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The Servile Citizen
A large billboard in a local Metro station cautions passersby to “Cover your cough” and “Wash your hands frequently” when you have a cold. Nearby, a sign in a bus shelter instructs citizens: “Do not cross street until bus has left.” These signs have been erected courtesy of “Mommy Government” to help you, the presumed adult-child citizen of the Infantilized Republic of America. It’s a picture of the most serious internal threat to America: the decline of self responsibility and its replacement with dependence on paternalistic government, namely, on handouts from other coerced individuals and on a nit-picking Napoleonic code of rules handed down from legislators. A confused morality that derides self-interest and self-regard makes this conversion to a servile condition possible. This confused morality now dominates our culture and politics.
There are many signs of this cultivated dependence. Consider a few:
• In September 2008 a record number of individuals—31.5 million or some 10.5 percent of the population—were receiving federal food stamps.
• The number of students receiving federal government Pell Grants to help pay for college rose from 176,000 in 1973-74 school year, the first year of the program, to 2.5 million by 1980, 3.3 million by 1990, 3.8 million by 2000, and 5.3 million by 2005.
• The number of individuals receiving Federal government handouts (for housing, health and welfare, retirement, education, and rural services) rose from 21.7 million or 11.6 percent of the population in 1962, to 58.7 million or 19.4 percent by 2007. (The Heritage Foundation, “2008 Index of Government Dependency.”)
• The Heritage study found that the income and non-financial support per capita for individuals receiving such federal support, adjusting for inflation, grew from $6,437 in 1962 to $31,005 in 2007.
• That study also added to recipients of such handouts the number of federal and state government employees to the total, since these employees are also directly dependent on government for their livelihood. That meant that the total number of dependents rose from 33.6 million in 1962, or 18 percent of the population, to 82.4 million or 27.3 percent of the population by 2007.
You Gotta Serve Somebody
An example of how insidious policies can create insidious habits implying insidious ideas is found President Obama’s first speech before Congress. In it he echoed ideas he often advocated in his campaign, specifically, a rejection of self-ownership and acceptance of self-sacrifice. “I know the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why, if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure you can afford a higher education,” Obama said.
Obama was building on the work of his two White House predecessors who were equally purveyors of the policy poison. Bill Clinton created AmeriCorps as another of many welfare programs. George W. Bush, as part of his shopworn “compassionate conservatism” mantra, tried to expand the program and give it a collectivist defense from the political right.
It is easy to see the economic absurdity of such schemes. Americans pay high direct taxes into government coffers. Further, their purchasing power is reduced through indirect taxes in the form of government regulations that drive up the price of goods and services. The government then allows individuals to ransom back some of their earned income in exchange for doing service for the government. And for many of these services, program participants receive some form of federal compensation, that is, more money taken out of taxpayer pockets.
But this Clinton-Bush-Obama program is more than an absurd waste of money.
The program is based on the principle that one owes a basic service first to “society”; that we have a duty, in Obama’s words, to “give back.” This program’s implicit answer to the question “Who owns you?” is not “You own yourself” but, rather, “society” or “government” owns you.
Further, the program assumes that individuals cannot govern themselves and need paternalist assistance. Of course, it is the government that makes it difficult for individuals to afford to run their own lives to begin with.
Many local schools already require “community service” for graduation. And Obama has said in no uncertain terms that this is part of his model of a good society. He even suggested that women as well as men be required to register for selective service. Perhaps the country won’t return to a military draft. But we can see how the federal government might tighten the economic screws on Americans, starting with young people. Want free tuition, health care, child care, you name it? You must serve!
A sign that the moral habits of Americans—their commitment to self-ownership and self-governance—are being eroded is the fact that so few get upset about such morally offensive programs, the fact that so few are disgusted enough to fight back against local school boards and against a system that requires men and women to give up their sovereignty, bow a knee to their self-styled benefactors and do service to new feudal lords.
“We might as well get ours”
The infantilization of Americans is not confined to the poor and the young. Consider the reaction to the Bush administration’s $750 billion bailout, meant to stem the economic crisis created by government, and the Obama administration’s $787 billion “stimulus” bill.
The bills, especially the latter, contained every imaginable handout for every interest group. But what is truly sickening is how towns, states, and businesses all have scrambled for funds like children scrambling for candy thrown on the floor. We continue to hear of absurd and questionable stimulus “projects”—such as $50 million to help farmers buy fish feed.
It’s all reminiscent of a scene from the movie The Fall of the Roman Empire. The heroic general trying to restore the republic is at Rome’s gate with his army ready to overthrow the tyrannical emperor. The gates open and chariots, containing gold stripped from the temples and citizens of the city, roll out. The chariots are driven by the emperor’s cronies who throw coins to the soldiers, bribing them to switch sides and join the tyrant. Most do. The heroic republican general is dismayed as his top lieutenants, seeing that their cause is lost, shrug and say “We might as well get ours.”
How Self-government is Surrendered
Now we see the impact of the paternalist state on political self-government as a result of its erosion of personal self-government. What happens if you really don’t value your own life adequately, if you really believe it’s more important to put others first? Why would you be concerned about your own freedom being curtailed? After all, you should care first about others.
And if you doubt your own ability to judge what’s best for yourself, that is, your own efficacy, why would you hesitate to let others who claim to be experts—most elected politicians—run your life and the lives of others? If your habits and ideas are formed by paternalist government, you’ll have trouble thinking or acting on you own.
The concepts of self-ownership and self-governance still have a powerful rhetorical ring, and few Americans will admit that they don’t want to rule themselves. Many citizens and most politicians give lip service to personal liberty but because of bad political habits and worse moral assumptions, they either acquiesce in the face of this cultivated dependency upon government or act to sustain and further the paternalist arrangement.
Self-ownership and self-government are also the prerequisites to a happy and flourishing life. Friends of freedom must return to these foundational concepts. They must fight the battle for freedom in terms of rational self-interest. And it is the joy of self-ownership and running one’s own life that ultimately will be the catalyst to the restoration of political freedom.
Edward Hudgins writes on political and social issues. He is the editor of Freedom to Trade: Refuting the New Protectionism, Space: The Free Market Frontier, and two books on postal service privatization. His latest collection is entitled An Objectivist Secular Reader. He is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.