The altruistic desire to provide a comprehensive safety net, or at least some form of temporary assistance to aid our fellow citizens during times of distress or hardship is indeed a laudable and noble aim, and one to which any enlightened modern and compassionate society should ideally aspire. Unfortunately, as history readily attests, the road to hell is indeed paved with the best of intentions. The consequences of the development of a pervasive welfare state, one that characterised the social milieu in Western democracies in the latter part of the 20th Century, have become increasingly obvious over time, casting a very different light on the “real life” practical effects and overall influence of these seemingly well-meaning socialist reforms.
Rather than a liberating and beneficent force against the five great societal ills, namely poverty, squalor, ignorance, idleness and disease, the welfare state as it has currently evolved has had modest but significant success in reducing the incidence and severity of disease through the advent of socialised medicine, while also possibly some modicum of effect in alleviating the most profound privation and poverty. This excludes of course the conspicuously poor health outcomes found within indigenous communities, where the rank failure of socialised medicine is at its most stark, while the incidence of abject homelessness also appears to have been largely unabated in spite of the imposition of the supposed welfare “safety net” designed to prevent just such a circumstance from prevailing. Notwithstanding these alleged exceptions to the benefits of such systems in alleviating poverty and disease, social welfare has nonetheless unarguably had minimal if any positive influence upon the remaining three societal ills, with idleness and ignorance especially being noticeably more widely disseminated and pervasive as welfarism reaches its absolute apex and thereafter, I fear, its ultimate reckoning.
As the welfare state reaches forth into the 21st century, it is becoming ever clearer that it has, in its very formulation and design, sowed the seeds of our society’s breakdown and perhaps even in the most pessimistic projection, its untimely destruction. A confluence of forces conspires to undermine the putative intentions of social reformers, as welfare remorselessly expands under the influence of the demographic imperatives of an ageing population, the all-pervasive culture of entitlement, an ever-widening definition of disability, the burgeoning of single parenthood, a shrinking of the employment base, and a rapid dwindling of the productive class of taxpayers available to fund them.
“Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” -Frederic Bastiat
These irreconcilable realities will inevitably see the system collapse under the weight of too many conflicting obligations, but in the interim the cost in terms of loss of social cohesion and moral decline is likely to be seen and felt in the propagation of the very impoverishment, ill health, ignorance, delapidation and sloth that it was reputedly designed to prevent.
The primary source of this systemic failure derives from the lack of any real impetus for those deriving benefits of welfare to break free from the bondage this imposes, with many feeling sufficiently comfortable to maintain their welfare dependence in perpetuity, with often such dependence flowing further onward into succeeding generations as an attitudinal and aspirational inheritance. Such a pattern of behaviour, without any fear of recrimination or sense of mutual obligation, inevitably would be unsustainable for any society, given the finite number of taxpayers who can legitimately subsidise the welfare upon which such people depend, as well as the burgeoning number of people similarly coming on board to further encumber an already over-burdened system.
“It is labor alone that is productive: it creates wealth and therewith lays the outward foundations for the inward flowering of man.” ― Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism
Additionally, those who do feel some sense of obligation to contribute positively to society, or who are motivated to get back into the workforce to improve their self-esteem and to give a sense of purpose, are often compromised by a lack of employment and vocational opportunities in areas where high levels of welfare dependence exists, and also by a loss of entitlements (such as transport or medical concessions) which act as a perverse disincentive to seeking gainful employment and breaking the welfare cycle. These obstacles and disincentives are inbuilt into the system and institutionalise dependence and laziness, and especially discourages proactive and self-assertive problem solving on the part of the welfare recipient, who thereby becomes as much a victim of this “assistance” as those who are forced through increased taxation to fund them.
Complicating matters still further is the thorny issue of precipitously declining birth rates among the more affluent members of many Western societies with many opting for no children whatsoever, in complete contrast to welfare recipients and single parents who often out-reproduce them by a factor of up to 3-to-1 in some studies. This is overall decline in birth rates is coupled with a simultaneous decline in death rates due to better medical care and health improvements, with additionally a looming post-WW2 “Baby Boom” tsunami that is likely to lead to a sudden and overwhelming increase in retirees, many of whom will become dependent on welfare through aged pensions due to a lack of superannuation savings and/or through ill-health and invalidity. This combination is a demographic recipe for disaster that can only end badly for those who wholly depend upon the welfare system for their income and for various services.
It is a matter of grave concern therefore that the majority of Western democracies have, largely as a result of massive and ever-increasing welfare expenditure, been taking on monumental debt burdens which approach upwards of 100% of GDP in some cases in the face of this obvious unsustainable burden, which can only lead to a further deteriorating fiscal situation that will only spiral out of control or unburden itself completely through total collapse. Therefore, those who depend entirely upon this system are effectively and efficiently trapped into a subtle form of bondage, for which consequences they are ill-prepared, and from which the media and governments of all persuasions do their level best to shield them from any semblance of foreknowledge that might prepare them for the inevitable.
The negative consequences of welfarism are most readily apparent (in the Australian experience at least) in the remote Aboriginal communities, where decades of unfettered welfare and socialist policy has served merely to entrench the most abject poverty, and has removed any vestige of hope these people may have had to aspirations of equality with their non-indigenous peers. A culture of widespread domestic violence, substance abuse (alcohol, glue sniffing, IV drug abuse), child abuse, chronic ill-health, rampant unemployment and lawlessness has been perpetuated at the very least in spite of, or more likely as a direct consequence of these social programs. The removal of incentive to engage in the broader society, to improve education and skills in a competitive marketplace, or to move to places where greater vocational opportunity exists, has led to a placid acceptance and acquiescence by many in these communities of the perpetuation of their own disadvantage, ignorance and squalor in their everyday existence.
“Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions….Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.” ― Friedrich Hayek
This aforementioned removal of the incentive to self-improvement has proven the final and most telling nail in the coffin of a disenfranchised people, with the very means of reputedly “closing the gap” being the eventual source of the greatest disparity between the indigenous recipients and those who make up the wider community. Unfortunately, it seems no amount of failure can dissuade those who advocate this social welfare approach from the uncritical belief in the merits of such programs, which seem more for symbolic purposes and to placate one’s conscience rather than any practical solution being provided to the many problems these people confront on a daily basis.
Not that the indigenous community is alone by any means in suffering under the influence of such a mentality, since many areas in our cities and larger regional towns are afflicted by similar, if somewhat less graphic social malaise. Where public housing and welfare recipients are congregated in the greatest concentration, social problems are manifest more prolifically in the form of widespread drug abuse (particularly marijuana), drug dealing and other criminal activity, alcoholism, domestic violence, neighbourhood disputes, racial intolerance and abuse, damage to homes and property, and a general reduction in social order and safety is felt by those forced by circumstances into such an environment through age, infirmity, mismanagement or misfortune. Yet, ironically these are the most conspicuous social problems that welfare was allegedly designed to resolve, which evidence suggests has not been the case in spite of many billions, if not trillions of dollars expended on programs globally whose aims are not even remotely being met.
Clearly, the implementation of the polar opposite to these social justice reforms is an at least equally, if not far more unpalatable prospect, especially after decades of entrenched welfarism has been in train, particularly for those who would hope for a lasting relief from the privations of widespread poverty and ignorance, because abrupt withdrawal or failure to provide any social support at all would inevitably lead to the consequence of even more widespread homelessness. This would likely further devolve precipitously into pervasive violence, and thus would lead to ever more intense suffering that would particularly marginalise and disenfranchise (at the very least) the most vulnerable. As such, it would seem that the die of fate has been already cast, and that there is no obvious, feasible recourse to modify these systems significantly as they currently exist without inducing massive societal upheaval or destruction, or perhaps worse still, through the slow and painful figurative death by degrees.
That being said, one of the definitions of what constitutes madness is repeatedly performing the same action, but expecting substantially different (or even diametrically opposite) results to miraculously occur in response to those same actions. As such the apparent rank failure of the social welfare system, especially given its potential collapse within the coming decade or so, needs to be addressed honestly and openly without fear or favour, whereupon any subsequent modifications to the current system need to better address the mutual obligations of welfare recipients to give back to the community in kind, and for the society involved to increase the opportunities for those at the bottom of the social ladder to improve their lot in life through appropriately rewarding effort and achievement such that there are seen to be numerous achievable pathways out of the welfare trap, and thereafter on to a more thoroughly productive and hopefully far more personally satisfying future.
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.” ― Alexis de Tocqueville
The stakes are incredibly high, since the fate of Western civilisation itself would appear to largely depend upon addressing this pressing, and as yet entirely unresolved issue. It is timely to be reminded of the following truism when assessing the clearly finite nature of any society, no matter how “Western”, well constructed, democratic or enlightened:
“The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:
- From bondage to spiritual faith;
- From spiritual faith to great courage;
- From courage to liberty;
- From liberty to abundance;
- From abundance to complacency;
- From complacency to apathy;
- From apathy to dependence;
- From dependence back into bondage.”
– Henning Webb Prentis