Social Consciousness and Individual Freedom
SEPTEMBER 01, 1989 by DAVID BEERS
David Beers is a doctoral student in economics at George Mason University and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Market Processes. This essay won the first prize in FEE’s 1988-89 essay contest, “Why Choose Freedom?”
One way to look at the progress of a society or even of civilization itself is to see that progress in terms of the development of moral values. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French social philosopher and observer of American society in the 1830s, noted that the power behind America’s great progress as a society and the wellspring of its creative energy was the body of values to which Americans held. To Tocqueville, the individualistic, self-reliant character of the Americans and their passion for individual freedom had more to do with the success of the fledgling nation than even its vast natural resources. Holding to the same values which had inspired its Declaration of Independence from the British Crown, American society had quickly grown to equal, and in many ways surpass, its European forebears.
The moral underpinnings of our society have undergone gradual change over its history, but never so great as in the last three decades. The 1960s brought new values to the fore in the minds of many Americans. There were growing perceptions of the inequalities that exist among Americans—particularly inequalities of income—and a greater awareness of the welfare of the disadvantaged. From this new “social consciousness” sprang a desire that new rights be recognized in addition to the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and property. People had a right to a certain minimum standard of living, it was argued, and more was done to try to guarantee this right through government action than had ever been done before. In the face of the wide disparities in income among Americans, the government, in the words of Lyndon Johnson, was to guarantee “not just equality as a right and theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result” (Howard University commencement address, 1965).
Behind the great changes in public attitude and public policy during this time was a rising tide of anti- capitalism, the currents of which are still with us today. Implicit (and often explicit) in the demands that social inequalities be addressed by government welfare programs is the argument that the capitalist system is “socially unjust.” It is a system in which factors such as luck, birth, inheritance, physical or mental impairment, or im personal economic factors may determine an individual’s welfare. It allows one man to bask in luxury and comfort while another strives in vain just to find food and shelter. In this way, it is alleged, the capitalist society, while successful in producing prosperity for many, fails in its moral duty to many others.
Here is a different sense of the word “moral” from what Tocqueville had in mind. What Tocqueville referred to as the great strength of American society was the common commitment of individuals to the value of freedom. What is meant in the phrase “society’s moral duty,” on the other hand, is something altogether different, for “moral” in this case is a collective imperative. The “moral failure” of our society does not consist primarily in the failings of its individual members; rather, “the system is to blame.” Consequently, the moral responsibility to the disadvantaged belongs to society as a whole, or more accurately to the recognized agent for car-tying out social purposes: the government.
Although the heady days of the Great Society are past and the utopian visions of the 1960s have cooled to something that one would like to think is sober realism, the idea that the United States as a society owes a moral debt to the victims of a system based on “profits rather than people” is still almost universally held. Discussions about social programs such as Aid to Families of Dependent Children, Social Security, and unemployment benefits focus on “how much,” never “whether or not.” In fact, even under the Reagan Administration’s budget “cuts,” debates over these programs were not usually so much about “how much” as about “how much more.”
Such unanimous acceptance of this ethic of social consciousness is surprising considering that a scant 40 years ago it would have been almost inconceivable to most Americans. Its acceptance is nothing short of shocking, given the performance of the burgeoning system of transfers to the poor, which by the most accepted standards of measurement has been dismal. Flying in the face of all expectations, the consistent reductions in poverty that had been occurring throughout the 1950s and early 1960s actually ground to a halt in 1968 as anti- poverty legislation came into effect. Moreover, as Charles Murray notes in Losing Ground. the proportion of people who depended on government transfers to keep themselves above the official poverty level began to grow steadily from that year on.
The Power to Persuade
All statistics aside, though, the most remarkable point about the great rise of social consciousness in American culture is its apparently overwhelming persuasiveness—despite the fact that such an ethic is logically and pragmatically antagonistic to some of the most basic values of our society. Granted that there are many people who by some misfortune are unable to support themselves or their families, the act of using the coercive machinery of the federal government to enforce public “giving” is a flagrantly immoral invasion of the individual’s right to hold property. Very few Americans would consider themselves Marxists today, yet on this issue nearly all cling to the essential spirit of Marxism embodied in the motto “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
Capitalism is often depicted as a system which eats away at the moral fiber of a culture. It is a system allegedly driven by self-interested behavior and one that rewards selfishness at the expense of compassion. Blind to anything but the “bottom line,” it supposedly encourages the notion that success is the accumulation of material wealth, rather than the nurturing of spiritual values. Such allegations of moral decay in the free society, even if they were true, would carry little weight in view of the moral bankruptcy of welfarism.
The tragedy of 20 years of the War on Poverty is not that its measures have been too small to reduce the poverty rate today to anything less than it was in 1968. The tragedy is the multitude of able people who became welfare recipients every year when they would have found their way out of the poverty trap in the absence of these programs. Social programs may supply some important benefits to the genuinely helpless. But the in evitable irony of government transfers to the poor is that they induce other people to qualify for them—people who could work for a decent living, but choose idleness and a welfare check instead. More tragic still are the children of welfare families whose role models are parents who can’t or won’t hold a job or who have given up trying. Not only do these children fail to learn the importance of work and self- reliance, but the value of education—already hard for a child to appreciate-becomes incomprehensible to them. Not surprisingly, this situation results in poorer attendance, more frequent classroom disruptions, higher dropout rates, lower literacy and overall competence levels, and higher juvenile crime rates. Many children of school age in our inner cities now are third-generation welfare recipients.
The prevalence of the confused notion of “society’s moral duty” is revealing. It demonstrates the awareness of a grave social problem, but at the same time betrays an unwillingness to admit to the individual moral imperative presented by the problem. Invoking the moral obligations of society is a subtle way of getting others to make the sacrifices to help those in need. Taking a stand for social justice by advocating government transfers to the disadvantaged is less costly than “putting one’s money where his mouth is” and donating time or money to a private charity, since the government makes sure that the burden of “contributing” to new social programs is shared by all tax-paying members of society.
This is not meant to imply that there are not sincere, committed advocates of the underprivileged who make genuine sacrifices for the cause of helping the poor, homeless, and disabled. Certainly there are. But as government plays an ever larger role as the official agent of charity, it is sure that such altruists will become fewer in number. In a way analogous to the erosion of the work ethic among welfare recipients, the values of compassion and concern for one’s fellowmen are diminished among potential benefactors. Just as the availability of welfare benefits removes the burden of responsibility on the recipient for his own well-being, the provision of welfare benefits by the government relieves the would-be giver’s sense of responsibility for helping his fellowmen. The idea that the relief of poverty is “society’s responsibility” and is thus in the domain of government action rather than individual action, then, tends to stunt the development of individual altruism and compassion.
Opportunity and Incentive
The free society lays no claim to any particular distribution of income, nor does it rule out misfortune or failure. But it does allow every opportunity and incentive for recovering from misfortune and failure, and furthermore, it forces people to face up to their own moral commitments toward helping others, rather than abdi cate responsibility behind a facade of ineffective government programs. It promotes healthy self-examination since the results of one’s actions or lack of actions to help others are more readily seen in the free society than under the bureaucratic morass of the welfare state.
By relegating the act of giving to the category of paying one’s income tax, the welfare state serves only to insulate individuals from the moral decisions of whether to give and how to give. One never knows what part of his taxes is going to social programs, much less how the money is spent, or on whom. Yet the taxpayer is given some satisfaction in knowing that, like everyone else, he has done his part—even if in reality “his part” went to a perfectly able recipient who couldn’t resist the temptation to take a free ride at the expense of the system.
In the free society, an individual who gives to a private charitable organization is aware of both the amount of the sacrifice he is making and, to a large degree, the actual use to which his donation is put. Unlike tax-funded bureaucracies, it is in the interest of organizations which freely compete for donations to give as much information about the nature and results of their activities as possible. Since both the benefactor and the organization have an interest in the outcome of a donation, there is the greatest possible chance that funds will be creatively and properly directed to individuals with genuine need.
The strength of American society lies in the values upheld by its individual members—not just values embodied in its laws, or even in documents like the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Many of the poorest and most oppressive societies of the world have constitutions which are nearly identical to ours. The difference is one of moral heritage. Contrary to the grim caricature of the capitalist society as ridden with selfishness, callousness, and graft, our moral heritage includes a common respect and concern for our fellowmen, and an unselfish consideration for the rights and welfare of others. These elements of the American character are not undermined by a principled adherence to the rights of property and voluntary exchange. On the contrary, the freedom guaranteed by adherence to these rights is a necessary condition for the growth of that character. Unselfishness and compassion entail a moral independence and an honest self-examination that can only exist in the context of individual freedom.