Politics & Policy

Dependency and the ‘47 Percent’

Conservatives must prove that they can enlarge the constituency for self-reliance.

Just four years ago, few could have imagined the explosion we’ve seen in the number of Americans who depend on the government. What if that constituency becomes politically self-sustaining, as it has in Greece? That would be ruinous. Conservatives must prove that they can enlarge the constituency for self-reliance — by dramatically increasing the number of people who benefit from a culture of family and hard work.

Over the past several years, two great American thinkers, former U.S. senator Phil Gramm (R., Texas) and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks, have published a brilliant series of opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal on the theme of dependency and self-reliance. In the past two weeks, both have written pieces that show the dangerous extent to which government dependency has grown during the past four years.

In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Senator Gramm (joined by colleague Michael Solon) asks whether the dramatic increase in government benefits could eventually turn an election. He cites the following alarming statistics:

‐The Obama administration has aggressively increased the number of food-stamp recipients, hiking it by 18.5 million.

‐Unemployment insurance lasted no more than 55 weeks in 1980 and no more than 72 weeks in 1992. Now it can last 99 weeks.

‐The federal government’s 120 means-tested programs today provide $1 trillion in benefits.

“To what extent,” asks Gramm, “might these benefits not just foster dependency but also make the economy’s performance seem less of a deciding factor in voters’ choices?” Unemployment was 7.5 percent when Carter lost in 1980 and 7.6 percent when Bush lost in 1992. Now unemployment is even higher, and that would normally doom an incumbent president’s chances. Writes Senator Gramm:

Based on the economy, Mr. Obama should lose on Nov. 6. Yet it seems implausible that tens of millions of Americans who have received additional government benefits during his presidency can be completely unaffected by that largess. The election will test the relative power of private-sector aspirations and public-sector dependence.

It gets worse, as Arthur Brooks made clear in a separate op-ed last week. The Obama administration has not only expanded the range of government benefits but, by the same token, also dimmed the hopes of real prosperity for millions of Americans. Many Americans no longer believe that this “is still the land of opportunity.” So many people have given up looking for work and settled into government dependency that the true unemployment rate is closer to 15 percent. Studies find that economic mobility is now higher in socialist Europe than in America.

As Brooks points out, “Volumes of research have shown that Great Society welfare policies — such as public housing and aid to families with dependent children — fueled family dissolution, community fragmentation, generational joblessness and government dependency. Many of Mr. Obama’s welfare and redistribution policies are encouraging a return to these conditions.”

It’s worse than that, actually. Present policies are expanding those conditions to an ever-larger swath of society, swelling the constituency for government benefits that Senator Gramm worries about in his op-ed. These policies are creating a land of dependency and economic lethargy, reenacting the failures of the welfare state on the largest stage on which they have ever been attempted in America’s history.

Brooks offers an antidote: Focus on education, on how people of modest means can better their lives through hard work and private enterprise, and on how a culture of family and work is the road to happiness and prosperity:

Armed in this way, Mr. Romney should be eagerly anticipating Mr. Obama’s inevitable “47%” attacks. He can counter that the Obama administration has proved itself more adroit at excuse-making and blame-shifting than creating opportunity, and that the administration seems ideologically incapable of pursuing the policies that fulfill the moral promise of earned success for all Americans. Instead of appearing insensitive, Mr. Romney has an opportunity to show some legitimate and righteous anger on behalf of Americans who are struggling — and to provide real solutions to do right by them for the first time in four years.

Few Americans have done more to expose the moral failures and mortal dangers of government-centered society than Senator Phil Gramm and Arthur Brooks. Let’s hope Americans pay heed in the coming weeks, and for a long time to come.

— Mario Loyola is director of the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


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