Saturday, September 8, 2012

Welfare state vs. civil society

One thing becomes clear while reading Leonard Pitts, Jr.’s column praising Sister Simone Campbell’s speech to the DNC: to humanists of the Marxist persuasion, government is god. A distant, bureaucratic welfare state is our brothers’ keeper, subsuming our moral responsibilities to each other.

When conservatives promote the individual, the Left characterizes them as selfish and associates them with Ayn Rand’s cold, impersonal materialism. This of course is false. Conservatives do not deny the “interconnectedness of life,” as Pitts, Jr. claims. Paul Ryan made voluntary communal dependency a point in his speech to the RNC: “We have responsibilities, one to another—we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.”

The difference between Ryan’s point and Sister Campbell’s is that his emphasizes the responsibilities of individual citizens to their communities, while hers enlarges the state and turns citizens into subjects. As George Weigel writes:

Along one path, there is, finally, room for only the individual and the state. Along the other path, the flourishing institutions of civil society empower individuals and contribute to real problem-solving. In the former, the state defines responsibilities and awards benefits (and penalties). In the latter, individuals and free, voluntary associations assume responsibility and thereby thus make their contribution to the common good.

Obama’s infamous rebuke to business owners, “You didn’t build that,” really means, “Businessmen, you didn’t build the roads and bridges that make doing business possible.” This is true only if you believe the government is lord of the people, not constituted by the people and directed by their will. The argument that no one gets anything done by himself is a straw man.

There was a time when America was a community of individuals, not a welfare state. Alexis de Toqueville described it in Democracy in America:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds—religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools...Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association...Thus the most democratic country on the face of the earth is that in which men have in our time carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desires, and have applied this new science to the greatest number of purposes.

For more on this theme, I recommend Erick Erickson’s piece over at RedState.

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