each individual welfare case, the two articles warrant a few comments of a political nature with philosophical and even constitutional implications for the future of the United States.

First, the two stories appear to bear out the findings of a detailed study of American public opinion in the mid-1960s. In The Political Beliefs of Americans, published in 1967, the authors of the analysis, Floyd Free and Hadley Cantril concluded that many Americans were “ideological conservatives” but “operational liberals.” More simply put, many people thought that Big government was something to steer clear of but that “specific” government programs had to stay.

Second, such so-called “cognitive dissonance,” particularly on the part of conservatives if further verified, tends to hollow out the conservative message and deprive it of any credibility. The liberal counterattack might reasonably and devastatingly sound like “Practice what you preach,” however plausibly conservatives endeavor to rationalize temporarily taking government cash. Self-serving liberal accusations of conservative posturing, philosophical inconsistency or worse might strike a chord with some voters, peeling off much-needed support for conservative candidates at election time.

Third, the morally corrosive effect of putative government benevolence is a factor that cannot be dismissed light-heartedly. If you go along with it once, what’s to stop you from ever taking it again afterwards?

Fourth, “cognitive dissonance,” whether or not brought about by the harsh realities of life, inescapably legitimizes and entrenches government assistance. One telling conservative quote from the New York Times article starkly and ominously speaks to such entrenchment: “It’s hard to beat up on the government when they’ve been so good to you.” And that’s exactly what the early architects of the welfare state in Europe and elsewhere presumably expected to hear to vindicate their plans. Remember, for instance, the thinking behind the idea of cradle-to-grave government assistance in Britain as set out in the Beveridge Report published in late 1942. For the welfare state to work, both technically and politically, William Beveridge, the liberal economist who wrote the report, reasoned that the middle class had to have a stake in it, in the form of benefits paid for by their own taxes.

Which leads to the final and most crucial caveat as notably expressed by James Madison in The Federalist No 10. In it, Madison penetratingly and presciently identified one of the ways in which despotism, especially of the majoritarian kind, could safely be obviated:

“The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.”

Flash forward to today’s America and current conservative agitation over the further expansion of the welfare state to the middle class and you end up with exactly the same sort of tyrannical implications that Madison warned against. Indeed, if you homogenize interests through universal access to government assistance and the dilution of compunction about taking it, however temporarily, there will be a reduced “variety of parties and interests,” government will inevitably grow and freedom will shrink correspondingly.

Yielding to the temptation to trade liberty for safety might be instinctive for human beings and that calls for some sobriety in trying to make sense of political attitudes and voting patterns. But American conservatism is about moral leadership. And moral leadership, uncompromisingly rooted in self-reliance and individual responsibility, is what the United States desperately needs right now, just as it needed it when James Madison penned his defense of the Constitution, and just as it will always need it if it is to fulfil its exceptional destiny.

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Paoli is the nom de plume of a conservative political scientist who did graduate work in Colorado before taking up an academic post in his native France.

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