Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Welfare State Versus Free Will: A History Lesson

Alexis de Tocqueville - a 19th Century observer of US democracy.

Those of us who have lived long enough to see the changes in society over the course of time have a unique perspective of comparison from decade to decade. Having grown up during a time when most people took responsibility for their own actions and where the concept of equal opportunity did not mean equal outcomes, I’ve come to appreciate the liberty of thought and action we used to enjoy. Such liberty has been chipped away, restrained, by the enlarged and ever-growing welfare state we’ve allowed our government to assume. By welfare state, I mean those socialist ideals which are based on the principles of taxation to produce equal outcomes, distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for private concerns, such as providing health insurance or running a corporation.

The difference of the past 80 years is also evident in the statist attitudes and reduced will of Americans. By will, I mean the human will to self-determination. We’ve lost, as Americans, over the course of the years a steady amount of self-will. Instead of retaining our free will, we’ve allowed government to assume the responsibility over much of our lives. Instead of exercising free will, collectively, we’ve allowed the ideals of the welfare state, Marxist doctrine, and social engineering to rob us of our human nature and suppress our free will in order to conform to the social and political pressure of such a state.

The welfare state, as it has grown up since the Great Depression, has not only increased the numbers of people it purports to help, but also has grown to become part of the national psyche – the status quo of the purpose and function of government. The welfare state took a large leap in size during the Johnson administration, with his ideal of the war on poverty. Subsequently, government entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, assistance to low-income families, and most recently Obamacare, all have multiplied and grown to make up a substantive percentage of the national budget.

The reason for the growth stems from the seductive nature of the welfare state. Expressing and maintaining free will takes energy, education, dedication to principles maintained in a free state, and the participation of all of the citizens. The welfare state, on the other hand, promises a certain quality of life without the pains of an unfair world. The welfare state seduces its participants into lethargy, dulling the mind and the will with promises that we will be taken care of with or without effort on our part. Under such a system, effort is not rewarded. Only perceived oppression is rewarded.

The 18th Century historian and political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the problem some 170 years ago. In his book Democracy in America, he notes the following about the dangers of despotism to democracy. I’ll make the connection here with our current trend toward the despotism of the welfare state:
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.1
What the welfare state does, based on the bankrupt principles of Marxism and other versions of socialism, is alter the character of the American people. Such alteration doesn’t take place overnight, it is a gradual process, taking decades to suppress action until government can step in to fill the perceived voids of injustice. The state extends welfare as an act of compassion, owing to the great compassion of the American people. However, the welfare state creates an imperfect compassion, unequally applied, yet expecting final results of equal outcome.

Little by little, year after year, Americans get used to the idea of the welfare state, accept it, and allow the government greater leeway to collect taxes to fund entitlements. Americans eventually come to expect the government to assume total control, to “fix” all the problems of the world with a snap of its fingers.

In effect, we give up our own will to struggle with the problems of the world, expecting that government will take care of us and protect us from the worst abuses of an unfair world. Where inequities exists, government will step in and make them equal. Where suffering occurs, the government will create a new program to alleviate it.

The danger lies in two areas: First, in order for American democracy to function, its people must be free to exercise their free will and take control over their own lives. Second, the government trend toward the welfare state creates a real possibility of eventually becoming a totalitarian state.

1) The democratic principle demands that people exercise free will. When a government gets in the way of free will, even through subtle coercion, such as politicizing school curriculum or by supporting contrary ideologies over the principles of liberal democracy, the liberty of its people is in danger. The counter to this problem is self-determination and education.

John Stuart Mill (considered a gradual socialist himself) put it this way:
Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.2
This area of the democratic principle deserves a deeper and more complete treatment than I give it here. It is enough to note, however, that the welfare state suppresses human will to the point where the government “practices a social tyranny” on Americans, urging us to conform to the social mandates of such a society while alienating those who don’t conform.

2) History teaches us that when people turn to the state for absolute safety, government takes liberty away from its people.

F. A. Hayek, in his book The Road to Serfdom bases his thesis on this principle. As he says:
The unforeseen but inevitable consequences of social planning create a state of affairs in which, if the policy is to be pursued, totalitarian forces will get the upper hand.3
The point here is the recognition of the deleterious effects on human character and free will under the growing American welfare state. Giving such power to government chips away at our own ability toward self-determination and places us at risk to create a totalitarian state.


  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), vol. 2, book 4, chapter 6, p. 319.
  2. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, (Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts).
  3.  F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 50.