Each of these measures is long overdue, and each is at its core about shame, arguably the social virtue most critical to the success of the American project. For a limited government in which all are free to pursue their own ends requires a cultural counterbalancing to assure, as William F. Buckley Jr. once put it, that not everything that is legal is reputable. Shame provides such balance. And while we think of it as primarily deployed against undesirable personal habits — everything from sexual promiscuity to alcoholism — there was once in this country a great shame associated with dependence, with being on the dole.
At the start of the Great Depression, “welfare” was largely a private affair, administered by churches and charities, and it was in most cases reserved for widows and the infirm. That changed in 1930, when the federal government first waded into unemployment assistance, and again during the historic first term of Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal produced a litany of new “direct relief” programs. Still, the public was suspicious. While contemporary surveys showed Americans broadly supportive of the public-works projects that made assistance contingent on labor, welfare for the able-bodied continued to be seen as a shameful handout — a disreputable, if temporarily necessary, affair. Even the presentation of Social Security (as with Medicare a generation later) as a kind of investment from which one expected no more than a fair return couldn’t fully alleviate this shame. As none other than FDR himself announced at the beginning of 1935, “The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief.”
But things have changed. Due in part to the very acceptance and perceived success of the New Deal and its progeny, the taint of shame associated with being on the dole has long since faded. What’s worse, this moral change has coincided with demographic and actuarial changes that have made entitlements more lopsidedly redistributive, and thus unsustainable. Now, dependence on the federal government — not just by the poor, but by the middle and even upper classes — for everything from health insurance to home ownership, college to retirement, is so complete that most of us don’t notice the stream of subsidies until it is interrupted. And worse, we’re not even ashamed of ourselves.
Indeed the overriding characteristic of our bloated welfare state is its shamelessness. There is no shame in the Seattle couple, or the president who thinks putting people back to consumption is better than putting them back to work. Just as there is no shame in the Occupiers who starved coffee shops of business in New York or shut down productive ports in Oakland demanding that others pay off their student loans or their underwater mortgages. Just as there is no shame in the politicians who fear-monger on entitlements.
To note this is not, as some would no doubt imply, to argue for the wholesale dissolution of the welfare state. Just about everyone from Paul Ryan leftward agrees on a well-tailored safety net for those who cannot help themselves. And to be sure, the Great Recession, like the Great Depression, has seen a dramatic spike in their number. But the Depression generation remained possessed of a shame that helped both curb abuses of the welfare state and power the country into an unprecedented era of growth. Can we say the same of ourselves?
So long as we are shameless, our entitlement crisis remains as much moral as fiscal. The paradox we are left with is that the only society that can make entitlements work is one that doesn’t feel entitled.