Politics & Policy

The Welfare State and the Selfish Society

Capitalism teaches people to work harder; the welfare state teaches people to want harder. Which is better?

 

In the contemporary world, where left-wing attitudes are regarded as normative, it is a given that capitalism, with its free market and profit motive, emanates from and creates selfishness, while socialism, the welfare state, and the “social compact” as it is increasingly referred to, emanate from and produce selflessness.

The opposite is the truth.

Whatever its intentions, the entitlement state produces far more selfish people — and therefore a far more selfish society — than a free-market economy. And we have little evidence that this widespread selfishness can be undone once it catches on.

Here’s an illustration: Last year, President Obama addressed a large audience of college students on the subject of health care. At one point in his speech, he announced that the students will now be able to remain on their parents’ health-insurance plan until age 26. I do not ever recall hearing a louder, more thunderous, and more sustained applause than I did then. I do not believe that if the president had announced that a cure for cancer had been discovered that the applause would have been louder or longer.

It is depressing to listen to that applause. To be told that one can be dependent on one’s parents until age 26 should strike a young person who wants to grow up as demeaning, not as something to celebrate.

Throughout American history, the natural — or at least hoped-for — inclination of a young person was to become a mature adult, independent of Mom and Dad, and to become a grown-up. But in the welfare state, this is no longer the case.

In various European countries, it is increasingly common for young men to live with their parents into their 30s and even longer. Why not? In the welfare state, there is no shame in doing so.

The welfare state enables — and thereby produces — people whose preoccupations become more and more self-centered as time goes on:

How many benefits will I receive from the state?

How much will the state pay for my education?

How much will the state pay for my health care and retirement?

What is the youngest age at which I can retire?

How much vacation time can I get each year?

How many days can I call in sick and get paid?

How many months can I claim paternity- or maternity-care money?

The list gets longer with each election of a left-wing party. And each entitlement becomes a “right,” as the Left transforms entitlements into the language of “rights” as quickly as possible.

What handouts do, and what the transformation of handouts into rights does, is create a citizenry that increasingly lacks the most important character trait — gratitude. Of all the characteristics needed for both a happy and morally decent life, none surpasses gratitude. Grateful people are happier, and grateful people are more morally decent. That is why we teach our children to say “thank you.” But the welfare state undoes that. One does not express thanks for a right. So, instead of “thank you,” the citizen of the welfare state is taught to say, “What more can I get?”

Yet, while producing increasingly selfish people, the mantra of the Left, and therefore of the universities and the media, has been for generations that capitalism and the free market, not the welfare state, produces selfish people.

They succeed in part because demonizing conservatives and their values is a left-wing art. But the truth is that capitalism and the free market produce less selfish people. Teaching people to work hard and take care of themselves (and others) produces a less, not a more, selfish citizen.

Capitalism teaches people to work harder; the welfare state teaches people to want harder. Which is better?

— Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. He may be contacted through his website, dennisprager.com.

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