home  |  book  |  blogs  |   RSS  |  contact  |

"Obama Doesn't Really Think This Way" Not Another Bipartisan Betrayal

print view

The Politics of the Social Safety Net

by Christopher Chantrill
August 07, 2008 at 11:21 am

|

LAST WEEK I participated in a voter roundtable on Social Safety Nets at KPLU, a local Puget Sound NPR affiliate. Reporter Paula Wissel played us some audio clips from presidential speeches on Social Security, Medicare, and welfare, and then we got to talk about our feelings.

As you’d expect, there was an unspoken assumption that “safety net” and “government program” are just about one and the same thing. President Hoover was presented recommending good old American self-reliance in the depths of the Great Depression. President Roosevelt was presented upbraiding Republicans who said they were all in favor of social programs, but just not this program. President Reagan was presented railing against welfare queens, and we heard President Bush vainly trying to persuade Americans that Social Security was unfair.

You can imagine that it was difficult to introduce the radical conservative idea that government programs like Social Security actually fray the social fabric, leading to holes in the social safety net. Conservatives believe that when people don’t have to rely on their families, their churches, their neighbors, and their own mutual-aid associations, they let their social ties fall into neglect. When ties of obligation are neglected, conservatives believe, we get exactly today’s heedless, selfish society in which the vulnerable slide into pathology and social deprivation and children grow up in torment.

Of course, traditional social institutions aren’t perfect. Indeed, one of the reasons why our liberal friends so enthusiastically encourage the growth of government programs is that they want to free people from the tyranny of traditional social frameworks. When liberals rail against racism, sexism, and classism, they are reminding us that the traditional social safety net was oppressive and exclusionary, narrow in its trust, rigid in its structure.

It is the glory of our liberal friends that they oppose these social evils and fight for equality, for simple human dignity, and for a creative approach to life.

But sometimes our liberal friends get carried away. It is one thing to help a neighbor or a family member in need. It is another thing to build a vast government system of welfare that makes the working poor look like chumps. It is wonderful to celebrate invention and creativity, but another thing to insist that the collapse of the traditional family is merely a matter of “diverse life-styles.”

That is why conservatives champion a moderate balance between the extreme social tyranny of traditional society and the extreme social anarchy of the liberal welfare state. That’s why Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus wrote To Empower People: From State to Civil Society back in 1977.

The problem with the modern era, they wrote, is its “historically unprecedented dichotomy between public and private life.” On the one hand there are the “megastructures,” big government, big business, and various educational and professional bureaucracies. On the other hand there is the private life of the individual.

The megastructures are typically alienating, that is, they are not helpful in providing meaning and identity for individual existence. Meaning, fulfillment, and personal identity are to be realized in the private sphere.

Left to his own devices, the individual becomes “uncertain and anxious.” But there is a way to alleviate the alienation of the megastructures and the anxiety of individuality. It is through membership in the “mediating structures” between individual and megastructure. They represent the individual in dealings with the megastructures and provide meaning and identity in face-to-face social networks. By mediating structures, Berger and Neuhaus mean “neighborhood, family, church, and voluntary association.”

This is not new, of course. Edmund Burke said it first in the modern era:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle... of public affections.

But the mediating structures are the same institutions that were, in the old days, the agents of oppression. When liberals hear talk of empowering families they fear the return of the patriarchy. When they read about faith-based initiatives they fear a return to superstition and bigotry. That is why they want to bypass these institutions with their government-to-individual safety net.

Let’s admit that liberals have a point. But let us insist that liberals are wrong.

If we empower families and churches we do not immediately bring back the patriarchy or burning at the stake. But if we reduce them to impotence by replacing them with a government safety net we do not create a happy world of liberated individuals. We create a pathological underclass just like the one we have today.

Conservatives are the moderates here. We want to strike a balance between two extremes. We want a society mid way between the pre-industrial world with its rigid hierarchies and the opposite extreme of the alienated individual abandoned in a wilderness of big government programs.

We say: let’s create a civil society in which ordinary people get to create a people-friendly safety net through people-sized institutions in which anyone can lend a hand.

One day, we recklessly dream, maybe the folks at NPR will understand what we are talking about.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

print view

To comment on this article at American Thinker click here.

To email the author, click here.

 

 TAGS


What Liberals Think About Conservatives

[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. “Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists,” she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican


Racial Discrimination

[T]he way “to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis,” Brown II, 349 U. S., at 300–301, is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
Roberts, C.J., Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District


Liberal Coercion

[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State


Taking Responsibility

[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050


Responsible Self

[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


Sacrifice

[Every] sacrifice is an act of impurity that pays for a prior act of greater impurity... without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that strangely combines and finesses the deep contradiction between justice and mercy.
Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values


Pentecostalism

Within Pentecostalism the injurious hierarchies of the wider world are abrogated and replaced by a single hierarchy of faith, grace, and the empowerments of the spirit... where groups gather on rafts to take them through the turbulence of the great journey from extensive rural networks to the mega-city and the nuclear family...
David Martin, On Secularization


Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


Moral Imperatives of Modern Culture

These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self


Drang nach Osten

There was nothing new about the Frankish drive to the east... [let] us recall that the continuance of their rule depended upon regular, successful, predatory warfare.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion


Government Expenditure

The Union publishes an exact return of the amount of its taxes; I can get copies of the budgets of the four and twenty component states; but who can tell me what the citizens spend in the administration of county and township?
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America


presented by Christopher Chantrill

Data Sources  •   •  Contact