The Corner

What’s Stigmata with You?

In the wake of the NY Times story the other day on food stamps, there’s been lots of discussion about stigma in the Corner and elsewhere (See here, here and here. Bonus post by Mickey Kaus here). Charles Murray had a really excellent post on the value of such stigma the other day. He writes (emphasis mine):

Stigma is the only way that a free society can be generous, whether through private help or government programs. The dilemma is as old as charity: how to give help without creating a cycle in which more people need help. Stigma is the way out. Stigma does three things.

First, stigma leads people to socialize their children in ways that minimize the chance that they’ll need help as they grow up. When children are taught that accepting charity is a disgrace, they also tend to be taught the kinds of things they should and shouldn’t do to avoid that disgrace.

Second, stigma encourages the right kind of self-selection. People in need are not usually in a binary yes-no situation. Instead, they are usually somewhere on a continuum from “I’m desperate” to “Gee, a little help would be kind of nice.” Stigma makes people ask whether the help is really that essential. That’s good—for the affordability of giving help, and for the resourcefulness of the potential recipients.

Third, stigma discourages dependence—it induces people to do everything they can to get out of the situation that put them in need of help.

All of these benefits of stigma reflect tendencies. Of course there are lots of exceptions. But large-scale assistance is shaped by tendencies. The European model says that people should look upon assistance as a right. Once you say that, the tendencies you create commit you to a cradle-to-grave system of government-decided support systems and corresponding limits on the ability of people to make choices for themselves.

The role of stigma in a free society is one of the least appreciated topics in modern discourse, I think.

Stigma is what keeps a society free without descending into the bad sort of anarchy (and such anarchy breeds a natural desire for a unhealthily powerful state to impose order).

I know lots of smart folks who want decriminalize drugs (including at this magazine). I know far fewer (which is not to say none) who want to destigmatize drug use. This is the bargain free societies make when they legalize bad things. Take prostitution. You can make a strong case that it should be legalized. You cannot make a strong case it should be respected as just another career choice.  This is one of the areas where many cultural libertarians, of the left and the right, really fall down. They too often conflate the case for legalization with the case for acceptance.

Murray’s point is really important and profound. Just because the state can or should be blind to something bad, doesn’t mean everyone else should be. The legalization of gambling doesn’t require us to refrain from judging chronic gamblers. If, God forbid, heroin is legalized in the United States I hope it wouldn’t mean that everyone must view being a junky (on Food Stamps!) as just another lifestyle. I’m against legalized prostitution, but if it is legalized one hopes that local communities would still be reluctant to elect a hooker to the PTA.

I’m increasingly libertarian on lots of issues, but I’m also for the sort of cultural conservatism that makes libertarianism something more than a cultural suicide pact. If you take the stigma out of all sorts of things, including the dole, you foster a client-master relationship between the individual and the state, where the healthy correctives of culture and community are delegitimized.

In short, when you stigmatize stigma you empower the state.

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