Community as safety-net
One of the most common arguments against my call for better, more effective state-provided safety nets is that these safety nets somehow replace those provided by families and close-knit communities. Apparently if people are provided with health insurance by the state they will no longer have any need for families or their neighbors, and their communities will no longer feel the need to provide for them. Conversely, if people do not have insurance they will be provided for by their families and communities perfectly well.
Say you are diagnosed with some catastrophic illness which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat. The thinking here goes that somehow your local church or neighborhood organization and your family will scrounge together the money for these bills and help you through the crisis. I’m quite certain that many people in said community and family would step up to the plate, and many do across the country, raising funds to help the poor and disadvantaged or the sick every day. As far as I can tell, and contrary to many of these arguments, private charity has not dissipated for the poor or elderly simply because programs like Medicaid or Medicare have been established. My local parish still does all it can to raise money or provide food, shelter, and support for the poor, the homeless, and so forth. Other charities do as well. People have not stopped giving simply because one aspect of the poor’s care has been taken over, to some degree, by the state.
Nor, as far as I can tell, are people somehow worse off now that the state has intervened on their behalf. Fewer elderly people live in poverty today than before the passage of Social Security and Medicare. And while I would love to see those programs made more fiscally sound and think that means-testing makes all the sense in the world, the argument that somehow before the advent of these programs the poor and elderly were taken care of perfectly well by private charities and close-knit communities rings rather hollow. In fact, I’d say this is a pretty good illustration of the “good ol’ days” argument. Back in the “good ol’ days” people took care of each other. We didn’t need any statist intervention to help the poor and the sick – their loving families and close-knit communities did that for them. Oh, if only the good ol’ days were still with us, before the state usurped the will of the charitable and unraveled the close-knittedness of our social fabric!
I just don’t buy it. It’s far too simple. The villain is far too obvious. As far as I can tell, the poor have always been with us, no matter how hard private charities, churches, and communities have tried to help them. The addition of basic health coverage and some help with retirement has hardly forced out the charities or the churches. If Social Security isn’t perfect, it’s because people have been unwilling to improve it, trying instead to overturn it altogether. This is the problem with such a dualistic world view – statists vs. anti-statists. Anyone muddling about between the two must be a dreaded “moderate” or a RINO or an evil pro-business blue-dog.
The argument is convenient, of course. It helps to have a villain. It’s easy to say that if the government simply stepped out of the business of providing health coverage altogether that private parties would fill in the gaps. But that doesn’t really jive with the historical record. Charities may have provided in the past, but back in the “good ol’ days” the poor didn’t live nearly as long as they do now. The quality of life for the elderly was not as high. Certainly the overall growth in prosperity which our lovely capitalist system has brought about is largely responsible for this uptick in standards of living. But responsible safety nets are as well.
Nor do I see this sort of dreaded welfare state having devoured the sense of family or community in those European nations which have implemented it. There is less religiosity across the pond, but there are still thriving communities. There are still strong families. It’s nowhere near perfect, and certainly some of the regulations and the high taxes can at times prove damaging to certain enterprises or communities. I think it depends, though, on which country or regulation or tax we’re talking about. The statist boogeyman does not equally apply. The how seems terribly important. How do we implement these safety-nets? How do we make sure we can pay for them and that this doesn’t negatively impact employment or the economy? How have other countries done so successfully and others failed? How have our own states done this well and how have they failed?
These aren’t easy questions to answer. Applying the “statist” pejorative to anyone who attempts to ask them doesn’t help either. It allows people to sit in their comfortable towers, surrounded by their absolutist theories, basking in the warm glow of their superior thinking – safe in the knowledge that their ideas will never be put to the test – that some impurity will always protect them from failure, allowing them to say always that if only their idea hadn’t been tainted it would have worked!
And it allows those who think all the answers lie in the state to take more and more of the debate into their own territory. Because similar thinking exists on both sides, but the actual statists – those who would place all their faith in the beneficence of big government – stand much more of a chance at winning. Limited government thinking is important because it recognizes the fact that government will grow and grow and grow without impediment. But there are limits to that as well, which I’ve mentioned before. Limited government is a means to an end and not an end in itself. I suspect I’ll have more to say on that soon.