The Welfare State and the Meaning of Life

Faced with Charles Murray’s argument that the welfare state makes everything too easy, a socialist could ask: Should everything therefore be made more difficult? How can Murray say the welfare state is bad for making life easier while praising other state functions that make life easier, like the police? Only a moral perspective can oppose socialism while affirming legitimate state functions.

At the American Enterprise Institute’s annual black-tie shindig on March 11, Charles Murray gave an outstanding lecture on the spiritual (as distinct from economic) dangers of the European-style social welfare state. But Murray’s analysis, though otherwise excellent, is missing a crucial element: an appreciation that these spiritual dangers ultimately arise from disregarding the moral law. And just as a small curve in a funhouse mirror changes the whole image, the single missing piece in Murray’s logic bends his whole argument ever so slightly, but crucially, out of shape.

The topic of Murray’s talk was well chosen. Whatever one thinks of its virtues, socialism on a scale that would have been unthinkable just two years ago is already the law of the land. We see government asserting de facto rights of ownership over our largest financial firms. We have seen a sizeable portion of the economy being brought under direct government control, financed by trillion-dollar borrowing. We have made steps to undermine the Fed’s independence that could bring about inflation that would make the 1970s look tame. Some are beginning to raise tentative but credible questions about the security of America’s sovereign debt. And the top two items on the legislative agenda this year will be near-irreversible first steps toward socialized medicine and a giant new energy tax disguised as environmental regulation.

America shows all the signs of entering a generational political crisis such as we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. It is now an open question whether we will continue to be a quasi-capitalist nation, in defiance of fashionable international opinion, or follow the example of our European betters and become a quasi-socialist nation.

Of course, the European welfare state is both demographically and economically unsustainable. But that isn’t news, and Murray’s contribution on the subject lies elsewhere.

Murray argues that, even aside from its demographic and economic flaws, the European welfare state undermines the aspects of civilization that make for “a life well-lived.” By a life well-lived, he means a life characterized by a lasting and justified satisfaction that one’s life was worth living. He identifies himself with the Aristotelian preference for seeing human beings fully “flourish,” and argues that this, as opposed to mere hedonism, is what Madison had in mind when he wrote that “the object of government” is “the happiness of the people.”

Only a limited number of human activities can serve as sources for this kind of deep satisfaction. Murray identifies three characteristics that all such activities must have: they must be important, they must be difficult, and they must involve individual responsibility for consequences. Activities that are trivial, effortless, or disconnected from consequences can be fun, but cannot make for a life well-lived.

Murray asserts that there are only four areas of life where such activities take place: family, community, vocation, and faith. The assertion is plausible, if only because Murray is careful to define these concepts broadly—a “community” need not be a neighborhood but can be geographically expansive, and “vocation” can include avocations or, more nebulously, “causes.”

The crux of Murray’s case is that the European-style welfare state undermines all four of these areas of life—and on a deeper level than even most conservatives now appreciate. The welfare state doesn’t just eat away at the material preconditions of these activities, but also detracts from their ability to provide a life well-lived.

“Almost everything government does in social policy,” he says, “can be characterized as taking some of the trouble out of things.” Sometimes that’s good; Murray notes that police take some of the trouble out of walking home safely. But the welfare state takes too much of the trouble out of meeting the needs of your family, helping the members of your community, conducting your vocation, and sustaining the visible manifestations of faith (Murray points to the heavily subsidized European churches that are empty seven days a week). If it’s too easy, it fails to meet the difficulty criterion for deep satisfaction.

Moreover, removing the difficulty criterion cultivates a hedonistic outlook that undermines the importance criterion. In other words, make a thing too easy and it soon comes to be seen as trivial. Why have children? Why pay attention to your neighbors? Why seek out meaningful work? Why worship an old-fashioned God? What’s the point of those things, anyway? Most of the time they’re not much fun.

In the lecture’s most powerful passage, Murray discusses how this deeper dynamic has been at work destroying the family in America’s poor urban communities—where something approaching a European-style welfare state already exists. Welfare makes it much harder for the family to be a source of deep satisfaction for men in these communities:

A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. Think of all the phrases we used to have for it: “He is a man who pulls his own weight.” “He is a good provider.”

If that same man lives under a system that says that the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away. I am not describing some theoretical outcome. I am describing American neighborhoods where, once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn’t.

Welfare removes the difficulty from providing for the family, and therefore the importance of the husband and father.

And notice how, once family is undermined, two other areas of deep satisfaction—vocation and community—are undermined as well. The menial job loses its significance, and the now-superfluous father is no longer an important part of his community.

Murray is not saying that the welfare state removes absolutely all deep satisfaction from these areas of life. But the empirical evidence before our eyes, both in Europe and in our own poor urban neighborhoods, ought to convince us that the negative impact of the welfare state is extremely damaging.

This analysis is insightful and very much needed, as far as it goes. But an important piece of Murray’s puzzle is missing.

Take another look at his three criteria for deep satisfaction: importance, difficulty, and responsibility for consequences. Murray draws our attention to several activities that meet those criteria and provide deep satisfaction. But there are other activities that meet those criteria and don’t provide deep satisfaction. Winning an Olympic gold medal by outperforming all other athletes in your sport involves importance, difficulty, and responsibility for consequences. But so does winning by bribing the judges. Yet winning by bribery doesn’t give you the deep satisfaction you get from winning legitimately.

In short, activities don’t provide deep satisfaction if they’re morally wrong. (Aristotle, whom Murray invokes, has a thing or two to say about this subject.) Murray says the activities that provide deep satisfaction are “the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.” Activities that are morally wrong don’t pass the “look back from old age with pride” test.

It would be charitable, and plausible, to assume in Murray’s favor that he simply took moral goodness for granted when compiling his list of criteria. But the omission weakens his entire analysis.

For example, faced with Murray’s argument that the welfare state makes everything too easy, a socialist might well retort: Should everything therefore be made more difficult, so you can have the deep satisfaction of overcoming difficulty? If the welfare state is bad, why are police good? Why not abolish the police so that walking home safely requires more effort (such as arming yourself) and can thereby become a source of deep satisfaction?

We can’t ultimately answer this question without distinguishing between morally legitimate and illegitimate ways of making things easier. Policing the streets makes our civilization more conducive to deep satisfaction because it is right. Coercive redistribution of wealth makes our civilization less conducive to deep satisfaction because it is wrong. Able-bodied people who live on welfare for extended periods are cheating—just as much as an athlete who bribes the judges. That’s why the welfare state has the corrosive effects it does.

Consider an even more ominous example. Murray argues that the advance of scientific knowledge will increasingly undermine the case for the welfare state by showing that people are born with relatively fixed and stable natural endowments and predispositions. (“Science is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that males and females respond differently to babies. You heard it here first.”) In other venues, such as his recent book on education policy, Murray has gone further than I would go in elevating the importance of nature over nurture. But one doesn’t need to go as far as he does to recognize that nature does in fact impose boundaries on the efficacy of nurture, and that this is bad news for socialism.

But the same science Murray is counting on to save American individualism may well prove to be its undoing. You can’t have science without engineering. Once we know how human nature works, we will probably figure out ways to tinker with it. Eventually we may figure out how to make people as malleable as socialists wish they were. Once we have that ability, socialists will want to use it.

If Murray’s argument against socialism is that it doesn’t comport with the demands of human nature, how will he oppose the demand to change human nature? In fact, nothing can oppose that demand except a transcendent moral law. (This point will be familiar to anyone who has read C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, the clearest and most concise statement of this case that I know of.)

Murray’s lecture represents an important, difficult, consequential, and morally good achievement, and he should take deep satisfaction from it. The observation that the European-style welfare state is financially unsustainable will not by itself be sufficient to stop our elites from adopting it, and Murray deserves our thanks for broadening and deepening the case for economic freedom.

But the case Murray makes, important and insightful though it is, will not be sufficient. Those who are now building the socialist utopia around us are convinced that their way is morally superior, and increasing numbers of Americans (especially in the rising generation) are beginning to think that they’re right—especially as they come to see unbridled capitalism as morally hollow and corrosive. The moral case for economic freedom—the rightness of capitalism in the context of an ethical culture—is indispensable if the disaster Murray rightly warns us against is to be averted.

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