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Memo to conservatives: You ARE dependent on the government; now get over it

It's not just people on welfare who are dependent.  We all are.
It's not just people on welfare who are dependent. We all are.

Conservatives, particularly those with a Libertarian bent, are fond of opposing social welfare programs because they'll create a "culture of dependency." The idea is pretty simple. If you give people things, they'll get complacent and won't make anything of themselves. "Dependency," to a Republican, is a buzzword for everything wrong with everything liberal -- socialism, laziness, oppression, and taxation. The thing is, the whole narrative is rooted in wrongheaded thinking and misinformation. As simply as possible, we are all dependent on the government for nearly everything, and there's nothing we can do to change that. More to the point, if we know what's good for us, we won't want to change it.

Let's start with the obvious (because clearly, it isn't obvious to everyone). The "government" is not a monolithic entity with magical Big Brother powers. It's an incredibly diverse interconnected network of regulatory agencies, service providers, scientists, politicians, statisticians, watchdogs, and a hundred other specialists. We can presume that when someone says they don't want to be "dependent on the government," they're imagining some kind of building with "GOVERNMENT" in great big letters, in which all the government people plot ways to subjugate the proles. In reality, the opposite is true. If not for the many arms of seemingly unrelated government agencies, things would be much, much worse for any of us.

When I woke up this morning, I flipped the light switch on the wall, and the power came on, just as reliably as it has every morning for the last 14 years in this house, which the government ensured was free and clear of conflicting ownership, and was up to building codes. When I splashed water on my face to shave, I did it with confidence that the water is reasonably clean and won't give me parasites. Thanks again to the government. My refrigerator is full of food that has been inspected by government agents, and thanks to their diligence, I have not been sickened in over twenty years. (And the last time, it was my own fault.)

We could go on with this list of examples, and ultimately, we wouldn't be able to find an area in which the government is uninvolved. It is literally an integral part of our life. We cannot act outside of the government's influence. Still, this observation is not enough for a lot of people. They remain convinced of the power of private corporations or individuals to do these jobs more efficiently. If there was no government, competition would naturally set in, and the free market would do a better job of providing everything, and we would no longer be dependent. We'd be independent! We'd be the masters of our own destiny, freed from the oppression of a nanny state. We'd get off our lazy duffs and chop some trees and tote some bails and create our own little utopia of...

But that's where the Libertarian narrative breaks down a bit. Actually, I'm being kind. The Libertarian narrative turns into jibber-jabbering word soup. For some reason, nobody wants to think out the logical and necessary next step. If there was no government, competition would set in, and each of us would become dependent on private companies for all the stuff we currently get from the government. At best, each of us can master one or two crafts in a lifetime. For everything else, we must be dependent on someone else. It's just a choice of whom.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Once we have recognized our dependency on something for our modern lifestyle, we have to choose our nanny, so to speak. On the one hand, we have private companies, and on the other, public institutions. The argument for government is uniformity, and it's a pretty strong argument. As we've recently learned in the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case, private companies are keen to impose their own "personal" values on their employees. One day after the decision, companies were lining up to express their desire to discriminate. We'll have to wait and see how it all works out as the Roberts Court continues to erode equal rights protections, but the important thing to note is that if these protections do disappear, it will be because the government decided to stop forcing private companies to be fair.

There's a more compelling argument for letting the government handle the nannying. Every single First World Country has a centralized government which enforces and regulates social welfare. Every. Single. One. The United States, which has been trying very hard to eliminate government welfare, and pressing the interests of private corporations, is a unique outlier among wealthy countries -- our poverty, under-education, and hunger issues are looking more and more Third World.

This observation is a direct refutation of the "complacency" argument. In many ways, the U.S. has the weakest social welfare system in the First World. If it were true that government support causes complacency, then every other wealthy nation ought to display more collective ennui than the U.S., right? More handouts equals more complacency, right? Only, that's not what we see at all. Not only are most wealthy nations thriving, they're surpassing the U.S. on measures of education, infrastructure, alternative energy, and societal happiness.

But let's get down to the actual argument. Thusfar, we've been laying the groundwork for talking directly about the heart of the nanny-state argument. Conservatives and Libertarians don't want to give people "hand-outs." They want people to earn everything themselves by hard work. Everything. And if someone doesn't work, then maybe a little starvation and homelessness will be good for them. Maybe it'll teach them not to be so lazy. Well, we've already addressed that to some degree by observing that wealthy nations are not especially plagued by laziness. But we also have to note that unemployment rates are mostly unrelated to the availability of welfare. That is, wealthy nations with strong welfare just don't have excess jobs laying around unfilled. If there were people living comfortably on the dole, choosing not to work, there'd be lots of empty positions, right? But... there aren't.

And what about food stamps? Boy, do conservatives hate food stamps! In America, nearly 1 in 7 Americans rely on government assistance to buy food, and The GOP hates that. But rather than do something about the millions toiling at minimum wage jobs that don't pay rent, much less buy food, they are trying to take away the food. Maybe we could take a different approach to this discussion by appealing to the Founding Fathers. The Revolutionary War, from which the United States emerged, was justified by an appeal to basic human rights. Among these inalienable rights is the right to life. What is more intrinsic to life than food? Can we guarantee a right to life without guaranteeing life's prerequisite? Perhaps we've missed the mark on the very concept of a human right if we are putting food after work on the list of priorities. And more than that, maybe our obsession with capitalism overstretched its limits when we decided that a person who cannot buy his life doesn't deserve to live.

But all of this is somewhat tangential to the point, isn't it? We were talking about the conservative cries of "government nanny state." People don't want the government to give away stuff because then they'd be dependent. But that argument just doesn't wash. Like it or not, we are all dependent on others. What is society if it is not interdependent people helping each other survive? We are dependent. The only question is how we will regulate our dependence. Will we rely on the government, whose express purpose is to "promote the General Welfare," or on private companies, whose express purpose is to make money for the owners? In making this choice, we need to remember that every single wealthy nation does it by putting the government in charge of the public good. Every. Single. One. We can argue about handouts all day if we want, but in doing so, we must not fall prey to the "dependency" talking point. It is empty rhetoric that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of human society.

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