Alexander's Column

The Nanny State of the Union

Mark Alexander · Jun. 24, 2005

“Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” –Thomas Jefferson

Ever wonder how dependent the American people have become on the federal government compared to, say, a generation ago? Now, thanks to The Heritage Foundation’s new study, “The 2005 Index of Dependency,” we can answer that question – but be forewarned; the data doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

This informative study explores the degree, nature and effects of our dependence on government, examining five broad categories of socio-economic federal intervention: housing assistance, healthcare and welfare assistance, retirement income, post-secondary education subsidies and rural and agricultural services. With a benchmark dependence score of 100 for the year 1980, American citizens' dependence on federal government assistance has mushroomed to a score of 212 on the Heritage index, more than twice that of a generation ago.

The fact that such burgeoning government interventionism in state, community and private affairs is beyond the constitutional pale goes without saying. For the Founders, dependence on government in private and public life was to be avoided at all costs – such dependence, as they rightly saw it, being the root of bondage. “Dependence,” said Thomas Jefferson, no doubt reminiscent of the abuses of the British Crown, “begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” Independence, then, was the key to private liberty and public virtue.

By the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, however, “independence” was redefined to mean economic security – and government was its guarantor. “Necessitous men are not free,” Roosevelt told Congress, so their freedom must be guaranteed by the all-encompassing state. Eventually, the New Deal would give way to the Great Society, with Lyndon Johnson declaring that the purpose of government was no longer merely to guarantee rights – government was to provide “not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

So much for Jefferson’s admonition.

All the same, perhaps that admonition is worth reconsidering. The real question emerging from Jefferson’s warning is, does the growth of dependency fundamentally change the nature of our democracy? That’s the question the Index of Dependency answers with such lucidity. (The answer, in case you’re wondering, is a resounding yes.)

How, exactly, does our democracy change? As responsibilities are removed from local communities and states to the federal level, choices and decision-making powers are removed as well. Individuals no longer enjoy the same flexibility of choice as they previously did; decisions are imposed from above. Flexibility to address local needs is lost, replaced with decisions made by an increasingly entrenched bureaucracy eager to illuminate to us, the people, what’s really in our interest.

Sound familiar? It should. The process described here is what’s known as “welfare democracy,” and its ever-growing presence has become the pattern characterizing – to one degree or another – every industrialized democracy in the world today. In fact, the growth of such welfare democracies has become so predictable that we can identify its basic pattern: A country becomes a stable democracy (of some variety); democracy promotes the country’s growth in wealth; the now-wealthy country perceives its “duty” to use this wealth for social care and betterment (welfare); the ever-growing entitlements sap the state’s original economic vitality; and the citizenry becomes dependent on the state from cradle to grave. Today, France, Sweden, Germany, Great Britain and Canada are only a few of the worst offenders.

Besides the removal of decision-making authority from individuals and communities, growth in dependency distorts our democracy by fundamentally changing the relationship between the individual and the state. Granted, both community-based and federal assistance involve a dependent relationship with the individual, but, as Heritage reminds us, “The first is a dependent relationship with the civil society that includes expectations of the person’s future civil viability or ability to aid another person. The latter is a dependent relationship with a political system without any reciprocal expectations.”

Clearly, the chief beneficiary of any federally managed welfare institution is the institution itself. And as such institutions self-perpetuate, grow and spawn, churches, civic groups, communities and individuals lose the incentive to engage in such activities themselves.

This truth was not lost on the Founders. While government provided a basic economic safety net with laws designed to encourage commerce and protect private property, the resultant economic independence meant that each citizen “possesses a common interest with his fellow citizens,” according to James Wilson, and therefore “is not in such uncomfortable circumstances as to render him necessarily dependent, for his subsistence, on the will of others.”

Perhaps Benjamin Franklin was the first to see the dangers of the emerging welfare state in England; he remarked that such a system removed “the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving [the poor] a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation [of wealth] during youth and health.” Rather, said Franklin, “the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.” To that end, Franklin and many of the other Founders practiced what they preached and were active in organizing and promoting private associations to provide public assistance – precisely the relationship they envisioned between a democratic society and its neediest members.

Today, by contrast, 90-million individuals are dependent on government-provided health care, amounting to more than $440-billion tax dollars in 2004 alone, or 20 percent of all federal spending. Medicaid will cost $5 trillion over the next ten years, and Medicare will cost $766 billion annually by 2015. By 2050, these two programs alone will consume 21.3 percent of GDP. Additionally, spending on means-tested government welfare amounts to $1.45 for every dollar spent on national defense. Despite the reforms of 1996, half of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients remain idle, and federal welfare continues to reward illegitimacy and punish marriage. For every $1,000 the government spends subsidizing single parents, it spends only $1 to promote marriage and reduce illegitimacy. Elsewhere, on average, parents save less than $1,000 toward a child’s college education, while graduates often complete their education saddled with more than $100,000 of debt. Not surprisingly, the correlation between increased government subsidization of education and subsequent increases in tuition are exact. In every case, well-intentioned government economic assistance becomes the harbinger of unintended and detrimental social consequences.

If ever we needed another Jefferson or Franklin, it’s now.

To read The Heritage Foundation’s “2005 Index of Dependency,” link to – http://www.Heritage.org/Research/Budget/cda05-05.cfm

Quote of the week…

“We might also consider whether, and to what degree, dependence on essentially permanent government programs serves to create a large number of Americans who are ‘united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.’ That is the definition of what James Madison in Federalist 10 called a faction, and a majority faction is what the American Founders thought to be the greatest threat to republican government.” –Heritage Foundation’s Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.