Why in America do we defend the right to insulting speech that would be prosecuted in other countries? Why do women in many Muslim countries tolerate being treated as legal inferiors? Why do Asian-American school-children vastly outperform other minorities academically?
The simplistic but correct answer in each case is: culture. Culture defines the way we view our relationship to government and to each other.
Culture is of great significance but it isn’t fixed. In fact, changes in our national culture over the last century that increased our dependency on government are key to understanding why we are in such dangerous territory economically and why we don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.
As Robert Samuelson pointed out recently, the modern welfare state was originated by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the 1880s, who conceived of providing health, old age and accident insurance to citizens as a way of ensuring the loyalty of the various German states to the central government. The notion of government responsibility for citizens’ welfare quickly spread to the other western democracies.
The result was an astonishing growth in the size of government. In 1870, government spending was 7.3 percent of national income in the U.S., 10 percent in Germany, 12.6 percent in France. By 2007, the figures were 36.6 percent in the U.S., 43.9 percent in Germany and 52.6 percent in France.
That rate of growth in government was sustainable as long as there was rapid private sector growth to supply the needed revenue and population growth so that enough young people were working to support their elders. Conditions were favorable during the great welfare state expansions of the 50s and 60s when wealthy economies experienced 4.5 percent annual growth and favorable birth rates, i.e. the baby boom.
However, since 1973 growth generally has settled into the historically normal 2 percent range, birth rates have fallen and life expectancies have climbed. Until the financial crisis of the past few years, the welfare states were limping along with manageable debt. Now deficits are climbing everywhere and debt is approaching the point-of-no-return levels where debt service consumes government revenues.
If we’re spending too much money, which is beyond obvious, why can’t we just spend less? The answer once again is: our culture. While few would object to government helping those truly unable to help themselves, that’s not what we’re doing. The welfare state changes the culture in ways which assure unlimited expansion of government benefits.
Whatever we get from government, whether we’re a single mother or an investment bank, is soon perceived as necessary and basic. We fiercely resent any threat of taking care of ourselves. Politicians learn in a nano-second that their own re-election can best be assured by promising their constituents more of everything.
There is no concept of “enough” in government social spending. There is always some inequity to alleviate, some public good that can be addressed with other people’s money. Our ramped-up cultural expectations now define owners of homes, cars, multiple cable TVs and cell phones as being in poverty.
Take school lunches as a simple example. As a school-boy I packed a sandwich to avoid the 25-cent cost of a school lunch. I don’t remember feeling bad about it, but it was later decided that government should provide free school lunch for those who might find it a hardship to make or pay for their own.
Then the discovery that some children weren’t eating a nutritious breakfast in spite of food stamps, food banks and other programs resulted in the introduction of the school breakfast. As parents became accustomed to government assuming responsibility for feeding their children, school food programs expanded to summer when school was out, dropped all income requirements for free food in the summer and expanded again to include afternoon food.
“If I don’t get my snack, I go home hungry,” explained one Chicago teenager. Wouldn’t want that!
The welfare state was designed to improve our security. Ironically, it is now spinning out of control and represents a major source of financial insecurity.
A good New Year’s resolution for each of us would be to expect less from government and more from ourselves.
East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired physician and former state senator.