There is another sense in which Swedenization undermines itself. “The Scandinavian welfare states, which express so well a sense of obligation to distant strangers, are beginning to make it more difficult to express a sense of obligation to those with whom one shares family ties,” the Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe has written. Most consequentially, those high, widely applied taxes make raising children in single-income families financially daunting. Even deeply reluctant couples can afford no choice other than entrusting their small children to the subsidized day-care center so that both parents can set off each morning to earn heavily taxed salaries.
“The irony of this development,” Wolfe writes, “may be that as intimate ties weaken, so will distant ones, thus undermining the very moral strengths the welfare state has shown.” The consummation of the liberal project was suggested when Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, lamented our regrettable inclination to “distinguish between our own children and other people’s children.” When all children and dependent seniors are “my” children and “my” parents, however, none of them are mine. The effort to socialize our affections and obligations ends up attenuating them. Social democracy thus compounds democracy’s most ominous tendency, namely that, in Tocqueville’s famous phrase, it “constantly leads [each man] back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.”
The most dismaying explanation of the 2012 election was the public-opinion survey showing that 21 percent of the voters rated “cares about people like me” as the quality they most sought in a presidential candidate, one more important to them than the proffered alternatives: “shares my values,” is “a strong leader,” and has “a vision for the future.” Romney bested Obama among voters who considered any of these other three categories most important. The 21 out of every 100 voters who cared above all that the president cared about people like them broke for Obama against Romney, however — and by the landslide ratio of 17 to 4.
This is bad news, even allowing that fatuous poll questions elicit fatuous poll results. To the extent the survey is believable, a fifth of our fellow citizens now stand ready to reprise Barbara Walters’s entreaty to Jimmy Carter after his election as president: “Be wise with us, governor. Be good to us.” This supplicatory attitude is not the way a people capable and worthy of sustaining its republic regards elected public servants. The point is not that we should desire a president who is indifferent to us. It is, rather, that our republic’s health will be marked not by how much our politicians care for us, but by our ability and resolve to care for ourselves, and for our families and communities. Presidents, and governments, can do some things to invigorate those social ties, but can do many more to weaken them. Limiting government is necessary, but not sufficient, for strengthening civil society. Doing both is necessary for preventing American self-government from succumbing to a social-democratic experiment that may not work anywhere, and cannot work here.
– Mr. Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Henry Salvatori Center, and the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State.