Most political ideologies fail for reasons that are, in retrospect, obvious. Marxism, even on the idealistic assumption that it might really operate according to its “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” maxim, requires people with the authority to determine abilities and needs, and other people with the authority to enforce distribution and redistribution accordingly. That’s the germ of the growth of the “new class,” the nomenklatura, and the central planning apparatus. It also plainly gives people incentives to maximize needs and decline to develop abilities, which undercuts innovation, productivity, and the work ethic. Hegelian politics in general—a heading under which I would include not only Marxism but also fascism and American progressivism, in its classic and current varieties—suffers similarly foreseeable problems. Hegel compares the State to an organism, and concludes that freedom can only be coordination with the other parts of the organism. This gives unlimited power to those who purportedly speak for the health of the organism, but makes it completely unclear who they might be, thus generating an endless source of political conflict with very large stakes. It also wipes out any conception of individual freedom, however contingent and limited, for no part of the body can claim the right to do as it pleases apart from the overall health of the body.
The same is true of a political strategy that falls generally in the Hegelian and in fact Marxist camps that is enjoying something of a revival. In 1966, in response to LBJ’s Great Society, Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven published “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty.” (No, it wasn’t about obesity.) Seeing the welfare state as placating the proletariat enough to prevent the revolution, Cloward and Piven urged that the poor be mobilized to overwhelm the system with claims, bankrupting the State and bringing the system to its knees. The collapse of the welfare state at state and local levels, they were convinced, would lead to federal takeover of anti-poverty programs that would guarantee people an adequate level of income. Piven has recently called for a renewal of the strategy.
There are obvious objections both to Cloward and Piven’s goal and to their strategy for achieving it. First, the goal. They write,
First, adequate levels of income must be assured…. Furthermore, income should be distributed without requiring that recipients first divest themselves of their assets, as public welfare now does, thereby pauperizing families as a condition of sustenance.
Second, the right to income must be guaranteed, or the oppression of the welfare poor will not be eliminated. Because benefits are conditional under the present public welfare system, submission to arbitrary governmental power is regularly made the price of sustenance. People have been coerced into attending literacy classes or participating in medical or vocational rehabilitation regimes, on pain of having their benefits terminated. Men are forced into labor on virtually any terms lest they forfeit their welfare aid. One can prize literacy, health and work, while still vigorously opposing the right of government to compel compliance with these values.
Conditional benefits thus result in violations of civil liberties throughout the nation, and in a pervasive oppression of the poor.
The objections, as I say, are obvious. Being able to collect welfare while having substantial assets gives people incentives to maximize assets and minimize income, something that many of the elderly do in any case. In fact, inevitably, a large amount of funding would go to elderly people who are by no means impoverished. Granting benefits without requiring literacy classes, rehabilitation, or work gives people incentives to avoid all of the above, to their detriment. Calling such requirements violations of civil liberties (which, exactly?) or oppression cheapens those concepts.
Next, the strategy: Get people to demand the benefits to which they are due; contest any rejections by demanding hearings; organize demonstrations; get media to focus on the “inefficiencies and injustices” of welfare; and, in Piven’s latest, get people to riot, in Grecian style, in the streets; and thus provoke a crisis. The collapse of state and local welfare systems would, Cloward and Piven argue, prompt federal action, just as the crises of the Depression and Civil Rights movement prompted federal action in the New Deal and Civil Rights legislation.
This strategy was actually tried in New York, and it did lead to the City’s bankruptcy. But the federal government did not come rushing to New York’s aid. The result was not a federally guaranteed income but the election of Ronald Reagan. Again, the reasons are obvious. The public’s perception was largely that government programs were being bankrupted through a combination of political action, government weakness of will, and overextension of ambition, not through oppression. There was little sympathy with New York, and little support for large new federal expenditures. Indeed, the public took the bankruptcy as evidence of profligate spending. Just so, today, a renewed Cloward-Piven strategy would most likely work in favor of those seeking to restrain government spending.
This time, however, there’s an interesting difference. Piven can relax. There’s no real need for a “strategy” to break the bank; the State is going bankrupt anyway. Entitlement spending has been on a path to insolvency since the programs were initiated. I can recall reading Wall Street Journal editorials in the 1970s and early 1980s pointing out that the system would be out of money when the baby boom generation hit retirement age. Politicians consistently kicked the can down to road, demagoguing the issue for good measure and thus making it even more difficult for politicians later to address the issue. Now, the time of reckoning is upon us. “The entitlement State is collapsing“—with or without Piven’s “mobilization of the jobless”—and there’s no big brother to bail us out. The federal government, already swimming in red ink, is hardly in a position to assume further responsibilities. The weakness of the economy makes tax increases foolish, even from a Keynesian perspective, and our ability to borrow or simply print money without serious negative consequences is limited, since those avenues have been pushed to the limit. Even the New York Times is noticing that Europe is in deep trouble. The welfare state has led to economic stagnation, producing few opportunities for the young. People are openly calling the welfare state a Ponzi scheme.
Again, the problems are obvious. You can’t employ the Cloward-Piven strategy on a national scale. You bankrupt the State, and bring about a crisis—then what? There’s a great expansion of aid to the poor? With what? Government funds? But you bankrupted it, remember?
Similarly with the entitlement state in general. Social Security, public pension programs, and for that matter retirement programs of any sort work out mathematically only if demographic conditions remain stable and one takes advantage of the time value of money. Compounding on contributions is your only hope. But national governments have not invested the money contributed and taken advantage of compounded gains. They’ve spent the money as it has come in, leaving them with nothing now. Moreover, demographic trends have not remained stable. Increasing affluence, a declining perceived need for financial help from your children in your later years, and the financial pinch on families resulting from higher taxes has caused birthrates to decline, making the system unsustainable even if politicians had managed some self-control over the past several decades.
Where do we go from here? Perhaps in the direction of Greece, if the federal government bails out California, Illinois, New York, and other states who face massive financial problems due to their own broken political cultures. Perhaps back toward normalcy, as a rising stock market reflates pension fund balances and the Republican House pushes for greater financial responsibility in government. Neither path will be easy, for the constituencies for high levels of spending are large, well-funded, and in control of the media. Eventually, however, you really do run out of money. And then it doesn’t matter what you think people are entitled to, because you won’t be able to provide it.